‘Climate change is already here’: Experts say heatwaves should be wake-up call on impacts of global warming

Caitlin Logan

Major planning for a future of heatwaves needs to start now, say climate change experts

WHILE MANY in the UK are enjoying the prolonged period of uncharacteristically hot weather, climate change experts have warned that there are serious short and long-term implications of the trend – and action to address these must start now.

Around the world, temperatures have reached record highs this summer, with a city in Oman facing a minimum of 42.6 degrees Celsius one day last month – estimated to be the highest ever daily minimum temperature.

The harsh consequences of rising temperatures have come to light, with Japan reporting 15-40 heat-related deaths this summer, Quebec reporting 33, and Sweden experiencing its worst wildfires in decades – above the Arctic Circle.

Almost one third of the world’s population is now at risk of potentially fatal heatwaves, a figure which has grown gradually since 1980 and is expected to reach 48 per cent by 2021. 

“Whilst this heatwave may mean we get to enjoy more barbeques and trips to the beach, it also means water shortages posing huge problems for farmers and for public services which are already under pressure,” Caroline Rance, Friends of the Earth Scotland climate and energy campaigner told CommonSpace.

“Prolonged periods of hotter temperatures risks the vulnerable members of our society who may be elderly or already suffering ill health.”

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The House of Commons’ environmental audit committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the risks to health, wellbeing and productivity associated with heatwaves, reports that the risk of death and illness begins with temperatures rise above 25 degrees Celsius.

Climate change scientists are unequivocal that human-driven global warming is the cause of the heatwaves. Corinne Le Quéré, professor of climate change science and policy at the University of East Anglia, director of the Tyndall Centre for climate change research, and member of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change told CommonSpace the connection is “obvious”.

“Heatwaves have been studied in Europe and Russia. You can demonstrate statistically that heatwaves return more frequently now and they are more intense – there is a direct link with climate change,” she said.

With this in mind, David Reay, climate change scientist, author and professor of carbon management at Edinburgh University said that, far from being a one-off, people should expect the trend to continue. “Annual temperatures go up and down, but what we see with climate change is that long term averages are going up,” he said.

“This kind of summer is something we’re more likely to see in the UK, with higher and higher temperatures.”

Reay added that these kinds of changes in temperature would be “very unlikely to happen without human greenhouse gas emissions”.

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As a result, experts have said that both reactive measures (to adapt to a changing climate) and preventative measures (to avoid further and potentially catastrophic warming) are essential.   

Reay said that the example of France’s 2003 heatwave, in which an estimated 14,800 people died, can be taken as a lesson on what needs to be done differently. “There were lots of warm days and nights, and the system wasn’t prepared for it,” he said.

“Older people died due to a lack of awareness on what to do, like people checking on their neighbours, health and social care services knowing who is at risk, and older people’s homes providing air conditioning.

“We need to say, when a heatwave comes, how can we be more resilient?”

A risk assessment was produced by the Committee on Climate Change for the UK and devolved governments in 2017, which lays out some of the actions which should be taken to build that resilience and design a system which is fit for the changing environment.

At present, Reay said that “our whole lives”, from building, to infrastructure to working practices, are simply not designed for hotter temperatures. “The key risk is not changing fast enough,” he said.

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Le Quéré agreed that the connection between recent weather trends and the bigger picture of climate change has not yet been sufficiently understood by the general public and policymakers. “There is a little bit of action for the very fast impacts of protecting vulnerable people, but not the kind of thinking we need to prepare much more fundamentally,” she said.

“Globally there are impacts on productivity, with people who work outside, in agriculture or in manufacturing in tropical countries where there is no air conditioning. Trains slow down when it’s too hot, buildings and roads don’t stand the heat and begin to melt.

“When we build, we need to be thinking about how to protect people when it’s hot, we should be building more greenspace, and we should be building legal frameworks for workers in heat stress – particularly in developing countries, but also in other countries.”

Additionally, Le Quéré said that the water cycle is responding to climate change, and that “we should be preparing for changes in the water supply” as a result.

While the experts are clear that there is no turning back the clock on climate change, they stressed that urgent action is required if the problem is not to be made still worse.

Le Quéré said that while steps are being taken to prevent further climate change, so far, this has “absolutely not” been enough. She said: “Carbon emissions need to be brought to zero, everything needs to be fuelled by renewables, and not by fossil fuels, if warming is to stop.

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“Scotland has the most ambitious target of cutting 90 per cent by 2050, compared to 80 per cent in the UK, but how that translates into action right now is quite slow.

In fact, Le Quéré said that an understanding that “the changes in the energy we use have to take place very quickly” was not yet apparent.

Caroline Rance of Friends of the Earth agreed that the increasing temperatures and extreme weather show “we have no time to waste in cutting climate emissions”.

She added: “The Scottish Government’s recent proposals for new climate targets recommend doing very little extra in the next decade up to 2030, despite this being the most crucial time for climate action.

“Scotland has made really strong progress in recent years in cutting the climate impact from our energy sector but that ambition and success must be replicated as we plan our transport future, as we support farmers and as we build new homes and offices.”  

Picture courtesy of Friends of the Earth Scotland