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In today’s episode, we’re going to focus on energy poverty. When temperatures rise to the point where they become dangerous, what happens to people who can’t escape the heat? As temperatures continue to soar and extreme heatwaves become the norm, a lack of resources to stay cool — so, having access to things like air conditioning, for example, — is a huge issue across the world. To find out how people are fighting energy poverty, we visit southern Europe, a region that experienced a series of record-breaking, climate-fueled heatwaves this past summer. Today’s episode comes to us from our friends at The Response podcast.
Image Credit: Kane Lynch, Illustrator
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The Response Team The Making Contact Team
The Response Team
The Making Contact Team
- Theme Music: “Meet you on the other side” by Cultivate Beats
- Additional Music: Belong, Fugazi, and Chris Zabriskie
Amy Gastelum: On the next making contact.
Lidija Živčič: Mainly due to the climate change. Heat waves are becoming a new characteristic of European summers.
Amy Gastelum: We talk about energy, poverty in Southern Europe and emerging solutions like collective knowledge.
Mònica Guiteras: We all know something because we have experienced diverse situations of precariousness so those who have been disconnected, know something about that procedure and how. Be reconnected.
Amy Gastelum: We also hear from activists about who to prioritize when it’s time to make policy,
Martha Myers: adding low income groups, as a add on to climate policy is not going to work we must ensure that they are at the forefront of every single piece of climate legislation
Eleni Myrivili: So this summer was a really hard summer for Athens and for Greece as it was in general for the Mediterranean. A lot of Mediterranean countries ended up having heat waves and reaching temperatures that were record breaking for Europe.
Tom Llewellyn: Eleni Myrivili works for the city of Athens as Chief Heat Officer, a position which is part of an initiative that started from the Atlantic Council’s a Rockefeller Resilience Center.
Eleni Myrivili: It actually reached the hottest temperatures that Greece has ever reached. It was extraordinary. During several days we had these post-apocalyptic images in the sky of these gray clouds with Redish kind of light coming through them. Photographs and images that we have seen from California and from Sydney. I mean, we are now starting to share this imagery, which really feels like a postapocalyptic movie. It really brings to the front kind of what we will be facing in the future much more often than we are now. And it’s, it’s daunting.
Tom Llewellyn: But as devastating and headline grabbing as they are, wildfires aren’t the only disasters that are sparked by rising temperatures. Heat waves and extreme heat is a silent killer.
Eleni Myrivili: It kind of rolls in, and nobody really knows what’s going on and kind of stays there and then kind of it rolls out. And then nobody really knows how many people have ended up in hospitals, how many people have died and what the effects really have been.
Tom Llewellyn: Exposure to extreme heat has both acute and long-lasting impacts on the human body. Heat stroke is perhaps the most obvious effect, but we also know that exposure is associated with heart disease, lung disease, psychological problems, like brain fog or general confusion. Studies have even shown that it’s associated with an increase in work related accidents.
Lidija Živčič: About 104 million people in Europe cannot keep their home sufficiently cool in summer.
Tom Llewellyn: Lidija Živčič is the senior expert at the Focus Association for Sustainable Development and a coordinator at Empowermed, a project working to tackle energy poverty in Mediterranean countries.
Lidija Živčič: Mainly due to the climate change, heat waves are becoming a new characteristic of European summers. And for example, in 2003, more than 70,000 additional deaths occurred due to the heat waves. So summer energy poverty is present, and it also hits, disproportionately, the most vulnerable: people with lower incomes, people of color, unemployed people, elderly women, or also people with health issues or homeless people are basically on the frontline because they tend to live in the most inadequate homes or actually don’t have homes at all. So they have the least access to cooling and being saved during these kinds of events. Namely, these areas are not only marked by poor buildings and poor insulation, but they also face challenges of errors, indebtedness and risks of disconnection.
Tom Llewellyn: There is actually no official EU definition of energy poverty, but it’s generally described by those in the field to occur when a household cannot achieve the minimum level of energy consumption required for satisfying basic needs and also for effective participation in society.
So it’s not just about being able to keep your home cool enough to stay healthy, but it’s also about whether or not you’re able to maintain a decent living environment. Having a house that’s too hot to invite friends over would be one small practical example.
Lidija Živčič: Households that are affected by energy, power, may experience inadequate levels of essential energy services. Like for example, uh, thermal comfort. They might experience disproportionate energy expenses that are forcing them into decisions that are very difficult to make. Like we call it the heat or eat. Or they couldn’t have very precarious access to energy. For example, depending on a very unstable, sometimes even illegal supply or, for example, electricity. The problem of summer energy, poverty is estimated to rise in the future. Not only because of the climate change and the predictions, but also because vulnerability factors, especially in the Mediterranean areas of Europe are becoming more and more expressed.
Tom Llewellyn: In addition to raising public awareness and formulating local, national and EU policies designed to tackle the issue, Empowermed is also working on implementing practical solutions, tailored to empower households affected by energy, poverty.
Lidija Živčič: We’re proposing five different ways to tackle energy power among people. The first is so-called collective assembly. It’s a format where about 20 to maybe 30 people affected by energy poverty gather in common spaces roughly every two weeks. During a conversation with each other, they help each other to transfer and exchange knowledge and skills about energy use, reading energy bills, implementing simple measures for energy savings. Also, they’re discussing, for example, how to change energy providers from a more expensive one to a cheaper one. Sometimes people get together in collective assemblies to organize collective purchase of energy. Sometimes they’re trying together to access building rehabilitation grants. So it’s a wide area of activities that people try to do in support to each other in collective assemblies. But the most important characteristic of this activity is that actually people show each other that they’re not alone, that they all have some part of knowledge of how to solve and tackle the problem and that they can actually support each other. And so on. Then the next way to tackle energy poverty are household visits. We do a short and very simple energy audits, based on which we suggest a package of hints and tips about changing behavior in the household. But also, we provide the household with a small package of free devices that can help them save some energy, also water and so on.
Tom Llewellyn: So there’s the assemblies and household visits. And empowermed also hosts do-it-yourself workshops, where participants can exchange tips and tricks on all sorts of things from information on how to best shade your house with plants, how to use water and ice to cool a space with simple ventilation or teaching folks how to read their smart meters.
Lidija Živčič: Then the fourth way that we help the people is that we provide support in accessing small grants or loans for investments, for example, for refurbishing the household or changing some of the energy consuming devices. Then the last step or the last method that we are using are so-called health workshops. Here we work in two manners again, one way is that we work directly with people affected by energy poverty, and a bit similar to collective assembly, we work with a group of people, but with the support of therapists who help people open up and tackle their mental problems related to energy poverty.
Amy Gastelum: We’re jumping in to remind you that you’re listening to Making Contact and a piece from our partners at the podcast The Response. If you’d like more information about our show, please visit us online at radioproject.org and leave us a comment. And now, back to the show.
Mònica Guiteras: I am Mònica Guiteras. I am a member of the Alliance Against Energy Poverty in Catalonia, and I’m also part of Engineers Without Borders. The Alliance is a social movement formed basically by affected families suffering from energy poverty, or energy precariousness that has been in the struggle for energy rates, the access to basic supplies since 2014.
Tom Llewellyn: Like empowermed, the Alliance Against Energy Poverty in Catalonia works both on the policy and the grassroots levels. And they run a similar program of collective advisory assemblies every two weeks.
Mònica Guiteras: So what we are offering is an open space where each affected person can explain their own case with no judgment with the aim of unblaming people, and with the perspective of collective knowledge. So. There’s no people that are experts and then people that know nothing but completely the opposite. No, we all know something because we have experienced diverse situations of precariousness and we have something to share. So those who have been disconnected, know something about that procedure and how to be reconnected. And those who have suffered from harassment, phone harassment, or door to door sellers that want to change the conditions of your contract, those people would know how to face these kind of cases, no? So we are Kind of sharing what each of one has experienced. And we also try to share different roles in the methodology. So someone would be giving the welcoming, someone with explaining like the main pieces of information, like basic information: what are our rights? What laws are protecting us? Then someone else would see how many new cases we have in the assembly and would give voice to one or the other, like in order of appearance or in order of urgency and then someone else would also accompany those cases that are more complex now.
So we try to work in a horizontal way so it’s also a democratizing process so that we can all have a say in the energy model that we live in.
Tom Llewellyn: The assemblies generally consist of around 25 or 30 people. And after switching to remote meetings during COVID, The Alliance has recently begun experimenting with a hybrid in-person and remote format, which they’ve noticed actually increases accessibility to folks who may not be able to conveniently travel to Barcelona for a meeting.
Mònica Guiteras: For us mutual support is something that we saw it worked in all the social movements. So lots of recognition for their proposal and their success. And of course, they learned from some others, you know, and we also have a lot to learn from struggles in the global south, and these more democratized and assembly proposals that have a collective responsibility where leadership can be shared and can be changing. So now maybe many people that come to our assembly, they don’t know the mutual support is an anarchist proposal. They just know that it works because that’s what we do now. So it’s, it’s a shared responsibility and you feel the other one is equal. So you feel valued. We also try to end with the hierarchy of knowledges. Like why is it more important to know how the electricity market works than to have the time to call Olga, to ask her, how are you doing? Have you got your electricity yet? Like why is more important the conceptual knowledge than common sense or calls of ‘how are you doing?’ which is very simple, but no one was doing this. I mean, no one for these people. Like no one was helping them in this sense. Maybe they didn’t need so much advice, like the steps to follow are this this this. You need to fill in this form, this form and this form, but they needed like, ‘how are you?’ This is something that not always social services can do because they can’t do anything else. Like social workers are having so much trouble coping with all the work they have. So yeah, autonomous organization is trying to answer to that.
