The country of Spain is moving ahead with a new law that will cause politicians to take some heat—literally. The law requires businesses to set their air conditioners to 80 degrees F or higher for the rest of the Summer. It also mandates a maximum heating temperature during the Winter.
The law isn’t intended just to make Spanish citizens sweat. Rather, it’s a reaction to a dire energy crisis brought on by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Spain, like much of Europe, is highly dependent on Russian natural gas and petroleum to heat, cool, and light the country. The new law seeks to break that dependence by reducing the country’s energy use.
In addition to provisions forcing an 80-degree temperature on air conditioners, the new law also requires stores to switch off their lights after a certain time of night and mandates other electricity-saving measures.
Although fighting back against Russian aggression is a worthy cause, not everyone in Spain is thrilled about the new law. The law might lead to unintended consequences, too, especially given the ongoing heatwaves affecting Europe and other regions around the world.
Scientists like Mike McGeehin of the CDC say that extreme heat is a serious danger that can lead to illness and even death. It’s especially problematic for older people and people with health conditions. Even if heat doesn’t kill an elderly person directly, it can harm them in ways that lead to permanent losses of independence.
Crucially, McGeehin says that cumulative heat exposure is significant, not just the total temperature. Especially if heat persists through the night, this can lead to higher risks since the body never gets a chance to recover from the effects of high heat, leading to damage that builds over time.
Many people—especially those without air conditioning or poorer residents—head to public buildings like movie theatres or malls when temperatures increase. Because Spain’s law mandates relatively high temperatures above 80 degrees in these kinds of public spaces, there’s a real risk that it will take away respites that that country’s poorest residents use to beat the heat and recover from cumulative heat stress.
There’s no guarantee that cities and individual businesses will comply with the new law. The leader of the city of Madrid has already said that she intends not to follow it, citing the risks to public safety and tourism.
Still, the new law reflects a changing reality in which places that are exposed to geopolitical or environmental risks of fossil fuels may need to limit energy use in uncomfortable or even dangerous ways.
It’s an argument for energy security through renewable power and also for security through control of the sources of fossil fuels. Such a measure would be unlikely to take effect in the United States, largely because the US has extensive fuel reserves and because many states already get a large amount of their power from green sources.
Would you willingly swelter in order to fight Putin? Where would you draw the line on reducing your own energy use?
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