climate change

Editorial: We would be foolish not to take note of this heat wave

Firefighters, soldiers and local residents carry a hose as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens

Firefighters, soldiers and local residents carry a hose as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens. Photo credit: Reuters / Costas Baltas

If there’s something that unites the Brits like nothing else, then it is the talk of the weather. Normally they do not hold back in bemoaning yet another miserable summer. But this year it is different. Sun-loving Brits are not this year forced to migrate to hotspots in Spain, Cyprus or Greece, as there is plenty of sunshine on their own island.

In fact, they have been enduring heat wave conditions for over a month until the pattern was broken last weekend. Prior to that, little rain had fallen for the last two months. Naturally then, the excitement has now started to wear off, and rain has been much in demand. Who would have thought that?

But despite the rain at the weekend, the temperatures are forecast to quickly move back into the high 20’s at least. And by now, even for the most sun-loving Brits, the novelty of constant hot weather has started to wear thin. Talk of hosepipe bans already imposed in some regions in the country is a blow to Britain’s keen gardeners. But it’s getting more serious than that, and could deal huge financial blows to the country preparing to leave the European Union next year.

The heat strikes across the Northern Hemisphere

And the UK is not alone. Wildfires in Greece have killed nearly 100 people. And as we recently reported, the situation is serious in Sweden, with forest fires burning across the country due to abnormally high temperatures. A state of emergency has been declared. This has been followed by Holland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland where damage to the farming industry is so severe that many farmers are facing bankruptcy.

And this is just in Europe. Across the Northern Hemisphere as a whole, the heat has been relentless with a series of devastating urban and wildfires in the US. In fact, there has been a trend across the Northern Hemisphere, with hardly any region escaping these abnormally high temperatures.

This new situation sets it apart from previous heat waves and droughts which have been isolated. These events are across the board, and we can say with near certainty that this is climate change induced. Yes, there have been previous heat waves as bad or worse than what we are seeing right now. But current events follow a pattern where we see extreme weather across the world, and happening on a regular basis that even surprises climate scientists.

The time of climate adaptation is here

And as a result, we are now entering a phase where we need not only to mitigate climate change but also to adapt to it even in western rich societies, with investments urgently needed to adapt to the changing climate and to safeguard human health and the economy. We are now living through climate change which is set to get worse as we struggle to contain carbon emissions globally.

London in the UK, one of the world’s richest cities, has not yet begun to adapt even in the most moderate way to a changing climate. Even at just above 30 degrees C, there’s no relief from the heat. And there are no air-conditioning systems for the capital`s tube networks where conditions are unbearable. Nor do building regulations take into account protecting not only from the cold and wet but now also extreme heat. This is a whole new reality we need to wake up to, and we better do it fast.

And we have to take action urgently while acknowledging that every decision we take will have consequences. A mass rollout of air-conditioning systems will put huge pressure on the already high energy demand in the capital, but also across the rest of the country. This will release even more carbon into the atmosphere thus warming our cities further. This comes at a time where there’s increased pressure on the electricity grid as the phasing out of coal power is picking up the pace, and the electric car revolution is starting to take shape.

If this is the impact of 1-degree warming, what would 2,3 or 4 degrees mean?

It is also worth noting that this is happening at just at 1-degree warming, which the campaigner and journalist George Monbiot points out. This is just halfway to the 2-degree target which the UN and the world’s nations signed up to in the Paris Agreement. This is the globally agreed target which must be the absolute maximum temperature increase allowed if we are going to have any hope of avoiding climate breakdown. And if we miss that target, as many believe we will, and the planet warms by 3 or 4 degrees or even further, it is clear we can begin to wave goodbye to this planet as a livable place.

Now is the right time to talk about climate change

But we are far away from even noticing the seriousness of this drought and heat wave, apart from the immediate inconvenience and risks to human health and the economy. And so far no mainstream politician and very few news organisations have linked these events to climate change.

If there is ever a time when we should be discussing climate change this is absolutely it. We can’t keep hiding away from the obvious facts, and we can’t keep spinning the narrative that these are rare and once in a lifetime events. It must surely be obvious to policymakers that this climate change thing is getting far too close to home now. Labelling extreme weather events as just very rare occurrences brings no comfort to all the people impacted by the tirade of Hurricane 5’s battering the Atlantic last year. So far the island nation Puerto Rico still does not have access to electricity, nearly a year after it was battered by Hurricane Maria.

Yes, we might not experience a repeat this year of last year’s extreme hurricanes. But as this summer in the Northern Hemisphere is showing, another deadly extreme weather event is playing out before our eyes. It might not be a repeat of the same extreme weather events that hit us each year, or in the same regions. But they will strike us in one shape or form probably at least once a year every year and will become part of the new normal. We better start preparing and taking action now.

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