From water shortages to wildfires, the past 12 months have raised global awareness about the economic and human cost of extreme heat events. There have been wildfires in places that are unprepared for such outbreaks due to unusually hot weather.
Drought and blistering heat have been turning forests into tinderboxes in places that were previously fire-free.
Sweden has experienced 65 fires already this year, up from an annual average of three fires over the past decade. Blazes are now happening as far north as the Arctic Circle, according to Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth observation programme.
At least 91 people died last month in the worst wildfire to hit Greece in decades. Fire raced through a seaside area northeast of Athens.
And in the US, the annual average number of large fires has doubled since the 1970s, putting lives and livelihoods at risk.
So, how unusual are this year’s extreme weather events? What’s the cost of climate change? And how to move forward?
“At the moment these events feel slightly unusual … but if we start looking forward and factor in climate change, then this will become the new normal,” explains Sam Fankhauser, director of the Grantham Research Institute on climate change and the environment at the London School of Economics.
“There are predictions that the kind of heat we have this year, we might experience every other year from about 2040 onwards. There’s quite a clear link between the probability of having a heatwave and climate change,” he points out.
Despite the deadly summer, overwhelming evidence that humans are altering the planet, and ever-improving science that links specific weather events to global warming, the international politics around the issue of climate change are in disarray. And there are alarming signs that the planet may be in worse shape than ever before.
With the Paris Agreement being largely non-binding and with the US out of the deal, environmental groups are calling on the rest of the world to make stronger commitments.
“All other nations have to ditch incremental action for transformational change,” said Claire Norman, speaking for Friends of the Earth in the UK.
“Other nations will need to step up — especially the UK, we used to be world-leading — and use every diplomatic and economic tool to compel the US to act.”