Italy and climate change: It’s hot as Hell here and all signs say it will only get worse

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Italy’s record heatwaves have made life here imitate art. Now we all know what Dante Alighieri’s third circle of Hell feels like. The country even took these heatwaves’ names from Hell. Last week’s was called Cerberus, Greek mythology’s fiery three-headed dog that guarded the gates of the underworld. This week we welcomed Charon, the ferryman who transported the doomed across the River Styx into the gates of Hell.

My home here in Rome could’ve had Cerberus watching my door until Thursday. That’s when the air conditioner in my living room finally got fixed. The AC in my bedroom worked great. But when I walked from it to my living room last week, as temperatures in Rome hit a record high of 109 (42.9C), it was like walking from a Norwegian meat locker to a greenhouse in the Amazon. I was surprised I didn’t see African violets growing near my TV.

Like many Romans, my girlfriend, Marina, doesn’t have AC. Her poor cat, Coco, bolted and checked in at a Marriott. 

I wrote for three hours last Tuesday when it hit 109. It felt like I was back in old Busch Stadium’s open-air press box in St. Louis writing about an afternoon game. I needed a beach towel to wipe off my keyboard. Two vultures stared at me from my balcony rail waiting for me to keel over. 

Deaths in Italy

I couldn’t blame them. Saturday, as temperatures stayed toasty at 104 (40C), a 55-year-old homeless man died sitting on a bench in Villa Giordani, an archaeological site on Rome’s east end. He’s one of at least six people who’ve died in Italy due to the recent heat. 

San Camillo, the hospital three blocks from my home, had a 30-percent increase in heat-related emergency room entries. Ares, an emergency health service, reported an increase of interventions of 15 percent.

Rome is burning. Again.

We’re not talking about how it burned to the ground in 64 A.D. No one knows for sure what caused that fire. We all know what’s causing the worst heat wave in Italy’s recorded history which goes back to the mid-1800s.

Climate change.

A woman cools off in the fountain in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. ABC News photo

Italy’s numbers

All those climate deniers who call this just “weather” can read the following list of calamities that we’re suffering through and go drift off on a floating iceberg somewhere. Please note, this is a partial list:

  • The 42.9 degrees celsius in various zones in Rome last Tuesday, according to the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, was the highest ever recorded, topping the 40.7 (105 Fahrenheit)  just last year.
  • The average temperature in Italy over the last 10 years has been 2.1C degrees higher than in pre-industrial times. The Copernicus Climate Change Service puts 2 degrees as the drawing line when catastrophic consequences will occur in the environment.
  • Sardinia hit 117 (47.3C) Wednesday, its highest in history. It’s forecast for 118 (48C) this week as are parts of Puglia and Sicily.
  • Seventeen of Italy’s 20 regions have recorded their highest temperatures this century.
  • Northern Italy suffered from hailstones the size of baseballs. Wind and hail injured 110 people in the Northern Italian region of Veneto.
  • Nearly every region has been placed on red alert, meaning the temperature is potentially dangerous for healthy people. 
  • Last year Italy had three times as many wildfires as normal. On Sunday, 70 wildfires raged in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot.
  • Two years ago, the Marmolada glacier in Trentino, in the Italian Alps, collapsed. Then-prime minister Mario Draghi said the cause “without a doubt” was climate change.
  • Weeks later, Syracuse, Sicily, hit 119 (48.8C), the highest ever in Europe.

It’s not just Italy. Last year, Europe’s hottest on record, a total of 61,000 people died from heat-related causes, according to the Barcelona Institute for Global Health and INSERM, France’s health research institute. The researchers predict global warming will cause the death toll by 2040 to rise to an annual average of 94,000. 

The United Nations reports that natural disasters caused by climate change caused 2 million deaths around the world from 1970-2019.

The heat index in the Middle East last week hit 152F degrees, and 42 percent of Europe was on amber warning. The Greek island of Rhodes just evacuated 19,000 people due to wildfires. Athens closed the Acropolis during the hottest hours. Italian art historian Roberta Bernabei has asked the city of Rome to do the same thing at the Colosseum.

