Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Heat, drought, fires: climate change shows Europe's future

  • A burnt-out car in the Greek port town Rafina, hit by wildfires (Photo: Lisbeth Kirk)

Get used to it.

The hot weather gripping large parts of Europe this summer are probably going to be more common than before.

Read and decide

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  • Dogs waiting for their owners to return to a burnt-out house near Rafina (Photo: Lisbeth Kirk)

Temperatures are expected to shoot above 30C again in many European countries on Monday (6 August), with 32C predicted for Paris, 36C for Rome, and 39C for Madrid.

Wildfires continued over the weekend in Portugal, while the Greek government on Sunday (5 August) replaced the chiefs of its police force and firefighters.

The Greek opposition party New Democracy has called on Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras to step down over his handling of the fires, following the deaths of 90 people in fires near Athens.

Greek minister Nikos Toskas, responsible for the police force, already resigned on Friday.

Meanwhile, farmers are facing crop losses due to an extreme drought and parts of Europe are becoming yellow and brown instead of green.

"I have never seen this type of hot and dry weather, and I've been farming over 30 years," said Finnish farmer Max Schulman according to NBC News recently.

While the heatwaves once were extreme exceptions, they are becoming the norm, due to human-induced climate change.

"What was once regarded as unusually warm weather will become commonplace – in some cases, it already has," said researcher Friederike Otto from the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University recently.

A new study coming from Oxford last month said that the likelihood of European heatwaves has more than doubled due to climate change.

Otto said that the results showed society had to prepare for more frequent heatwaves "but equally there is no doubt that we can and should constrain the increasing likelihood of all kinds of extreme weather events by restricting greenhouse gas emissions as sharply as possible".

Some 90 people were killed by the Greek fires (Photo: Lisbeth Kirk)

Human activity like burning fossil fuels in cars and power plants and increasing cattle has made the level of greenhouse gas emissions rise sharply since the industrial revolution. It has already raised the average global temperature by around 1C.

Another study, published last year, said that extreme weather events can become a lot more frequent if emissions continue to rise.

"In Europe, each year about five percent of Europeans have to face an extreme climate event — be that a heat wave, a flood, a drought," said Jean Jouzel according to the New York Times on Saturday.

Jouzel was deputy chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the United Nations' climate science body.

"But in the second half of this century, if the global warming is not checked, we could see two Europeans out of every three who have to face extreme climate events," noted Jouzel.

Wildfires like the one in Greece will become more common if global warming continues (Photo: Lisbeth Kirk)

So it could get even worse.

That was also the message of a draft version of an important IPCC report for policymakers, the leaked contents of which were published on the Climate Home website, a specialist news outlet.

It said that the scientists were highly confident that for every 0.5C increase in global average temperature, the likelihood of hot extremes increases.

The IPCC is also looking at what is needed to limit average global warming to 1.5C – which will still have enormous impacts, but could be manageable.

By contrast, scientists believe that once the 2C threshold is reached, irreversible changes to the earth's ecosystem may occur.

In 2015, the European Union and its countries, together with most of the world's other nations, signed an agreement in Paris in which they promised to limit global warming to 2C, and do their utmost to limit it to 1.5C.

To stay under that crucial 1.5C, the IPCC draft report said, emissions need to come down quickly, and society needed drastic changes.

"Limiting global warming to 1.5C would require rapid and far-reaching systems transitions occurring during the coming one to two decades, in energy, land, urban, and industrial systems," it said.

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