Wilted Europe eyes global warming (and air conditioners)

A searing heat wave closes stores, opens windows, and gives new life to perceptions that America is inattentive to global warming.

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"I'm sorry, sir, but we can't take credit cards today. It's the heat, you know."

The smiling waitress at a sidewalk cafe in this European capital more accustomed to freezing winters than wilting summers was dead serious. Apparently because of what French speakers call la canicule - the heat wave - the credit card I'd presented was not acceptable. Yes, phone lines were working, but the heat-averse card machine was not. So it would have to be cold cash.

With the press, radio, and TV here full of reports about the dire impact of this year's heat, one might fairly ask, "Is Brussels burning?" and the answer would have to be yes. Pictures of miserable cows and crispy cornfields top newspaper articles about a menacing drought.

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On Wednesday, sweaty-browed officials of both the Belgian and French governments unveiled their heat-wave plans of action. With temperatures expected to dip by next week, the plans for added surveillance of at-risk population groups (like the elderly) and additional staff at heat-wave call-in centers might seem like overkill - that is, until one remembers the deadly summer of 2003, when 1,300 Belgians and more than 15,000 French citizens perished of heat-related causes.

"That was a disaster and an embarrassment, and the government doesn't want to see that happen again," says a Brussels merchant, fanning himself with a section of newspaper - with a screaming headline about the heat, of course.

For a visiting American accustomed to air conditioning, it can be a curious sight to see apartment windows thrown open, despite the oppressive heat, with the faint hope of capturing even the slightest breeze.

But it is testimony to the fact that for much of Europe, air conditioning is a luxury thought to be common only in an energy-gluttonous America.

But that may be changing. Air- conditioner vendors are reporting brisk sales. And an air-conditioner manufacturer in Ostende, Belgium, told Le Soir newspaper that sales inquiries are up more than three times over normal summer volume.

Of course, the heat can serve as a convenient excuse, as the weather often does anywhere.

"Closed because of la canicule," read the sign posted on the door of a dark Brussels boutique. In my hotel, the Internet was out of service. "It's been inaccessible for a couple of days," the desk clerk said. "It's probably the heat."

The arrival of what seems on the verge of becoming the annual summer heat wave might help explain why Europeans generally are more worried about global warming than Americans. The Dutch, who inhabit a country largely built on land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean, may be more preoccupied with projections of rising sea levels. But for most Europeans, the link between hotter summers and global warming seems too obvious to doubt.

The heat here and the widespread acceptance that it is one effect of global warming may also play a subtle role in the generally low esteem that America suffers in much of Western Europe. The war in Iraq and "the arrogance of the world's only superpower" may be higher on Europeans' list of why the US is not always well viewed, but keep probing and the Bush administration's rejection of the Kyoto treaty on global warming is bound to come up.

I caught a glimpse of this in February, while in Brussels for Bush's fence- mending trip to Europe. The European Union had a large outdoor exhibit on the growing challenge of global warming on the plaza of one of its administrative buildings. (Prominent therein was a large graph trumpeting the American energy gluttony mentioned above).

As I perused the display, a young woman and EU employee remarked, "We Europeans don't think you Americans care about this stuff. We know your president doesn't."

More recently, the European press has turned away from reporting on the heat long enough to take note of what British and other European officials say is a "determined effort" on the part of the Americans to water down a draft statement on global warming to be adopted at July's summit of G-8 industrialized countries.

Tony Blair, the British prime minister and host of the Scotland summit, had wanted to crown the event with a commitment from the eight most industrialized countries, including the US, to begin seriously tackling the production of greenhouse gases.

One result is that some Europeans have added environmental insensitivity to the list of grievances they have against Americans.

Maybe that's why, at that Brussels sidewalk cafe, I dropped my questioning of the correlation between the heat and the inoperable credit-card machine.

And maybe it's why, rather than complaining, I've opted to throw open the windows of my 24-hour sauna called a hotel room, hoping like the rest of Brussels to capture a fleeting breeze.

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