There was once a time, not too long ago, when most of us could embrace a seasonal spell of hot weather. A summer of high temperatures, low rainfall – a few rumbles of thunder every now and again – and maybe even a drought warning didn’t feel out of place. Sooner or later, September would set in, the temperatures beginning to slump back down again, and the world would counterbalance a few months of bright sunshine with a few months of rain, snow, and frost.
We still have the seasons, along with some semblance of balance, but things have been steadily changing. In some sense, the differences between the seasons have grown starker with harsher heat, heavier rainfall, and an increasing number of natural disasters that wreak havoc on communities around the world.
Plenty of work is being done to steer the planet into a U-turn, from absorbing carbon to severing reliance on fossil fuels through commercial solar and other renewable energies. But, for those solutions to take hold, we need to take the summer of 2023 for what it is: a warning of things to come.
Right now, most of Europe is experiencing an extreme heatwave, with temperatures reaching the dizzying heights of 47°C. Major cities have been placed on red alert, and the threat to life has extended beyond vulnerable groups to include everyone.
In Sicily, the week was dubbed ‘la settimana di infernale’ – or, in English, ‘the week of hell’.
Tourists from the UK are being warned of the danger posed to them – particularly the very young and the very old – if they follow through with their holiday plans but, even still, easyJet have reported booming business as the school holidays get underway.
Similarly, the Americas are also experiencing dauntingly high temperatures. Canada and the US have seen record-breaking temperatures,
On Sunday 16th July, the temperature recorded in California’s Death Valley reached 128°F (approximately 53°C). Further south, in Mexico, temperatures exceeded the national record at 122°F (approx. 50°C), and more than 165 deaths have so far been recorded as a direct result of the heat. Several states have reported power outages, and freshwater supplies have also been affected. Argentinians are also facing record-breaking temperatures – a repeat of the struggle they faced this time last year, again as a result of the climate crisis. In fact, in late 2022, it was revealed that Argentina’s heatwave was made 60 times more likely by climate change.
The Middle East and Africa are also in the grips of incredibly high temperatures. Again, numbers of heat-related deaths are climbing, and life in various parts of these countries – particularly rural areas – has been forced to grind to a halt.
China has seen records exceed 50°C while, a few months back, Thailand saw its heat index climb as high as 54°C, which led to officials issuing a ‘don’t go out’ warning to locals.
Why we should take this as a serious warning
When it comes to danger to life, heat waves have historically been underestimated, but the past few years are testament to how dangerous they can be. Unfortunately, it’s likely that we will all grow more accustomed to the true risk of heat waves and how hard it can be to control that risk as and when extreme heat takes hold of a country.
Beyond the more obvious risks of heatstroke and dehydration – both of which pose a very real threat to life – heat waves also increase the risk of blood clots, dangerous drops in blood pressure (which, in turn, increase the risk of heart attack), and respiratory issues.
While the old and young, along with those who suffer from pre-existing health conditions, are the most vulnerable groups, there comes a point at which prolonged high temperatures are a health hazard for anyone, regardless of how physically fit they are.
Heat also increases the risk of workplace accidents. Manual workers and those based outdoors are most at risk, but poorly temperature-controlled spaces – like many homes and businesses across the UK, which are well-insulated for the winter but not efficiently cooled during the summer – make it very difficult for us to live life normally during heatwaves.
The BBC reported a 20% increase in the number of patients being admitted to hospital as a result of the high temperatures, with issues including headache, confusion, and cardiovascular issues.
Beyond the direct risk heat poses to life, it also puts countries on red alert for major disruptions like power cuts and wildfire, both of which have occurred in no small measure across Europe this summer. Since late July, the Greek islands of Rhodes and Corfu have been struggling against more than 80 wildfires, leading to mass evacuations, along with hospitalisations for respiratory issues as a result of the poor air quality.
Agriculture is also under threat – and, with it, countless livelihoods and remote communities who depend on the seasons to ensure steady food availability throughout the year. As prolonged periods of extreme heat lead to loss of clean water reserves and volatile weather patterns mean periods of extreme dryness give way to heavy rainfall and, as a result, flash flooding, maintaining the same level of production is, in some cases, impossible.
Is Climate Change Really to Blame?
According to the experts, yes, climate change is the root cause of the widespread heatwaves 2023 has brought. So much of the planet is currently ‘in the red’, and this is a direct result of the continued build-up of carbon and other greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere.
To some extent, these hotter periods can be attributed to the current El Niño episode, which is a term used to categorise periods of naturally higher temperatures (in contrast to cooler El Niña periods). These events have been recorded since long before the industrial revolution, meaning they are not themselves a result of the carbon crisis.
But research suggests that global warming will – and, in some cases, already is – amplifying the effects of El Niño and El Niña events.
And, as mentioned above, Argentina’s recent heatwave in 2022 was found to have been made 60 times more likely thanks to climate change. Similar results have been published for other extreme weather events, continuously pushing the risk of longer periods of near-inhospitable conditions higher and higher.
To a certain extent, it’s possible for many people to brush off heatwaves as part and parcel of the season – a spell of good luck after many months of rain and cooler temperatures. After all, what is a July holiday in the Mediterranean without plenty of heat and sunshine? We’ve all seen and experienced heatwaves in the past and, over the years, they tend to be more-or-less balanced against the gloomier, more disappointing summers of overcast days and cooler temperatures.
The New Abnormal
Global warming’s impact is insidious. For many years now, it has manifested in small, easily ignorable ways – a slightly higher temperature here, a freak natural disaster there. As the planet’s climate is reshaped by the relentless build-up of greenhouse gases, it’s not the case that everything will change beyond recognition in a single moment. Climate change is slower (although it’s gaining momentum now), and it’s also far more insidious.
Many of the world’s ecosystems are delicate, even if they don’t seem so. They depend on weather patterns falling, for the most part, within a relatively small range. Temperatures rarely exceed or dip below the ‘ideal’, whether that ideal is 200 days of heavy rainfall and humidity each year (as it is in the Amazon), or temperatures that rarely exceed, say, 30°C.
Even a small shift from the norm can disrupt flora and fauna, agriculture, the water cycle, social structures and livelihoods. Consider the threat posed to the planet if the global average temperature climbs even 1.5°C higher than pre-industrial levels. What may seem like a relatively small shift – something many of us wouldn’t even register – is enough to tip the scales.
Climate change has historically managed to insert itself into normality in ways that, to the average person, go undetected. It doesn’t take a climate change denier to miss some of the subtler ways the rising global temperature takes hold.
But this isn’t the ‘new normal’. By now, enough abnormalities have taken place that even the average person with no understanding of the complex mechanisms behind global warming – or even what it really means for us – can recognise how far we have come from normality. ‘Doomscrolling’ is on the rise, and the headlines are dominated by fears for the coming years rather than celebration of a good summer for holidaymakers.
This is certainly not the beginning of the end. So long as we can contain climate change within the realm of abnormality rather than normality, we can avoid the spiral down. It may well be the case that a summer this severe was necessary for the world at large to recognise the sheer scope of the risk looming over us, and that, in the long run, 2023 goes down as the year everything started to change.