For more than 30 years, scientists have been warning about the increased impact of heat waves due to climate change. The summer nightmare experienced in recent days in different European countries has left an estimated 1,055 dead in Spain, well over 100,000 hectares burned by forest fires, collapses of roads and railways, a derailment, agricultural losses.. However, what is most worrying is not that this blistering heat episode once again confirms the very real threat of global warming, but rather that what is to come is even more alarming. Indeed, this is only the beginning, since the emissions causing climate change continue to increase in the atmosphere and multiple signs point to serious difficulties for the political agenda of the fight against climate change. climate change.
The heat is raging across Europe, where, due to the worsening energy crisis after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several countries have decided to switch back to coal (the worst fuel for the climate) in an attempt to mitigate the situation. Across the Atlantic, July dealt a serious blow to the Joe Biden administration’s green plans, with a Supreme Court ruling that severely limited the president’s ability to make changes. Compounding this is the resistance to legislative action by a Democratic senator, essential to obtain a majority. China, another major user of fossil fuels, continues to show a preference for coal. Last week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the lack of action to prevent the planet from continuing to warm as “collective suicide”.
The weather dynamics developing amidst these political vicissitudes is unmistakable. “This is one of the strongest themes in climate science: heat waves on land and in the sea are a direct consequence of global warming, and for any further increase in that warming, they are expected to become more frequent. , more intense and more lasting”, specifies Valérie Masson-Delmotte, co-president of group I of the most important panel of experts on climate change in the world, the IPCC, which, between 2021 and 2022, presented its sixth scientific assessment It’s clear that the heat is about to intensify; the question is, will humanity put an end to the growing threat?
As the French climatologist explains, the first IPCC reports dating back to 1990 warned of an increase in heat waves due to global warming. “For many, it was more comfortable to ignore this information, but when it’s your turn to suffer, you realize the urgency to act,” she says.
In reality, even for many climatologists, it is difficult to have a clear idea of what it really means in our lives that the planet continues to warm by one or more degrees Celsius. One way to get an idea of the expected changes is to imagine that in 28 years, Madrid (capital of Spain) will have a climate similar to Marrakech (Morocco), Barcelona (a city on the northeast coast of Spain) to Cape Town (South Africa) and Valencia (a city in eastern Spain) to Bangalore (India). Although only an approximation, this was calculated by a 2019 study, published in PLOS ONE, which analyzed climate forecasts for the year 2050 of the world’s 520 most important cities, finding cities whose current climate would most resemble them. This, in an optimistic scenario, in which the temperature of the planet does not increase by more than two degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit).
Although scientific predictions of the planet’s climate lose accuracy when the focus is on specific locations, these city-to-city comparisons assure us that every population is going to have to adapt to a new warmer climate reality. As meteorologist Juan Jesús González Alemán, of the National Meteorological Agency (Aemet), has clarified, much of Spain must prepare for an Africanization of its climate. “We are not used to more than two weeks of above average temperatures as we have seen in this heat wave, but in 30 years this may be the norm,” he warns.
So far, it is estimated that the average temperature of the planet has already increased by 1.1 degrees Celsius (34 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to the pre-industrial era, due to emissions generated by vehicles, energy installations, industries, homes, food production (and in general, through the use of oil, gas and coal). An increase of 1.1 degrees Celsius may not seem significant, but the recent heat wave in Europe and other extreme weather events over the past year around the world are already showing what it means in practice. What is most alarming is that there is still no indication of when or if this global temperature increase will cap. And, in the specific case of heat, the latest scientific assessment from the IPCC warns that every additional 0.5 degrees Celsius (33 degrees Fahrenheit) of global warming “causes clearly noticeable increases in the intensity and frequency of extremes of heat, including heat waves and heavy rainfall”. .”
