World on fire: What Mediterranean heatwave says about climate change

Experts tell The National what this means for the planet, and what must be done to prevent a tipping point being reached

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After weeks of scorching, dry weather, the inevitable wildfires arrived – bringing death, destruction and disruption across Europe and North Africa.

For almost two weeks, firefighters have battled blazes in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Tunisia, Algeria. The list goes on.

Lives have been lost, properties destroyed, tourists sent home and businesses which rely on holidaymakers jeopardised.

“The really scary part is that the last fortnight of record heatwaves represented just 1.2°C increase in global warming,” says Prof Mark Maslin, an expert in Earth system science at University College London.

If the numbers tick up towards 1.5°C, the world is going to experience a whole new era of heat, wildfire and ruin, adds Maslin.

With July now expected to be the hottest month ever recorded, there is no greater hint that the world is alight under the impact of global warming – or “global boiling” as UN chief Antonio Guterres described it this week.

Southern Europe has experienced unprecedented conditions of searing heat, bringing the realities of climate change vividly home to the continent.

But what does this mean for the world? Will the impact be enduring or forgotten by the time the Cop28 climate conference begins in the UAE at the end of November?

Are there grounds for optimism or is the world galloping towards tipping points and out-of-control weather patterns?

And crucially, will people now be more willing to pay for green policies?

The National has spoken to scientists and analysts to understand the current global situation and what can be done.

Escape from Rhodes is alarm call

Thousands of tourists fleeing raging fires on the Greek island of Rhodes most graphically captured the impact of climate change on Europe.

Maslin says these 40°C heatwaves were not expected until 2050.

“But it’s happening now, and that's when climatologists like myself go, ‘Oh, this is bad’,” says Maslin.

“We have broken the temperature record for the whole planet with these incredible heatwaves in America, Europe and in China. Temperature records are falling all around the world.”

Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey have had a greater forewarning of impending climate catastrophe, having watched the ice retreat and southern oceans warm in the last two decades.

That has not made the impact of recent weeks any less daunting, says Dr Thomas Bracegirdle, the institute’s climate deputy science leader.

“For me as a scientist, the biggest thing is that what seemed abstract in the past is becoming a reality,” he tells The National.

“This is what we expected but it's now really happening and that still seems astonishing. We should definitely be concerned.”

El Nino awaits

If the summer heatwaves are largely forgotten come Cop28, then the effects of the El Nino weather pattern will almost certainly be felt.

“El Nino hasn't even started yet and it usually peaks around December time, adding maybe a degree to the earth’s temperature,” says Maslin.

“We add El Nino into the mix of current extreme weather that will exacerbate lots of things, causing droughts in Africa, floods in California and other extreme events.”

Maslin also warns of “rain bombs” in which there is more moisture in the atmosphere due to evaporation in a warmer planet. “So when the rains come, they're coming in much heavier, more intense.”

Severe floods in Pakistan last year exemplified this grim outcome, he says.

The link with climate change is that the frequency, severity and duration of heatwaves are not staying constant “but actually are increasing,” says Dr Carlo Buontempo, of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, the EU's Earth observation programme.

His words were reflected by a UK Met Office report on Thursday that stated the last two years of heatwaves – that pushed the UK past 40°C for the first recorded time – would be regarded as cool periods by the end of the century.

“You need to put these extreme events in the context of rapidly warming global climate and even faster warming climate for Europe,” says Buontempo.

“Some of these extreme events that we've seen around is the fact that the climate system is unequivocally warming everywhere.”

Paying for it

There is an argument that technology will resolve the challenges posed by climate change but the question remains over whether people are willing to pay for the major greening energy projects.

In England's recent Uxbridge by-election in west London, caused by disgraced former prime minister Boris Johnson quitting Parliament, the ruling Conservatives just held on to the seat, despite the unpopularity of the government.

This was widely seen as being largely because London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, of the opposition Labour Party, had expanded the “ultra-low emissions zone” leading to more car-users paying to enter the capital.

That, says Alan Mendoza, of the Henry Jackson Society think tank, suggests a public reticence on financing change.

“It appears that when people realise they have to pay for it, they're perhaps less keen on dealing with the issue,” says Mendoza.

“With lengthy periods of intense heat becoming the norm, you would expect voters to notice firstly and secondly, tell governments they want something done about it.

“The difficulty is that climate change is something everyone wants to fight but not necessarily pay for.”

But Mendoza argues that “technological solutions could end up resolving this crisis for us” which required “a firm investment of time and money in particular making this a priority.

He adds: “It may well be that this is something that voters can very much get behind.”

Buontempo agrees that as a species humans have been “extremely good in solving incredibly complex problems and dealing with danger efficiently when we face it”.

Recent events should now act as a catalyst on how to combat global heating.

“Climate change is not happening in the abstract, it's not happening in the 25th century, it is happening to us now,” he says.

“I think that realisation may trigger a different reaction and as human beings we have that ability of facing massive challenge and finding solutions as we did for Covid.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis acknowledged on Thursday that Greece needed to take more steps to combat the effects of climate change, stressing the need to improve fire prevention further.

“The climate crisis may be a reality, but it cannot be an excuse,” said Mitsotakis.

“Our country ought to take more steps … to be ready to mitigate, as much as possible, the effects of a reality that we are already starting to feel, and that could have dramatic effects on many different aspects of our economic and social life,” he said.

Human cost

The human cost is likely to have the biggest impact on policy and perceptions.

Next week is the 20th anniversary of a heatwave that hit France killing more than 15,000 people – then recorded as the hottest in 500 years.

That record has now been exceeded in the last two years, with the 2022 heatwave resulting in an estimated 64,000 excess deaths.

“Unless humans rapidly stop burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases, these events will become even more common and hotter and longer lasting,” says Bracegirdle.

“If we act quickly and assertively then we can avoid the worst of what could happen. This is not a problem that is going to go away that’s for sure.

Buontempo argues that the “the best tool at our disposal is to get to net zero as quickly as we can – that's a fundamental”.

The heatwave had also demonstrated how “underprepared we may be for the different kind of climate impacts,” says Bernice Lee, of Chatham House think tank.

Key was not burning more fossil fuels “to keep ourselves cool” with air conditioning, she says. “What this heatwave teaches us is that we are that we need to prepare climate impacts.

Significance of Cop28

The growing evidence of climate change will have a significant impact on the key decisions made at the UN's two-week Cop28 summit, which begins in Expo City Dubai on November 30.

The intersection of scientists and world leaders will be critical in seeing if “global policymakers react to the evidence” says Buontempo.

“Having evidence-based policy is the best possible outcome and not hiding behind things that are not based on facts.”

Cop28 will be important “to focus on delivering what we promise” and getting the money to finance emissions reduction, says Lee. “But the political battles will scale up rather than down over resource allocation.”

By late November, July’s heatwave could well be forgotten, says Mendoza.

“We need to get a consensus going now in order to build the momentum, rather than wait until Cop28 because by then this may be a distant memory.”

What happens next?

Countries should band together and form a world climate crisis organisation akin to the World Health Organisation, to steer humanity through the unfolding disasters associated with the heating planet, one of the UK’s leading climate scientists says.

Sir David King, former UK chief scientific adviser and chairman of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, says it is now “almost certain” that the global average temperature will rise to at least 2°C above pre-industrial levels, which scientists have warned could lead to further irreversible heating.

“In terms of a health crisis, such as the Covid crisis, we have a World Health Organisation and it’s based in Geneva and is part of the United Nations. We don’t have a world climate crisis organisation,” says King.

“That’s what we need, so that all countries of the world could come together through a body of this kind, as we do when there’s a health crisis, we all contribute to the cost of the WHO.

“We need a global system that pulls us all together to battle with this external threat to our manageable future.”

A rise in global temperatures above 1.5°C will likely initiate irreversible tipping points, such as melting of Greenland’s ice or releasing huge volumes of methane.

Above 2°C will see the number of “dangerous days”, with temperatures at 40°C almost throughout the year in the tropics and for entire seasons in the global north, a recent Chatham House conference on climate heard.

Other future dangers will be the prospect that nuclear power plants will not have water cold enough to cool reactors.

Similarly, heatwaves could induce droughts leading to a drop in water levels for hydroelectric plants taking away a renewable energy resource.

Aircraft will also find it difficult to take off in high heat as they require a certain air density, while runways, roads and railways could buckle under high temperatures.

Maslin also warns that the growing heat meant the number of days agricultural workers can operate outside will be reduced leading to a reduction in food supplies.

There is also the human element.

“We have to start realising that this dangerous weather is changing everything and our human bodies are not ready for it,” says Eleni Myrivili, the UN’s global chief heat officer.

Updated: July 28, 2023, 6:00 PM