As the scorching summer of 2022 swept across Europe (it was to be the hottest summer ever recorded on the continent) I filed the below piece for the Business Post at the end of July, framing it around my own experience back in the late 1980s. Perhaps the most obvious and best understood manifestation of a rapidly warming climate, heatwaves are deadly and pernicious on a number of levels, severely hampering both food and energy production as well as threatening ecosystems while seriously stressing human health as well. It is truly sobering to consider that this year’s extreme heatwaves, wildfires, floods and droughts across the northern hemisphere are fuelled by global average surface temperature rise of around 1.1-1.2C. What fresh hell awaits us when the dial tips 1.5C and beyond?
BEING CAUGHT in a severe heatwave is akin to being strangled and suffocated at the same time. I learned this the hard way on a sweltering July day in 1987, when I landed in the Turkish city of Izmir, where temperatures were in the high 40s and rumoured to have briefly touched 50C.
Stepping off the plane, I felt like I’d been hit by the blast from an industrial oven. Even though I was young and fit, every step with my luggage was a struggle. The cheap hotel in the city centre where I was staying had only a solitary small air conditioning unit in the lobby, with dozens of people crammed into the space seeking to escape the broiling heat.
In my room, the only relief was to strip off and hunker down in the luke-warm shower for hours. I could only venture outside after midnight, and even then, the air was still sticky, stifling and difficult to breathe.
Even though I only had to endure this cauldron for 24 hours before escaping by bus to cooler Istanbul, I will never forget the sensation of energy draining from my body, compounded by dizziness and mild nausea. Others were a lot less lucky.
While the death toll in Turkey ran into the hundreds, neighbouring Greece recorded at least 1,300 fatalities in what was at the time the deadliest heatwave in the region in at least a century. Back then, absolutely nobody was talking about global warming. An event like this was a genuinely rare meteorological phenomenon, and it was pure happenstance that I was caught up in it.
Fast forward to the 2020s, and heatwaves as extreme as that roasting July in Turkey are now almost routine. The death toll from the latest European heatwave is already above 1,500 and will undoubtedly continue to climb, as extreme heat can be a stealthy killer and the true human toll can take weeks or months to establish.
Some 19 years ago, the heatwave that swept Europe in 2003 led to at least 30,000 deaths, with over 14,000 fatalities in France alone. Many of those deaths only became apparent long after the event, as hospitals and mortuaries overflowed.
Across Europe, the shocking death toll of 2003 led to major improvements in preparedness for heatwaves, which take an especially heavy toll on the elderly and very young. This has undoubtedly saved many lives as subsequent heatwaves, too numerous to mention individually, have racked continental Europe.
We in Ireland have watched this unfold from the comfortable distance of our temperate Atlantic island, thankful that it couldn’t happen here. At least that’s what we thought until earlier this week, when record-smashing temperatures on our neighbouring island breached the 40C threshold, with even reassuringly chilly Scotland topping 35C.
If it can reach as far north as Scotland, it is probably just a matter of time before a giant European heatwave engulfs Ireland. And if we are very unlucky, and it stalls and develops into what is known as a “heat dome”, then many people here will likely die. Our huge livestock herds would also be in grave danger from heat stress and dehydration.
All seven of the hottest years on the instrumental record have occurred since 2015, so the rate of heating is now accelerating sharply as the impacts of the additional 1.2C of global warming added as a result of man-made emissions begins to supercharge our weather systems.
Earth is now heating at a rate equivalent to the energy from five Hiroshima-sized nuclear explosions per second, or 432,000 Hiroshimas every day. Could we really have imagined we could so profoundly disturb our planetary life-support systems and not expect serious blowback?
While Ireland’s apparent isolation from the climate-fuelled weather extremes currently affecting countries all over the world is coming to an end, there is still no real sense that our collective psychological detachment from this unfolding calamity is beginning to crumble.
While very few Irish people outright deny the reality of climate change, the real denial remains that we mostly think it’s simply not our problem. Besides, aren’t we only 0.06 per cent of the global population, so what’s the point in us doing anything? Anyhow, what about China, what about the US, what about Brazil?
This kind of parochial whataboutery still pervades our political and media discourse on the climate emergency. It’s a form of smug fatalism that believes that while we have made ourselves rich by gorging on resources and spewing out among the highest per capita emissions in the world, somebody else should pick up the tab for our profligacy.
As last week’s Environmental Protection Agency emissions report revealed, the Covid lockdown turned out to be the briefest of ecological reprieves; last year, Ireland’s carbon emissions bounced back to pre-Covid levels and beyond.
Rather than seeing the deadly heatwave lapping ever closer to our shores as the impetus for strong domestic climate action, TDs from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil jostled to see who could best undermine our already inadequate emissions budget for the agriculture sector.
Leo Varadkar, the Tánaiste, said “we’re not going to penalise and punish people if the [climate] targets can’t be achieved”. With no downsides for non-compliance, small wonder nobody takes these “targets” seriously.
Fine Gael’s website includes such anodyne fluff as “we are on a clear trajectory towards carbon neutrality in 2050”. The in-joke is, of course, that nobody in politics cares what happens in five years’ time, let alone 28.
On the thorny issue of agricultural emissions, Sinn Féin, the party most likely to lead the next government, incredibly claims it is “not in a position” to identify where on the spectrum between a minimal 22 per cent and a necessary 30 per cent emissions cut the party stands. Sinn Féin also supports the reassuringly vague concept called “net zero by 2050”, which is political-speak for “not our problem”.
It is said that real change happens not when people see the light, but rather when they feel the heat. Well, the heat is coming, whether we are ready or not.