Despite science’s warnings, the harsh reality is that humans, with their vehicles, their homes, their industries, continue to increase the emissions that accumulate in the atmosphere. In fact, scientists already know that within the next 20 years, the planet’s temperature will exceed the ceiling of 1.5 degrees Celsius (35 degrees Fahrenheit), one of two safety limits set by the Paris Agreement against climate change. There is still a window to reduce global warming, but with countries’ current emission reduction commitments – if met – the temperature would not be lowered, but the two degree Celsius (36 degree Fahrenheit) limit would be exceeded. , further worsening the forecast.
Masson-Delmotte stresses that the fate of the climate will be sealed in the years to come. “By 2040-2050 we may have reached a stabilization of warming, or we may have already reached two degrees Celsius by 2050, it depends on the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, in particular, over the next decade.” To avoid the worst outlook, IPCC scientists have said global emissions are expected to peak in 2025, but then fall sharply over the next 30 years, nearly disappearing in the second half of the century. This would require, among other measures, to free humanity from its total dependence on fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas).
González Alemán points out that what we have heard recently is not true – that the summer of 2022 will be the coldest of what remains of our lives, because the weather is always changeable. But there is no doubt that in the years to come the planet will continue to warm and, if emissions are not reduced soon, the process will accelerate. “At the moment, everything indicates that we are going to exceed two degrees Celsius, specifies the meteorologist. “The problem is that if we reach a certain threshold, a series of nonlinear phenomena will start to appear, and the interpretation will be more complex. If temperatures continue to rise, the situation will spiral out of control and there could be new phenomena. »
What would the planet look like with an even bigger increase of four degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit)? According to the most rigorous IPCC climate atlas available, which references large regions of the world rather than countries or cities, when someone born in 1970 in the Mediterranean reaches the age of 70 (in 2040), they will experience an average of 15 more days per year above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). But in a pessimistic scenario, in which the planet warms by more than four degrees Celsius, another individual born in 2010, perhaps your child, at age seventy, will experience 25 more days per year above 40. degrees Celsius. And if that person lives in Africa, they will face another 89 days of these extreme temperatures. These examples highlight a great territorial and generational injustice, since those who will bear the brunt are the generations who will inherit a problem created by others.
Scientists say there is still time to change the course of the climate. However, the energy crisis exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine again pays little heed to a response to the climate emergency, and even favors a return to coal in the EU (the worst fuel for the climate) to reduce heavy dependence on Russian gas. “It looks bad, because what is being offered in Europe and other countries like China is going in the wrong direction. Allowing coal again is outrageous,” says José Luis García, climate change manager at Greenpeace Spain. “The energy crisis and the climate crisis have the same root, which is fossil fuels. The only way to solve both problems is to reduce their use until they are not used at all.
Like an overflowing bathtub, the first response to a climate emergency should be to turn off the emissions tap. But at the same time, the recent episode of extreme temperatures has highlighted the urgency of learning to cope with impacts that can no longer be avoided. The provisional estimate of this latest heat wave by the Ministry of Ecological Transition shows that high temperatures can trigger a wide range of negative effects, in areas as diverse as human health, biodiversity, transport, agriculture, energy, tourism and recreation. As verified in the UK, contingencies have an even greater impact in countries less accustomed to heat.
It is clear that this problem cannot be solved with more air conditioning alone, and in Spain many things must be reconsidered, from the design of cities, which are particularly vulnerable to extreme temperatures, to professional activity and even to tourism. “We cannot continue to operate as a society the same way we used to,” says García, who recalls that what we are experiencing is global warming of 1.1 degrees Celsius (34 degrees Fahrenheit). “As the global temperature rises, the necessary adaptation will be greater. But in some places, there may come a time when there is no longer any possibility of adaptation,” he points out.
All of this is linked to the oppressive heat, but the climate emergency has other faces. As climatologist Masson-Delmotte points out, “more attention is paid to the acute effects of global warming and extreme events, but less to the chronic effects, such as snow loss and high mountain glaciers, which will reduce the availability in water for many regions in the dry season. The gradual rise in sea level is also extremely important. For now, its effects are not very visible, but an increase in frequent flooding due to high tides is yet to come.