It is human nature to prioritise the near term over the far off, and to care more about what is proximate than remote. For many of those in the west, the consequences of climate change, though known to be serious, have been something that were largely experienced by other people, or would be felt by future generations. No more. Abstract warnings about the climate emergency became all too real this month as extreme heat hit swaths of the northern hemisphere, from western Europe to the US to China.
Wildfires have raged, rivers have dried up and thousands of people have had to be evacuated. The UK recorded its first ever day above 40C, which disrupted public services and made rail networks grind to a halt. With punishing temperatures abating in the UK, its brief heatwave was just a taste of what has happened in mainland Europe, where weeks-long scorching weather has proved fatal. In Spain, a country used to long, hot summers, officials estimate that more than 500 people have died so far in July because of the extreme heat; the second heatwave the country has suffered in as many months.
The weather this summer has not been a freak event. It was predicted, with incredible accuracy, by meteorologists. Climate models predict that, without action, these heatwaves will become more frequent and more intense: temperatures experienced this year will no longer be considered unusual. That means exceptional days will be even hotter. The vicious cycle of dry winters, summer heatwaves and forest fires will continue to spin, even if countries stick to their current promises to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
That means countries will have to adapt to, not just mitigate, climate change. That requires a pivot from reactive emergency measures to pre-emptive planning. Some simple steps can be taken. In Spain, for instance, officials are examining whether to name and rank heatwaves as they would storms in a bid to raise public awareness of the health dangers from heat stress. Other steps are logistically more complex: seven cities across the world in literal hotspots, such as Athens, have appointed heat tsars to advise officials and co-ordinate responses.
But even historically temperate countries will need to take action. In the UK, there will need to be a massive retrofit of infrastructure and buildings to make them more resilient to the weather. That will take time and money. That is to be set against the cost of not preparing: the US alone is on track to lose $200bn a year by 2030 due to reduced worker productivity because of heat stress, according to a report by the Atlantic Council and Vivid Economics.
Adapting to climate change does not mean giving up trying to cut emissions. The momentum of last year’s COP26 conference has sadly already dissipated. Few countries have done as they promised then to formulate “enhanced” targets for 2030 to limit global warming to the 1.5C that would avoid the most damaging impacts of climate change. Joe Biden’s promised climate revolution for America has stalled.
There are just four months before Egypt hosts the next COP summit. It will be held against a backdrop of US midterm elections, a cost of living crisis forecast to worsen, and, as is likely, a continuing war waged on Ukraine by Russia. The punishing heat will be a distant memory by then. Now is the time for the G20 countries in particular, which contribute 75 per cent of global emissions, to keep promises that they would improve their climate targets enough to limit warming to 1.5C. Climate change cannot be avoided at this point. The weather will get more extreme. But we can control how much worse it gets.