ENVIRONMENT: 54 Quebec deaths send warning signal

Local citizens help fight UK moreland fires

 
679Views 7Comments Posted 07/07/2018

By Simon Lewis

Much of the world is in the grip of a heatwave. Britain is so hot and dry that we have Indonesia-style peat fires raging across our moorlands. Montreal posted its highest temperature ever, with the deaths of at least 54 people in Quebec attributed to the scorching heat. And if you think that’s hot and dangerous, the town of Quriyat in Oman never went below a frightening 42.6C for a full 24 hours in June, almost certainly a global record. While many people love a bit of sun, extreme heat is deadly. But are these sweltering temperatures just a freak event, or part of an ominous trend we need to prepare for?

Earth’s climate system has always produced occasional extreme weather events, both warm and cold. What is different about now is that extra short-term warmth – from the jet stream being further north than usual – is adding to the long-term trend of rising global temperatures. The warming trend is very clear: the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that all 18 years of the 21st century are among the 19 warmest on record; and 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded. Overall global surface air temperatures have risen by 1C since the industrial revolution. It is, therefore, no surprise that temperature records are being broken. And we can expect this to become a feature of future summers.

The long-term warming trend is driven by the release of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide. Many alternative causes have been tested by scientists: the effects of sunspots, volcanic eruptions and other natural events. Only greenhouse gas emissions, dominated by fossil fuel use, explain the warming over the past century. This understanding isn’t just retrospective: 30 years ago this summer, climate scientist James Hansen told a US Senate committee that the climate was changing and fossil fuels were the main culprit. He made headlines worldwide with predictions that if emissions continued our planet would continue to warm, which it inexorably has.

Today’s heatwave is not related, as some have suggested, to the every-few-years shift of Pacific Ocean currents that affects global weather patterns, known as El Niño. A new modest-sized El Niño is predicted for later this year but is not yet detectable. Today’s heatwave is what is expected as Earth moves to an ever warmer state. But it is worth watching the news for the coming El Niño later this year: if it turns out to be a large event, next summer could bring more extremely hot weather. And beyond that, as the climate warms, summer heatwaves will escalate in their severity.

So what is to be done? The amount of warming we see is directly related to the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide. Stopping the warming requires moving to zero emissions of carbon dioxide. Despite the Paris agreement on climate change being designed to do exactly that, progress has been slow. Today 80% of world energy use is from fossil fuels. While the share of renewables is rising rapidly, so is energy use, meaning that globally, carbon emissions are flatlining, not declining. Commitments made so far under the Paris agreement show that we are on track for an additional 2C warming this century. Such large and rapid change will make it very difficult for societies to cope.

We will therefore also need to adapt. There is a lot we can do. At an individual level, we can cool our homes by keeping the curtains and windows shut on the sunny side of our house during the day to slow the rate at which it heats up, and then open windows at night to cool it down. We also need to keep a close eye on the very young and very old because they cannot regulate their temperatures very well, and suffer most in the heat. The major 2003 European heatwave killed 70,000 mostly older people. Changes to social care, for example, to attend to the needs of people who are vulnerable to high temperatures, can help avoid such death tolls in the future.

Climate change is a greater threat to the UK than EU directives, terrorism, or a foreign power invading

Beyond this, many aspects of society will require deep and difficult changes, including to our own mindsets. In the summers of the future, particularly in the south of England, we will regularly live in Mediterranean-type conditions. Adapting our national infrastructure, particularly around maintaining our water supplies, updating our housing stock as it is built to retain heat, and altering how we manage our land to avoid further catastrophic fires, will all be required. It is under-appreciated that climate change will transform the very fabric of the experience of living in the UK.

This coming new reality is not high on the political agenda. Climate change is a greater threat to the UK than EU directives, terrorism or a foreign power invading. Yet the scope of our political discussion on future threats is limited to Brexit and spending on defence. Instead of this blinkered view where the future is the same as the past, we need to step out of the intense heat and take a cool look at what we are doing to our home planet.

