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Problems of the majority


It’s almost August and it’s already too hot to be a human in the streets of Nicosia, the easternmost island of the Mediterranean, currently on the verge of desertification. For the past few years, temperatures have been scaling to over 40 degrees (Celsius) regularly during the summer months. Even worse, these temperatures are observed in non-peak summer too; it seems like the warm season is stretching out and eating up portions of spring and fall. It’s not uncommon to have hot spells off season in Cyprus and the Mediterranean people are generally well-adjusted to the heat, but there’s a new problem. Heatwaves are crippling western Europe and other cold regions of the world, creating havoc in the healthcare systems; the elderly cannot cope with the extreme temperatures and their homes are not equipped to handle them either.

Countries such as the UK and France have commonly been struggling with keeping their homes warm during winter and have been the forerunners in niche research topics such as energy (or fuel) poverty. While summer energy poverty was an issue of the southern European states, it’s now a much more severe problem in the traditionally cold countries. That’s because the premise on which those people lived has been a cool climate, rain and fog, slight depression and lack of melanine and vitamin D. All of a sudden, they NEED air conditioning to cool down, better emergency responses to heat stroke and cold coffee. Problems of the minority have now become problems of the majority.

Average excess winter death index. Sources: personal research, 2022, Fowler et al., 2015.

Likewise, research keeps showing that populations in countries with milder winter climates are troubled by higher winter mortality, proportionately to the non-winter months and relative to territories with much colder winters. This higher vulnerability of “summer people” to winter mortality is likely to be further aggravated by the recent energy price hikes, driven by increased demand, limited supply, a Russian war and European fines for not meeting climate targets (n.b. that last point is true for Cyprus, at least).

It’s not a coincidence that the EU is prioritising deep renovations of inefficient buildings and constantly upgrades the standards for new constructions. Because if your grandma gets sick, with the common flu or a new Covid strain, she’s much more likely to get back to health if she’s living in a warm house, heated by non-petroleum or wood products (which emit pollutants) and has adequate access to healthcare. In a “leaky” house, where too much energy (and money) is needed to keep warm, your grandma may choose to stay cold, increasing the probabilities of her illness turning to mortality. It’s simple and brutal and something not engraved in our Mediterranean brains, because we have the extreme summer heat to worry about. But problems of the minority must become problems of the majority.

Structural change is needed to retrofit old and inefficient buildings and support the most vulnerable populations. This means more effective renovation policies and subsidies, with national and local governments taking responsibility for the state of the building stock, although it’s not really theirs. The right to adequate housing has to be recognised, just like the right to energy services and water; there are actual human beings unable to fix their own houses and they shouldn’t die for it. Our health and wellbeing depends on it and if we’re lucky enough to be born into a safe family support system, we spend no time thinking of this. Not everyone is so lucky though; some saw their livings and businesses crumbling under the pressures of the economic or the public health crises (choose one), others boarded a floatie to escape the tyranny of their homecountries and some where just less fortunate to start with, forever struggling to pay the bills. Equity is no simple pill, but problems of the minority should become problems of the majority.

Source: Friends of the earth Europe

Considering a less extreme situation, even if our mortalities don’t actually depend on it, we shouldn’t be locked into impossible situations, unable to find comfort in our own homes. It’s true that there are bigger problems in the world, like global warming, refugees, basic human rights being denied or overturned. It doesn’t mean the big guys are entitled to turn a blind eye to the “smaller” issues of having a proper roof above our heads or feeling comfortable at home. I’m sure they are pretty comfy in their own homes, after all. It’s about time for problems of the minority to become problems of the majority.

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