The temperatures and wildfires witnessed this summer are set to become the new normal - yet much of the world is unprepared for life on a hotter planet, scientists are warning.
In California, firefighters are racing to control what has become the largest fire in state history. Harvests of staple grains like wheat and corn are expected to dip this year, in some cases sharply, in countries as different as Sweden and El Salvador.
In Europe, nuclear power plants have had to shut down because the river water that cools the reactors was too warm.
Heat waves on four continents have brought electricity grids crashing, while dozens of heat-related deaths in Japan this summer offered a foretaste of what researchers warn could be big increases in mortality from extreme heat.
A study last month in the journal PLOS Medicine projected a fivefold rise for the United States by 2080. The outlook for less wealthy countries is worse. For the Philippines, researchers forecast 12 times more deaths.
Globally, this is shaping up to be the fourth-hottest year on record. The only years hotter were the three previous ones. That string of records is part of an accelerating climb in temperatures since the start of the industrial age that scientists say is clear evidence of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
There will be variations in weather patterns in the coming years, scientists say. But the trend line is clear: 17 of the 18 warmest years since modern record-keeping began have occurred since 2001.
For Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California Los Angeles, this disconcerting trend vindicates the scientific community’s mathematical models.
“We are living in a world that is not just warmer than it used to be. We haven’t reached a new normal,” Dr Swain cautioned. “This isn’t a plateau.”
Against that background, industrial emissions of carbon dioxide are at record levels.
Despite a global agreement in Paris two years ago to curb greenhouse gas emissions, many of the world’s biggest polluters — including the United States, the only country in the world pulling out of the accord — are not on track to meet the reductions targets they set for themselves.
Nor have the world’s rich countries given money, as promised under the Paris accord, to help the poor countries cope with the calamities of climate change.
Still, scientists point out that with significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and changes to the way we live — things like reducing food waste, for example — warming can be slowed enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Some governments, national and local, are taking action. In an effort to avert heat-related deaths, officials are promising to plant more trees in Melbourne, Australia, and covering roofs with reflective white paint in Ahmedabad, India. Agronomists are trying to develop seeds that have a better shot at surviving heat and drought. Switzerland hopes to prevent railway tracks from buckling under extreme heat by painting the rails white.
Climate scientists are also trying to respond faster and better. Dr Cynthia Rosenzweig’s team heads the climate impacts group at NASA.
Her team is trying to predict how long a heat wave might last, rather than just how likely it is to occur, in order to help.
Others, like Dr Friederike Otto, are working to refine their models of climate change to make them more accurate.
Dr Otto, an associate professor at Oxford University who is part of the World Weather Association's attribution group, says this is imperative. “In Europe the warming is faster than in the models,” she said.
New York Times
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