After the savage heatwaves that swept the northern hemisphere in June and continuing into July, I was asked by TheJournal.ie to contribute a piece putting these ominous events into context. Here’s what I wrote:
“WORDS CANNOT DESCRIBE this historic event”. That’s how a statement from Canada’s official weather service began. It was referring to 28 June, a day in which 59 new daily record maximum temperatures were recorded across the province of British Columbia, as well as 43 all-time records.
From Canada to northern Siberia and across the Middle East, India, Pakistan and the entire western United States, June 2021 was a month of record-smashing extreme temperatures across vast swathes of the northern hemisphere.
Before last week, nowhere in Canada had ever recorded a temperature greater than 45C. That record was obliterated when the town of Lytton in British Columbia hit 49.6C in recent days. This is hotter than the highest temperature ever recorded in Las Vegas, located in the Nevada desert, 1,600 kilometres further south.
Dozens of deaths have been reported across Canada, a country with little experience dealing with such extreme conditions, and where few homes have air conditioning. In Portland, Oregon, the streetcar service had to be suspended as the heat had melted cables, while citizens were advised to seek shelter in publicly run cooling centres.
Climate change is happening
“Without human-induced climate change, it would have been almost impossible to hit such record-breaking mean June temperatures in the Western United States, as the chances of natural occurrence is once every tens of thousands of years”, said Nikos Christidis, a climatologist with the UK Met Office. Human influence is estimated to have increased the likelihood of a new record several thousand times.
The remote village of Oymyakon in eastern Siberia is close to the Arctic Circle and is regarded as the coldest permanently inhabited location on Earth. On 29 June, Oymyakon recorded its hottest ever temperature, at 31.6C.
To put these and other extreme weather events so far in 2021 in context, NASA noted that last year was the hottest on the instrumental record, with the excess heating fuelling massive wildfires from Australia to Siberia and the western US.
Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), the key heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, have risen by around 50% since the industrial revolution began, while levels of methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, have more than doubled. Overall, the entire surface of the planet is now on average 1.1C warmer than a century ago, and this is rising quickly. Earth is running a dangerous fever.
Atmospheric CO2 levels today are higher than at any time in the last four million years, and human actions are dumping an additional 40 billion tons of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere every year. The last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere was during an era called the Pliocene, when sea levels were around 25 metres higher than today.
We are the first humans in the history of our species to live through a period of such rapid heating. A leaked draft copy of a new 4,000-page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that Earth was fast approaching a series of thresholds which, if crossed, will lead to irreversible climate breakdown.
“Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems – humans cannot”, the report stated bluntly. The IPCC report has identified around a dozen critical system tipping points, such as rapid polar ice melt or the sudden loss of the Amazon rainforest, as likely with even very modest additional warming.
“The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own”, the IPCC report added. The panel now accepts that it has been too cautious in the past in assessing just how much risk is posed by even limited global warming.
A decade ago, the international consensus was to keep temperature increases below 2C. Given the devastating present consequences of the 1.1C rise in global temperatures and the extreme danger of breaching a planetary tipping point, the latest scientific advice says we must aim to stay as close to +1.5C as possible.
However, if all the pledges made by every country on Earth, including Ireland, under the Paris Accord on climate change were honoured in full, we are still on track for a deadly 3C+ temperature shift.
While our climate is rapidly shifting into extremely dangerous territory, the political and media response to date has been, at best, muted. For instance, Senator Michael McDowell set out in his Irish Times column this week a litany of reasons in favour of inaction on climate, which he appears not realise is an emergency.
And the national broadcaster, RTÉ (which has no acting Environment Correspondent) continues to report on the extreme heat dome affecting the Pacific north-west purely as a weather event, with little attempt at explaining the role climate change plays in loading the dice for extreme weather events.
Who’s voice is being heard?
Both of Ireland’s main governing parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have repeatedly fudged strong climate action, partly for fear of an electoral backlash, but also in a bid to mollify the powerful agri industry lobby, which routinely misrepresents climate action as somehow an attack on ‘rural Ireland’.
Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney broke ranks when tweeting this week: “This is remarkable! These are frightening temperatures in Canada – take note – increased ambition for climate action is not a policy debate, it’s survival!”
If this sounds like hyperbole, a major study published last year warned that due to the rapid spread of extreme heat, up to three billion people will be living in climatic conditions “deemed unsuitable for human life to flourish” by 2070.
The researchers warned that land surface temperatures are likely to shift more in the next 50 years than in the entire last 6,000 years, rendering up to one-fifth of the Earth’s land surface too hot to support humans or agriculture. This in turn risks triggering the greatest migration crisis in human history and is likely to lead to political instability, wars and socio-economic collapse on an epic scale.
Commenting on the Canadian heatwave, meteorologist Scott Duncan tweeted: “I didn’t think it was possible, not in my lifetime anyway. Not so, countered climatologist, Prof Robert Brulle, who wrote: “These (2021) records will fall as climate change accelerates! This is just a mild version of what we can expect in the future.”
John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism.