• Climate change;
  • France;
  • hazards;
  • heat wave;
  • social amplification of risk

In an analysis of the French episode of heat wave in 2003, this article highlights how heat wave dangers result from the intricate association of natural and social factors. Unusually high temperatures, as well as socioeconomic vulnerability, along with social attenuation of hazards, in a general context where the anthropogenic contribution to climate change is becoming more plausible, led to an excess of 14,947 deaths in France, between August 4 and 18, 2003. The greatest increase in mortality was due to causes directly attributable to heat: dehydration, hyperthermia, heat stroke. In addition to age and gender, combinatorial factors included preexisting disease, medication, urban residence, isolation, poverty, and, probably, air pollution. Although diversely impacted or reported, many parts of Europe suffered human and other losses, such as farming and forestry through drought and fires. Summer 2003 was the hottest in Europe since 1500, very likely due in part to anthropogenic climate change. The French experience confirms research establishing that heat waves are a major mortal risk, number one among so-called natural hazards in postindustrial societies. Yet France had no policy in place, as if dangerous climate were restricted to a distant or uncertain future of climate change, or to preindustrial countries. We analyze the heat wave's profile as a strongly attenuated risk in the French context, as well as the causes and the effects of its sudden shift into amplification. Research and preparedness needs are highlighted.