Will the summer of 2022 hasten France’s efforts to fight climate change?

·5-min read
© Philippe Lopez, AFP

The summer of 2022 was a record-breaking season, marked by several heatwaves, forest fires and severe drought. These extreme weather events seem to have increased awareness of climate change among the French. But will it be followed by concrete action?

Heatwaves, fires, drought, violent storms... The summer of 2022 broke all records. With temperatures 2.3 degrees higher than normal for the season, it was the second hottest summer recorded in mainland France since 2003, according to Météo France on 30 August. The French national weather service also warned that these summers could become the norm in the coming decades.

That same day, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, the minister of energy transition, appeared on France Inter and pointed the finger at "major meteorological hazards", droughts and mega-fires, as well as the "health consequences" that they cause.

"The experts are very clear on the subject, (...) the summer of 2022 is probably the coolest you have experienced or will experience in the next 20 years," she said.

In recent days, several polls have revealed that more French people are making the link between this summer's extreme events and global warming, that they fear being personally affected and that they are ready to adapt their behaviour.

According to a YouGov poll for HuffPost, nearly 9 out of 10 French people see the link between extreme weather events and global warming, and are ready to adapt their behaviour. The Odoxa Institute conducted a poll for France Bleu which reveals that more than 7 out of 10 French people (71%) fear being personally affected by climatic events.

2003 Déjà vu?

This past summmer, global warming became a reality for the French, who are increasingly expressing their anxiety about extreme weather changes.

They have certainly not been spared. This summer, France experienced three heatwaves, one of which was at the start of June; the drought was aggravated by the heat and lack of rain; violent storms and forest fires ravaged several regions throughout France.

Jean Jouzel, a climatologist and former vice-president of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), notes that public awareness is growing, as he is receiving more requests from companies and associations to hold conferences and media inquiries. The climate scientist, author of more than 250 scientific publications, says he now receives up to 10 requests a week. "This was not the case before," he continues.

However, he remains cautious saying “the problem is not awareness but action”.

"After the summer of 2003, we also said that there was an awareness. That summer was followed by a normal summer, and then everything went back to the way it was,” Jouzel says, fearing that the effect of this past summer will also be short-lived. "We’ll have another one or two normal summers and inaction will be the order of the day again."

Are the French climate sceptics?

Is this a sign that the French are denying the reality of global warming? Several media outlets recently caused some confusion when they shared an OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) study, conducted in 20 countries and published in July, which revealed that 57% of French people believe that "climate change exists and is caused by humans". According to these figures, 43% of French people don’t believe this statement, despite the scientific consensus on the subject.

But does this really mean that almost one in two French people are climate change sceptics?

No, says the study's lead author, Antoine Dechezleprêtre, pointing out that the study is more interested in finding out whether the population supports the public policies that have been enacted to combat climate change.

In this case, the 43% of French people who do not believe that humanity has anything to do with global warming, are simply misinformed.

However, Jouzel maintains that the French are still a little slow to accept that humans cause global warming.

In April 2021, an Opinion Way survey revealed that "one in five French people (21%) did not believe in global warming".

"Some accept the reality of global warming but do not accept the reality of there being a link between global warming and human activities; while others accept it but think that technology will solve everything, which is extremely dangerous," says the climatologist, adding that climate sceptics are less visible than they were a decade ago.

The fact remains that the French now seem to be worrying more about this phenomenon. According to an Ipsos poll published on 25 August, global warming has become the second biggest concern of the French (32%), behind inflation (33%). "It is the highest level ever measured," said Mathieu Gallard, director of the polling institute, on Twitter.

'Not 'adapt', but 'change' one's behaviour'

When Météo France presented the summer 2022 report, Samuel Morin, director of the National Meteorological Research Centre, stated that this past summer was "a prefiguration" of the future.

By 2050, "we expect about half of the summers to be of comparable or even higher temperatures". This will be the case even if the world manages to contain the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Although more and more French people are saying they are ready to "adapt their behaviour", Jouzel feels that this will not be enough. "We must no longer simply adapt our behaviour, but change our behaviour, and that is what the French do not understand," he says.

Evoking "energy sobriety", which, according to him, is a vague expression proposing no real concrete measures, the climatologist finds it "regrettable" that this subject has only been brought up while the Ukraine conflict is under way. "It's pretty pathetic that we're only talking about it now when we've known it all along: the need to place sobriety at the heart of a climate policy was written in the latest IPCC reports and in the recommendations of 150 citizens," he recalls. "It is not just things at the margin that need to be done; not just small gestures."

This article is a translation of the original in French.