The development of farming and rise of civilisations occurred within a 10,000-year window of unusually stable environmental conditions. Those stable interglacial conditions are over. Human actions are driving Earth to a hot new super-interglacial state. What scientists call the Anthropocene epoch, this unstable time, is a new chapter of history. Today’s heat is a forewarning of far worse to come. To live well in this new world needs political action to catch up with this changing reality. Fast.

Simon Lewis is professor of global change science at University College London and the University of Leeds. The article first appeared in the Guardian



Comments 7

user
Captain

Play safe if you have more questions than answers. I have more faith in the majority of scientific opinion on this matter than your confused responses to what most accept now as a real problem that needs to be tackled .

11 months ago
user
mhogan

There is so much controvertible evidence about global warming that I don’t pay too much attention to the credentials of your “highly regarded British University scholar”. I have researched so many theories on the subject, from environmental activists to scientists, that it leaves me with more questions than answers. FYI, sea levels have risen and abated many times so please don’t act like an expert with your 60 years of experience — investigate millenniums (geological studies prove this, incontrovertibly); it just doesn’t fit into the narrative of global warming alarmists. And don’t suggest because someone (me?) may question your Professor Lewis, he deserves the title of flat-earther—this is not a helpful dialog (name calling is a Lib tactic to shut down debate); a bigger man resists this. Lastly, a “solution” to the problems you outline will not come from man ( unless you’re so full of your own omnipotence that you can stop volcanoes from erupting, cause glaciers to refreeze, or any number of other Nature-initiated occurrences that disrupt our climate. But, yes, we all should our minor roles to help the environment ... okay?

11 months ago
user
mhogan

I adhere to the philosophy of the late George Carlin wherein he asserts that Man is impotent when it comes to Nature and that it is pure arrogance to think that he, who has been on the planet for a mere blink of an eye, can fix the milliones of years of climate or the effects that She has initiated ( change, as an example). Moreover, any damage Man inflicts will be dealt with without our interference. She (Mother Nature) is powerful, we are just gnats in her grand scheme of things. That is not to say we should not do reasonable things to protect our environment but let’s not blame EVERYTHING on Man when all will be well if Mother Nature intends.

11 months ago
user
Captain

I don’t think Professor Lewis is a “dem”. He happens to be a highly regarded British University scholar on this subject. I would rather accept his findings on the matter coupled with my personal experience over 60 years watching sea level changes , disappearing land masses and resultant population displacements than side with the flat earthers . This is a very serious matter and constant sniping at the findings will not help us find a solution .In any case we will do little harm in supporting efforts to clean up our environment.

11 months ago
user
eugenie

Environmentally caused diseases like cancer, asthma, and allergies, are on the rise, coral reefs are dying, there is drought and flooding where they had been previously unheard of, wildfires are more common, extreme high temperatures are being recorded everywhere, toxic wastes are in our air, soil, and water, the oceans are acidifying, there is mass species die off, and the ice caps are melting. Without even debating whether or not climate change is happening, it doesn't make any sense to continue contaminating our planet with the results of petroleum extraction, refining, and burning, when we have clean, renewable alternatives. Human interferences in the balances of nature, are contributing factors to all our problems. We must learn to respect both the fragility and the power of our environment, use non-damaging alternatives everywhere possible and be willing to give up indulging desires that do result in damage. I happen to believe climate change is real, but can't see why that needs to be debated when there is one environmental disaster after another, needing our attention. Goebbels' quote can be applied to either side of this debate, but the state of our environment is still the fact at hand.

11 months ago
user
mhogan

https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e5aeb305180e953cd3d44c837beafc73d90dfa75c6e051f66d889422ec7bc763.jpg CO2 will mean the end of civilization as we know it for our grandchildren.

11 months ago
user
mhogan

In perspective, Montreal’s high was 97.88 F on the highest day in July 2018. Montrealers are simply not used to this. Many American cities routinely exceed this during the hottest months of the year. And it wasn’t this temperature for 24 hours — it did cool down throughout the day! As usual, the elderly, those living without a/c, are the most affected but one degree over the 147 year record is no big deal. This doesn’t fit the narrative for the sky-is-falling global warming. 97.88 will be a fond memory for Quebecers when winter temperatures are -40. Scare tactics is just fake news — we’re onto you!

11 months ago
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