“Walking among the red-hot stones of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill is bad for the health of visitors, tour guides and those who work there every day,” she told Il Messaggero.

Effects on tourism

Meanwhile, vendors around the Colosseum are fleecing tourists by charging €4 for a bottle of water. The heat and its ramifications have caused city officials to worry if this will affect Rome tourism in the future. I maintain that any tourist stupid enough to visit Rome in July is dumb enough to return.

A man takes a breather in the shade of Rome’s Il Vittoriano monument. Xinhua photo

But Germany’s health minister, Karl Lauterbach, visited Italy this month and wrote on Twitter that the weather will cripple Italy’s tourism, that “If things continue like this, these vacation destinations will have no long-term future. Climate change is destroying southern Europe. An era is coming to an end.”

He added, “The heatwave here is spectacular.”

Climate change  is affecting more than tourist dollars. I reported in October from Piedmont how higher temperatures have forced wineries to harvest earlier. Production had already suffered a 15-percent drop in 2018. Two years ago, the rise of floods and fires caused Italy to suffer a 25-percent drop in rice production, 15 percent in fruit and 10 percent in wheat.

The European Environment Agency reported €90 billion in heat-related agricultural losses for Italy from 1980-2020.  Economists expect a 25-percent drop in production by 2080.

My life in Rome 

The drop in my personal production is higher than that. I’ve become a vampire. I just sit in my room and eat fruit. I stay inside except for my daily dash across the street to my gym. I go out only after the sun goes down and temperatures drop to the mid-80s. Humidity, which has been as high as 58 percent this month, drops to the 30s at night. 

Beer has replaced wine as one of my four major food groups.

Rome is not as bad as St. Louis, Texas or the Deep South in summer. It’s not the Amazon, the hottest place I’ve ever been. But Rome is a sauna – a crowded sauna – in July and it’s getting worse. It’s getting dangerous. You can look it up.

Why did this occur? Last week, a high pressure area was trapped over the southern Mediterranean and the sea’s higher surface temperature would not let cooler air blow inland. 

This week’s weather is caused by high pressure that started in the Sahara Desert and moved across North Africa and the Mediterranean. According to the CNR Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, last year was Italy’s driest since 1800 with a 30-percent rain shortfall.  Italy today is as dry as the inside of Mt. Vesuvius and rural areas are under constant threat of wildfires.

I’m no scientist. I’m just a dumb travel writer. But even I can figure out that the earth’s population has more than doubled since 1970 and those humans are burning more fossil fuels. They create greenhouse gases which increase the world’s temperature. Of the world’s 19 warmest years, 18 have occurred since 2000. 

I was in Oslo and saw the plaque dedicated to Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize which he won in 2007 for his work on global warming, including his award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) holds a snowball in the Senate in 2015 to show climate change is a hoax. Wikipedia Commons photo

Meanwhile, Republicans base their denials on Donald Trump’ hack environmental chief, Jim Inhofe, holding up a snowball in the Senate to prove global warming was a hoax.

This is a man whose entire knowledge of climate change could be summarized on the fringe of a Liechtenstein postage stamp.

Do all these climate deniers have dads working in coal mines? Even the American auto industry supported the emissions controls that Trump tried to eliminate. 

How is it hurting climate deniers’ lives by merely exploring the possibility that, oh, just maybe the recent forest fires, flash floods, collapsing glaciers, deadly heat waves, droughts, hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones, erupting volcanoes, earthquakes and the sale of €4 bottles of water in Rome may be due to mankind’s excesses?

Italy’s reaction

At least Italy – and lately the U.S. – has leadership that is doing something about it. Italy wants to cut emissions by 33 percent by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2050. It has had Europe’s most rapid decrease in emissions since 2005. It seeks to triple its usage of solar energy and double the wind power.

New prime minister Giorgia Meloni is earmarking 15 percent of Italy’s €71.7 billion pandemic relief fund from the European Union for climate change measures. 

Meanwhile, it’s 100 degrees in Rome as I write this. A tall ferryman with a flaming-hot oar stands at my shoulder.