Tom Llewellyn: Of course, that’s not to say that legislation and policy work around energy poverty isn’t needed as well. It definitely is. In fact, a lot of the on-the-ground support, taking place in the assemblies informs the policy work being done by the Alliance Against Energy Poverty, which includes proposing legislation or programs to political parties, administrations from city councils to the Catalan government and all the way up to the national level.
Mònica Guiteras: But in the meantime, and in the urgent perspective, we will be there. And then of course in the mid and long term with measures and policies, but we need to have something to say and something to do today and, and in the urgent term, no? So I think this is what is mutual support to us. Like being there from the less complex perspective, like just knowing that it’s kind of family, but not because it’s super hippy or let’s make a party together. No, no, no, like, it’s very concrete. It’s tangible because you go to the assembly and people is there for you. So it counts, it counts maybe sometimes just as much as a new piece of legislation.
Tom Llewellyn: One of their biggest policy successes was a Spanish law barring households from having their electricity disconnected if they were unable to pay their bills.
Martha Myers: Hi, I’m Martha Myers. I am the Energy Poverty Campaigner here at Friends of the Earth Europe and we work for the most socially and environmentally resilient solutions to the climate crisis. I’m also the coordinator of the Right to Energy Coalition, which brings together social environmental organizations, trade unions, and health organizations across Europe to ensure we tackle energy poverty, and that we ensure a just energy transition for all so that low income groups are included in the European green deal.
Tom Llewellyn: Kind of like the Green New Deal here in the US, the European Green Deal is a set of policy initiatives by the EU with the overarching aim of making Europe climate neutral by 2050.
Martha Myers: Energy poverty is a specific form of poverty that is normally a result of inefficient homes, neoliberal energy markets, which put profit before people and planet, and also wider poverty indicators. So we’re looking at injustices, structural racism, more austerity measures, et cetera. So it is not a personal burden of not being able to pay your energy bills. It is a response to us being given inefficient housing that has not been given adequate performance standards. It is a response to governments giving subsidies to fossil gas companies to install boilers rather than for them to subsidize heat pumps and district heating infrastructure. It is important to recognize that this is a structural inequality.This is often something which is misunderstood for those that are living in energy precarity. They think that in some way it is their fault. And we actually know that one in five Europeans struggle to keep their house cool during summer. So it’s a huge problem across Europe, particularly in the Southern regions, where there are inefficient housing and we know that heat waves are increasing at an exponential rate. This is the richest continent in the world where we should have adequate resources to deliver to those that live on the front lines of the climate crisis. And however, we continue to put the poorest and most vulnerable disproportionately at risk, as well as not giving them access to the clean and affordable energy that they deserve. So I think this is something that the Right to Energy Coalition really works for is to ensure that we are holding governments accountable, holding the EU accountable, to deliver to low income groups who have been previously left behind or unheard in climate policy.
Tom Llewellyn: The Right to Energy Coalition has European partners at many different levels. From those with direct experiences of living in energy precarity, to solidarity groups and community organizations who take action to ensure that energy poor households are protected and are able to access renovations and renewables at a local and municipal level. They also have partners who are working on changing national policy and EU member states.
Martha Myers: Some of our main demands that we have here at the Right to Energy Coalition are to ensure that there are free grant-based renovations for low-income households across Europe. And also, that low-income households have access to renewable schemes. And one of the ways that this has to come forward, so that we can remedy the climate crisis, is by diverting subsidies from for instance, fossil gas boilers, which are seen as the current answer to energy poverty, which is very shortsighted towards more sustainable solutions to ensure that low-income households have access to renewables, green district heating, et cetera. And this would also mean that low-income households would experience less heat energy poverty, or summer energy poverty, because they would be able to have greener air conditioning that was based on green electricity rather than on fossil fuel infrastructure.
Eleni Myrivili: The more I got involved in this role, the more I got worried about it. And the more I learned about the challenges of the city in relation to heat, the more I felt that I was more and more dedicated to it.
Tom Llewellyn: Here’s Athens’, Chief Heat Officer Eleni Myrivili Myrivili again.
