By Arab News
By Chris Doyle
Are there any temperature records left to be broken in recent times? Among the many that have been broken this year — this month, in fact — the world experienced the hottest day ever recorded. It came in early July, at the end of four consecutive days where the record was tied or broken. Last month was the hottest June in recorded history. In the US, about a third of Americans live under some form of heat-related warning.
Seas are hotter than ever, with ocean temperatures breaking all-time records in May, June and July. The Atlantic Ocean is 5 degrees Celsius hotter than it is supposed to be. In June, thousands of dead fish washed up on beaches in Thailand and Texas, possibly, experts say, due to increased water temperatures.
Who would want to be keeping tabs on all of these alarming new marks? The thing is that these are records that will not endure. They may be out of date next month.
By the end of this century, the global rise in temperature will be double what is being seen now. We are currently 1.2 C above pre-industrial levels. In the absence of drastic action, this will reach 2.5 C by the end of the century. It will not just be California’s Death Valley that gets to temperatures of 53.3 C, as is happening now.
The optimists among us hope that this will reduce the number of climate change deniers, so serious steps can be taken that are commensurate with the threat. Europe is in for a shock, as it is the fastest-heating continent, having warmed twice as fast as the global average since the 1980s, according to recent research.
Will European holidaymakers heading off to the sweltering Mediterranean shores this summer get buyer’s remorse? Will they appreciate Italian cities if they are on red heat alert? Wildfires are already hitting Greece, the Swiss Alps and Croatia. Thousands are fleeing infernos on the islands of Rhodes and Sicily and in Algeria. Many more will follow. How long will it be before many Northern Europeans start avoiding summer on the shores of the Mediterranean?
What are the causes? Some still argue it is just nature, but these people do not seem to be the scientists. Global heating due to the effect of greenhouse gases accounts for much of this. This is also being combined with the El Nino and La Nina cycle, the planet’s most potent natural climate phenomenon. We have entered into another El Nino cycle, which brings hotter weather owing to changes in the Pacific. The last time there was a powerful El Nino cycle was in 2016, when many records were broken. Remember also that built-up urban areas retain the heat more. Currently, there are 350 major cities with an average maximum summer temperature over 35 C. This will increase to more than 600 by 2050 on the present trajectory.
Does this extra heat matter? This seems a stupid, banal question but apparently it is one to which we have to keep on repeating the answer. Yes.
Extreme heat is a silent killer. It hits the elderly and children in particular. Our bodies are not designed to exist in extreme temperatures — they simply struggle to cool down. Last summer, when it was not even as hot, more than 61,000 died in Europe alone owing to heat-related factors. This year, hospital admissions are increasing. If the heat is combined with high humidity, then it is even more dangerous.
It also dries up water resources, leading to droughts and power shortages. Even communications networks including broadband can be interrupted. Air quality declines as well, with a build-up of ground-level ozone damaging for human health.
What can be done to handle extreme heat? Can we mitigate against its worst effects? Many cities will have to adopt extreme heat preparedness plans if they have not already done so. Trees and plants do have an impact and make a difference, not least in providing shade. To make life more bearable in cities, greater investment in trees and greenery is essential.
One challenge is that air conditioners and fans are among the few things that can make life tolerable in such conditions. But there is of course a positive feedback loop. Air conditioners and fans make up 10 percent of global electricity consumption. This is likely to go up. Can we find an environmentally friendly way of powering them?
In the longer term, major action is needed. Promoting afforestation is crucial at so many levels. The outlook does not look promising if we are to meet the target set at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.” Looking after mangrove swamps matters too, as they can extract about five times more carbon than forests on land.
Tropical forests represented the primary source of new agricultural land in the last years of the 20th century. As much as 99 percent of deforestation in the tropics is driven by agricultural expansion. The cultivation of palm oil in Southeast Asia is also a major driver. Beef, meat and dairy production is another.
Governments are the major actors and will be needed to, among other things, phase out fossil fuels. Many will look to the major powers, the biggest polluters, particularly the US and China. As China endured its own record temperature of over 52 C, the US climate envoy John Kerry was finally meeting up with his Chinese counterparts. Kerry wants the struggle to halt climate change to be disentangled from other political considerations as a “free-standing” challenge. He is right but sadly may not get his way.
Political leaders need to take ownership of this challenge. At present, they are not. All too often, short-term political interests conflict with our long-term survival. This has to change. The richer states have to dig deeper into their treasuries and help with climate adaptation finance for poorer nations. Battling climate change has to become the No. 1 global challenge and be reflected across all policymaking. All policies must now be considered for their climate impact.
It is a pity that COP28 in Dubai is not happening right now. The organizers should make the delegates endure the heat without air conditioning. It may do European and American political figures good to experience a serious heat wave. It appears we are all going to have to get used to this and more. Until serious action is taken, the records will just keep on tumbling.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Twitter: @Doylech