This week, Europe has been gripped by an extraordinary heatwave, indicating exactly what lies ahead if we fail to deal with the most pressing issue of our time: climate change. Studies conducted over the course of the summer by US federal government agency NASA have shown that temperatures have alarmingly risen in Europe, Africa and Asia, illustrating the global nature of a highly concerning problem. The World Meteorological Organization has indicated that such high temperatures will become more frequent, independent of our success in climate mitigation. Nonetheless, urgent action should remain the top priority.
In the United Kingdom, the Meteorological Office, responsible for issuing weather warnings, declared its first ever ‘red warning’ as the country broke its national record for the highest temperature ever recorded, with temperatures hitting the sub-Saharan heights of 40.3°C. Even for nations more acclimatized to waves of impounding heat, records continued to tumble. In France, 100-year-old heat records were broken, and in Spain, which is traditionally even hotter, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced that roughly 500 people died in the country as a result of the severe heat and the rapid bushfires that ravaged the nation and fueled a disastrous spike in ozone pollution. Though not only Europeans are experiencing such torment. The United States (US) has also faced a number of scorching heatwaves with wildfires that continue to worsen, and power outages aplenty. India and Pakistan recorded some of the hottest temperatures ever experienced on earth earlier in the summer, which led to spikes in air pollution levels, flash floods, and melting mountain glaciers.
Despite the alarming signs, the international response has regrettably been weak. The impact of climate change is advancing at a much faster rate than experts had previously predicted, with much of the damage fundamentally irreversible. In 2016, President Donald Trump controversially decided to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement, undermining years of substantive progress. The European Union, Japan and South Korea have all pledged to achieve carbon-neutral economies by 2050, whilst China promises to do the same by 2060. This has been the most consistent response from some of the world’s most powerful nations. However, there is unquestionably a lingering sense of shirking responsibility: setting a deadline sometime in the distant future, not too soon that anything needs to be done immediately, though sufficiently far away in the future that any particular promises will likely be forgotten.
The unfortunate reality persists that such action is not nearly enough. Scientists have warned for decades that we would see more frequent and more intense heatwaves as direct consequences of climate change, even in places where intense heat is not the norm. The Climate Crisis Advisory Group has warned that reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is simply “too little too late”, and will not achieve the long-term temperature goals identified in the Paris agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century. To emphasize how tall an order this really is, planet earth has warmed by about merely 2°C since the Industrial Revolution. 2050 is another generation away, and the sad truth is that it is 2022 and utterly disastrous climate conditions are devastating our communities right now. To wait another 30 years before anything meaningful is done is like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Back in 2014, French weather presenter Évelyne Dhéliat broadcasted to the nation a potential weather forecast for France in the year 2050 to highlight the grave threat of climate change. Using projections from the World Meteorological Organization, the map showed incredibly worrying temperatures with much of the nation hitting the 40-degree mark. To emphasize how targets of carbon-neutrality by 2050 and 2060 are incredibly ineffectual, the map shown on that day was essentially the same as what was shown on a standard weather forecast in 2019. The same experiment was conducted in the United Kingdom, whereby a hypothetical weather forecast for the same year, 2050, was created, with parts of the country reaching remarkable temperatures of 38, 39, 40°C. While we’ve seen exactly that this week, this hypothetical map had already come true back in 2020. It is therefore clear that while little action has been undertaken against them so far, extraordinary temperatures have already become the norm decades before they were predicted to.
As a result, dramatic measures must be taken. In order to reduce emissions, there must be an increased use of renewable energy such as wind, solar, and biomass, combined with heat and power installations. Improved energy efficiency in buildings, industry, and household appliances must also be radically ameliorated, and abatement measures taken within the manufacturing industry. Some of the world’s largest conglomerates and fossil fuel companies must be challenged and incentivized to put the planet before their profits. Too often economic interests have been regarded as more important than the interests of all people and too long have politicians enmeshed themselves with the interests of global conglomerates and fossil fuel companies. As long as people in power place their interests above everything else, we can only expect the situation to deteriorate. The uninspiring global response so far, of committing to a carbon-neutral future does nothing to address the fact that as long as these companies have permission to do whatever they like for another thirty years, policy efforts will be rendered futile anyway.
Whilst direct climate action must be at the forefront of political thinking, we must also accept that much of the climate damage that has taken place is regrettably irreversible. As a result, living with more extreme temperatures is something to get used to. It is therefore of the utmost importance that infrastructure is in place to help deal with intense heat. More homes and businesses must install air conditioning in order to keep indoor temperatures down, keep people safe, and ultimately offer respite from the sweltering conditions. According to the International Energy Agency, fewer than 5% of homes in Europe have air conditioning – a figure that will likely increase after this summer’s chaos. While air conditioning is perhaps more of a cultural norm in North America, many around the world cannot afford such a luxury. Additionally, much of the world’s population lives in urban areas mired in concrete, glass, and steel. In order to provide relief from extremely high temperatures, greater green space must be cultivated, and tree planting becoming a more common practice. Not only does this offer more space to rest, relax and recuperate from the intense heat, but it also ensures higher absorption of carbon emissions and higher supply of vital oxygen.
The summer of 2022 represents a watershed moment for our planet, as increased temperatures have truly made it a summer to remember. We can only hope that this marks a turning point in the course of humankind; otherwise, such temperatures will only increase and become more frequent—and that must never be considered an option.