A report has been released today by the World Weather Attribution group, an international collaboration of scientists that has performed more than 50 studies on heatwaves, extreme rainfall, drought, floods, wildfires and cold spells around the world. The study has concluded that the recent North American and European heatwaves were virtually impossible without human-induced climate change.
Scientists from the group found that the July heatwaves in Europe and North America would have been almost impossible without anthropogenic climate change, according to analysis by World Weather Attribution, but they are no longer unusual events due to warming caused by burning fossil fuels and other human activities. The study also found that climate change made the heatwave in China at least 50 times more likely.
This July, southern Europe, parts of the United States, Mexico and China have experienced severe heatwaves with temperatures above 45°C, leading to heat alerts, wildfires and heat-related hospital admissions and deaths.
‘Hotter, longer and more frequent’
Climate change has made heatwaves hotter, longer and more frequent. To quantify the effect of climate change on the recent sustained high temperatures, scientists analysed weather data and computer model simulations to compare the climate as it is today, after about 1.2°C of global warming since the late 1800s, with the climate of the past, following peer-reviewed methods.
The European and North American temperatures would have been virtually impossible without the effects of burning coal, oil and gas, deforestation and other human activities. The Chinese heatwave was also made about 50 times more likely.
Greenhouse gas emissions made the heatwaves hotter than they would otherwise have been: the European heatwave was 2.5°C hotter, the North American heatwave was 2°C (3.6°F) hotter, and the heatwave in China was 1°C hotter because of climate change.
Heatwaves like these will become even more frequent and extreme if emissions are not rapidly halted and reduced to net zero, the scientists warn. If temperature rise reaches 2°C – as will happen in around 30 years unless every country signed up to the Paris Agreement fully implements their current pledges to rapidly cut emissions – events like this will become even more frequent, occurring every 2-5 years.
While the researchers say the development of El Niño, a naturally occurring climate phenomenon, likely contributed some additional heat to the heatwaves in some regions, increased global temperatures from burning fossil fuels is the main reason the heatwaves are so severe.
‘We still have time to secure a safe and healthy future’
Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London said:
“The result of this attribution study is not surprising. The world hasn’t stopped burning fossil fuels, the climate continues to warm and heatwaves continue to become more extreme. It is that simple.
“However, these heatwaves are not evidence of ‘runaway warming’ or ‘climate collapse.’ We still have time to secure a safe and healthy future, but we urgently need to stop burning fossil fuels and invest in decreasing vulnerability. If we do not, tens of thousands of people will keep dying from heat-related causes each year.
“It is absolutely critical that governments legislate fossil fuel phase out at this year’s COP climate conference.”
Julie Arrighi, director (a.i.) at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, said:
“Heat is among the deadliest types of disaster.
“We need a cultural shift in the way we think about extreme heat. Extreme heat is deadly and rapidly on the rise. It is crucial to scale warning systems, heat action plans and investments in long-term adaptation measures. This includes urban planning and bolstering resilience of critical systems such as health, electricity, water and transport.
“To save lives during extreme heat, we need to look after the most vulnerable – this includes older people, people with underlying health conditions, people without housing, and communities with reduced access to cool spaces that can be lifelines during extreme heat.”
‘The link between global heating and the occurrence of deadly heatwaves is now unequivocal’
Professor Bill McGuire, author of ‘Hothouse Earth’ and emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, told Yorkshire Bylines that:
“There has been an explosion of extreme weather – most notably blistering heat – over the last few years, and our planet is clearly heading into new territory as far as heatwave frequency, intensity and duration are concerned. The finding that both the southern European and North American heatwaves would have been virtually impossible in the absence of anthropogenic global heating means that our climate has already transitioned to one that is completely alien to that which older parents would have experienced when children.
“Planning for the management of extreme heatwaves, and associated wildfires, now needs to be at the heart of policy for national governments, local and regional councils and disaster preparedness NGOs. Tens of thousands of people are already dying in heatwaves, even in developed nations, and the failure to understand that such extreme conditions will become ever more frequent and intense, and to mitigate their impact, will mean many more deaths.”
He continued by proposing that he was in favour of naming heatwaves – a suggestion made by meteorologist Guy Walton, who has named several this year already.
“As has been the case for storms for some time, attaching names flags them as dangerous events capable of taking life and causing widespread disruption, and makes it more likely that people will sit up and take notice.
“The link between global heating and the occurrence of deadly heatwaves is now unequivocal.”
The models may be underestimating the impact
Professor Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State, and creator of the famous ‘hockey stick’ graph’ told Yorkshire Bylines:
“These unprecedented extreme weather events simply wouldn’t be happening in the absence of human-caused warming from carbon pollution.”
He supported the use of cautionary language in the report, adding, “I like the fact that the press release emphasizes that these events don’t indicate a ‘tipping point’ or ‘runaway warming’ – rather, they reflect the way that planetary warming amplifies various types of extreme weather”.
He finished with a word of caution that the attribution models may indeed be underestimating the effects of human-caused warming:
“As I have been pointing out for some time, the models used in these attribution exercises don’t do a very good job capturing one of the more subtle ways that climate change is impacting these events, namely how it’s leading to both a slower and more wiggly jet stream, which gives rise to the very persistent sort of weather extremes we are seeing. For this reason, the models might be underestimating some of the amplifying effects of human-caused warming with regard to these unprecedented weather extremes.”
As heatwaves are currently ravaging southern Europe, with Greece and Italy being extremely disrupted, a cultural shift in mindset is definitely required. There is speculation in the UK over a ‘net zero referendum’, despite manifesto pledges, the net zero strategy and the Climate Change Act all in place.
Simply because the UK is not suffering with heatwaves this summer yet, should not mean that we should stand idly by and watch others suffer; the threat is increasingly existential and on everyone’s doorstep.
Parts of this article have been adapted from a press release issued today by the World Weather Attribution Group.
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