Recent weeks have seen a record-breaking heatwave scorch and desiccate the green lands of Britain (including Oxford’s yellowed quads), wildfires are tearing through the forests of Sweden and deadly heat in Japan has hospitalised 22,000 with heat stroke. Similarly, intense monsoon rains have contributed to the devastating collapse of a dam in Laos.
This is not just bad luck. We’ve ‘loaded the weather dice’, we’re writing our own meteorological destiny and the consequences are becoming increasingly apparent.
We’re now living in a world where weather records are falling daily, and millions are being pushed into increasingly inhospitable climates. By dumping hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we’re creating a world of extremes.
In just 15 years, the viscous heatwave which led to as many as 70,000 deaths in Europe in 2003 has become ten times more likely to occur in a given summer. By the 2040s, a summer that hot may be the norm.
As far as this heatwave is concerned, climate change has unquestionably played a role. The rapidly developing field of weather attribution, pioneered in Oxford, quantifies the extent to which climate change has changed the likelihood of a given event. According to a study of this summer’s heatwave (so far) published a week ago, climate change has made northern Europe’s heatwave at least twice as likely to happen. The fingerprints of human intervention are all over our weather.
Yet the UK remains dangerously unprepared. Although the government’s independent advisors have been pushing for strong action to be taken for several years, the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee report on heatwaves, published recently, found that ‘essential heatwave adaptation measures are not being delivered’ at local or national government levels.
This summer is a warning of what’s to come – and it’s a warning we must heed.
We must design resilient buildings and infrastructure, and if we do so, for mild parts of the world like the UK, the right policies will allow us to adapt to some of the impacts of climate change experienced thus far. Indeed, for many of us, this summer has meant endless barbecues, swims in the Cherwell and beach trips.
But for the young and elderly, the world’s poor and those living in already-hot regions, adaptation is increasingly impossible. We must address the source of the problem – and that means keeping future warming to an absolute minimum.
We need a sea change in our commitment to tackling climate change, from individual actions through to government policy.
The UK Government has been warned it is falling well behind its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, but responded by approving a third runway at Heathrow. As temperatures rose earlier this week, the energy minister announced the approval of Lancashire’s first fracking well for shale gas extraction – even though we had already built enough energy infrastructure by 2017 to raise global temperatures to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.
We know it’s still feasible to hold the rise in global temperature to 1.5 °C and avoid the worst of climate change. Achieving that will be tough, but as the consequences of failure to do so become increasingly clear, we must listen to these warning signs and take this challenge on with all that we’ve got. Otherwise, far more than the colour of our quads is at stake.