For Europe, a climate change reckoning arrives early
David Knowles, Senior Editor – July 18, 2022
In what has already been a brutal summer of heat waves across much of Europe, temperature records are expected to be broken in parts of the U.K., Germany and France this week, putting thousands of lives in danger.
Temperatures are expected to reach as high as 109°F on Tuesday in locations where air conditioning is not a common amenity, and health officials are warning that excess deaths due to heat are all but guaranteed. With temperatures forecast to be 15°F to 30°F above normal, the U.K. Met Office issued a first-ever extreme heat warning, and scorching conditions could drag on for weeks.
More than 1,000 people have been killed in Spain and Portugal due to heat-related causes in recent weeks. Temperatures around the continent are expected to shatter all-time records Monday and Tuesday, and the death rate is expected to rise sharply. With luck, it won’t mirror the toll of 70,000 who were killed during a heat wave in Europe in 2003.
With the extreme heat that scientists have shown is linked to climate change, wildfires have erupted on the continent. In a pine forest left parched due the rapid evaporation caused by high temperatures, nearly 1,700 firefighters in France have been battling an enormous blaze near Bordeaux.
“The situation is critical, mainly because the weather is unfavorable to us,” Vincent Ferrier, a French official, told reporters Monday.
Wildfires, made more frequent due to rising global temperatures, have also erupted in Spain and Portugal, forcing thousands from their homes. As shocking as the effects of climate change have been to witness in recent years, scientists continue to warn that they will worsen as long as humans continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study published last year found that Europe was warming faster than many other parts of the globe due to fluctuations in the jet stream caused by rising temperatures.
In fact, Europe has already exceeded the 1.5°C threshold for catastrophic climate change set forth by the IPCC, having warmed by 2.2°C since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
“Every fraction of a degree counts. Greenhouse gas concentrations are at record levels. Extreme weather and climate disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said of the report.
Indeed, the speed at which climate change is unfolding has caught some experts by surprise. In 2020, for instance, the Met Office produced a hypothetical map of what summertime heat wave temperatures might look like in 2050. That reality, however, was nearly matched this week.
As has been documented over the past several years, the climate change dangers now facing Europe include extreme heat waves, drought, wildfires and inundating rainfall. Last year, more than 150 people died when torrential downpours resulted in flash flooding in parts of Germany and Belgium, and a record-breaking heat wave in Greece helped fuel a wildfire that destroyed homes and businesses. Europe’s hottest day on record was recorded in Sicily last August, when the mercury hit 119.8°F.
These individual events are part of a larger pattern and a consequence of a warning planet. A mountain of research has shown that it is by no means limited to Europe or the United States.
At a time when Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., all but torpedoed President Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. emissions in half by 2030 when he announced Friday he would not vote to pass a budget reconciliation bill that included measures intended to tackle climate change, the problem of rising temperatures is taken seriously across the political spectrum in Europe.
Yet while leaders there have pledged ambitious goals for reducing the emissions causing climate change, they will need the help of nations like the U.S., China and India in order to make a significant impact on the heat waves that continue to make life miserable on the continent.
Touring the scene of one of the many wildfires currently ravaging Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez summed up the dire situation.
“Climate change kills,” he said Monday. “It kills people, it kills our ecosystems and biodiversity.”