Eleni Myrivili: And from being part of all these international four cities talking about climate change and this and that, I also realized that there was very little work being done about heat in cities. Like people mostly when they think of climate change, it’s they think of sea level rising or, you know, like extreme events like hurricanes or stuff like that. But very little attention has been given to the fact we are talking about global warming and global warming means that the heat is rising. And there’s very little discussion about cities and how cities are even warmer than other parts because of the way that they’re built and how cities are more and more attracting people to them and the populations are becoming more and more vulnerable to the weather conditions and specifically to heat.
Tom Llewellyn: In addition to implementing information campaigns and helping to create buddy systems where municipal workers and NGO members regularly check in on and provide a number of services to folks who may be particularly vulnerable to excessive heat. Eleni Myrivili also has larger systemic visions, not just for Athens, but for cities all across Europe and even globally.
Eleni Myrivili: A big part of it is to make it more visible and make it more concrete and explain what the dangers that are related with it are to different parts of the population. Part of this, I think it will be, uh, game changing if we manage to start naming heat waves and also categorizing them so they’re not this vague thing that doesn’t really have a beginning and an end, that doesn’t really have a specific kind of sense of what are we really dealing with. Which I think it will make it easier for the media to communicate them, but also for decision makers to set into motion, specific responses based on what level of heat wave is being forecasted and what we will be dealing with. Now all this is very vague and ad hoc, and it’s like, you know, different measures are being taken in different ways that are not at all kind of regulated and standardized. We have to transform our cities and we have to really aggressively take back public space from cars and really kind of focus on public transportation and on bringing nature and water in the cities. And actually, I think it has to be, I use the word aggressively, very consciously, because I think we can’t just kind of keep talking about, you know, creating parks or planting trees. I mean, all this is great and I don’t want to say we shouldn’t do this, but I think we should really vamp up and really ramp up the efforts and really talk about creating forests in the cities, like long elongated forests in cities where we can take away space from cars and create other types of mobility that do not depend so much on the car, but generally kind of, we have to rethink the surfaces of the cities. We have to use technologies, use different types of materials to cool the cities and also bring water to the surfaces of the cities, which is very important, and use water together with greenery to lower temperatures.
Martha Myers: As we have just seen with the release of the new IPCC report, we are really heading towards a climate crisis, and this is a lived experience for millions, if not billions of people day to day. And it is the poorest who are on the front lines of the climate crisis. Those who have already been marginalized by our current capitalist, neoliberal system. And these are people of color, elderly, those that have been already exploited, and these are the people that have done the least to impact climate change. And they are often the ones that feel the brunt of this. And we’re seeing this with heat waves across Europe at the moment, and also flash flooding, which has really drastically impacted Belgium, Germany areas across the UK. So these heat waves are one example of the volatile nature of climate change and how this is going to just be escalating for years to come. So at the moment, we are heading towards a five to six degree warmer world, and really we need to stay within 1.5 degrees to have a chance of any future for humanity and also for other species across the world.
Mònica Guiteras: We should start really understanding that it is collective responsibility and that not everybody has contributed the same to climate change. We cannot demand the energy poor to consume less. We can’t do that because maybe they are consuming too little. Maybe they are consuming under what they need. We have seen that very clearly in the Alliance Against Energy Poverty. Like, people don’t turn on the heat because they are too afraid to the bill that is coming the next month. So, for us it’s very important to understand that we cannot demand the same for people who have been underconsuming. So maybe some need to consume less for some to consume adequately. So for us, this is climate justice, and this is what we are trying to explain because there’s inequalities.
Martha Myers: Adding low income groups, as an add-on to climate policy is not going to work, like, these are groups that have been disproportionately excluded and exploited by the capitalist system for decades, if not centuries. So we must ensure that they are at the forefront of every single piece of climate legislation. We need to ensure that all green policy is socially just. We are going to have to spend billions, if not, trillions of euros to mitigate the climate crisis. Either we do this through adaptation and mitigation to ensure that we have efficient housing, renewables for all, green infrastructure, and that this is heavily subsidized to ensure that all can have access to the energy transition, or we have to respond to disaster after disaster, so I do hope that this is the time where we really shift away from neoliberal ideology in our political system towards really thinking about what is going to benefit people and planet in the long term.
Amy Gastelum: You’ve been listening to the podcast The Response on Making Contact. If you’ve enjoyed this episode please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts and then please share it with your friends and family on social media. On Instagram, we’re makingcontactradioproject. On twitter we’re making_contact. To learn more about us and to access other episodes for free or to donate, you can visit us at radioproject.org. I’ve been your host this week, Amy Gastelum. Thanks for listening to Making Contact. Until next week.