Is Climate Change Behind these Extreme Global Heatwaves?


By Sangeeta Waldron 

Since June 2018, an unprecedented number of regions around the world have been facing raging temperatures, which have caused wildfires, ruined crops and killed hundreds of people.

A heat wave is consuming countries around the world, including Europe, which is sweltering in near record-breaking temperatures. In England and Wales, nearly 700 more deaths than average have been recorded during the 15-day peak of the heatwave in June and July, according to official statistics.

Montreal, Canada, recorded the highest temperature in 147 years of record-keeping on July 2, with the heatwave killing more than 70 people. On July 5, the Ouargla weather station in Algeria’s Sahara Desert reported the highest reliable temperature ever recorded in Africa: 51.3 degrees Celsius. In Sweden at least one person died and dozens more were injured by forest fires. Hot weather and persistent drought have seen wildfires raging as far north as the Arctic Circle.

Japan’s weather agency declared a heatwave sweeping the country a natural disaster, with at least 65 deaths recorded. An agency spokesman warned that “unprecedented levels of heat” were being seen in some areas and more than 22,000 people were taken to hospital with heat stroke, nearly half of them elderly.

Wildfires, wasted crops and health problems are some of the many disastrous consequences this hot weather will have and already UK farmers have stated that they are anxious about the impact of the heat on crops and livestock, warning of lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli shortages if there wasn’t enough water to keep irrigation levels up. While, for dairy farmers, the National Farmers Union says that in many areas the grass has stopped growing, crops are ripening too early and milk yields and animals’ winter food supplies could be hit.

Wildlife charities are calling on the public to take action to help the UK’s small mammals, birds and insects – all already facing major threats – by helping to provide water sources and maintaining damp habitats.

Heatwaves were weather patterns that we would read about happening in Africa and South Asia, particularly in India. The summer of 2015 produced one of the deadliest heat waves in history in South Asia, killing an estimated 3,500 people in Pakistan and India. Now this is a weather phenomenon affecting us all. Research published in in the journal Science Advances, last year suggested that by the end of this century climate change could lead to summer heat waves with levels of heat and humidity that exceed what humans can survive without protection.

The study is based on data showing that hot weather’s deadliest effects for humans comes from a combination of high temperature and high humidity, an index which is measured by a reading known as wet-bulb temperature. This reflects the ability of moisture to evaporate, which is the mechanism required for the human body to maintain its internal temperature through the evaporation of sweat. At a wet-bulb temperature of 35 degrees Celsius, the human body cannot cool itself enough to survive more than a few hours.

According to the World Health Organization in a climate change scenario, extreme heat waves may occur “as often as every two years in the second half of the 21st century.” It also predicts that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria and heat stress. While the direct damage costs to health (i.e. excluding costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture and water and sanitation), is estimated to be between USD 2-4 billion/year by 2030.

In the last 130 years, the world has warmed by approximately 0.85oC. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850. Sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting and precipitation patterns are changing. Extreme weather events are becoming more intense and frequent.

Climate change is one of the major challenges of our time, impacting considerable stress to our societies and to the environment. From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and extraordinary in scale. Without drastic action right now, adapting to these effects in the future will be more difficult and costly.

Greenhouse gases occur naturally and are essential to the survival of humans and other life forms on Earth, by keeping some of the sun’s warmth from reflecting back into space and making this planet livable. However, a century and a half of industrialization, including clear-felling forests and certain farming methods, has driven up quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Plus, as populations, economies and standards of living grow, so does the cumulative level of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions.

Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree – climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organisations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position, including NASA.

Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost an average of 281 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016, while Antarctica lost about 119 billion tons during the same time period. The rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade. Scientists are waiting to see how much this heatwave will impact the wintertime sea ice maximum extent, which has been shrinking in the past decades and has hit record lows each of the past three years.

The landmark Paris Agreement that was signed in 2016 by 175 world leaders, which was by far the largest number of countries ever to sign an international agreement on a single day. A global pledge was made to ensure that the global temperature rise this century is below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

However, since then then President Trump said that he would withdraw the US from this breakthrough climate deal, calling it a drain on the American economy, but his decision cannot be made official until 2020 thanks to a waiting period on withdrawal included in the agreement.

Our individual choices have the potential to reduce GHG emissions; we are at a tipping point and it’s not enough to rely on governments. We need to make conscious choices, as up till now we have all been part of creating this problem. In the meantime, these heatwaves and extreme weather patterns are predicted to become more frequent and our norm.

Sangeeta Waldron is India CSR’s Contributing Global Editor. She is based in London, UK writes on international affairs, broadening India CSR’s news scope to bring you the best stories from around the world.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this feature are entirely their own and does not necessarily reflect the views of India CSR Network and its Editor.

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