Red-hot planet as world’s records are smashed

Boiling point: By 2100, tropical countries could face deadly temperatures all year round.

How much does this heatwave have to do with climate change? It is 33C in Scotland and 41C in Denver. As the globe bakes in hot weather, some are asking if climate change could be to blame.

Roads are melting, railways are buckling and wildfires are tearing through the British countryside. In the US, 80 million people have received warnings about potentially deadly temperatures. Quriyat, a fishing village in Oman, just recorded the hottest ever 24-hour period on Earth, with temperatures way above 40C in the dead of night.

Across the globe, records are being broken and the weather isn’t likely to cool down soon. The UK’s heatwave is forecast to last at least another fortnight, while temperatures in the US’s eastern states will keep climbing well into next week. And extremes like these are growing increasingly common.

Last summer, the Lucifer heatwave roasted southern Europe, triggering wildfires in Portugal that killed dozens of people. Just over three months ago, by contrast, the Beast from the East blanketed the continent in snow. As the weather gets weirder, people are wondering if climate change could be a factor.

Many scientists think so, warning that freak weather events could become the “new normal” unless we take action. Their predictions paint a bleak picture. New York City currently averages two days a year when temperatures are deemed to be dangerous to human life, but that figure is expected to rise to 50 days per year by 2100. By the end of the century, Jakarta in Indonesia could see deadly temperatures every day of the year.

Hot weather means less rain. Already in the UK, dairy farmers are warning that they are struggling to survive as the grass dries up. Rainfall in Ethiopia, where droughts are already common, is forecast to decrease by 10% in the next 50 years. Some commentators predict there could even be water wars between countries as supplies run dry.

However, other experts say climate change has only a negligible impact on base temperatures, pointing out that global droughts have not changed in the past 60 years.

How much does this heatwave have to do with climate change?

Not cool.

A lot, say some. Climate change may not directly cause extreme weather events, but we know it can make them more common and more severe. Scientific advances in extreme event attribution mean we are increasingly able to pinpoint the precise effects our actions are having on the environment. We need to face up to the reality of climate change and take action before it’s too late.

We just don’t know, say others. The weather is unpredictable and extreme occurrences are nothing new. While climate change may be having a small effect on base temperatures, the data is far too shaky to conclude that it’s influencing the present hot spell. Moreover, when we can’t reliably predict the weather next week, why should we listen to projections for in 50 years’ time?

You Decide

  1. Would you like this heatwave to last forever?
  2. Should we pay more attention to climate change?

Activities

  1. Write down three changes you could make to your everyday life that would be better for the environment.
  2. Research scientists’ predictions for how climate change could impact the world in the next century. Imagine you are writing a letter from the year 2100 to the present day — using your research, write one page about what Earth is like in the future.

Some People Say...

“I think [that] climate change is just a very, very expensive form of tax.”

President Donald Trump

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Places around the world have seen record-breaking temperatures over the last few weeks. Denver, Colorado, set an all-time high of 41C last Thursday, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland saw their hottest weather on record. Meanwhile, footballers playing at stadiums in southern Russia for the World Cup have been struggling with temperatures in the low 40s.
What do we not know?
We can’t be sure of the role climate change is playing in the current heatwave. While the science of extreme event attribution is advancing, several studies have found that simulators tend to overestimate the risk attributable to climate change. There are many complex factors that contribute to the weather. We might never have a reliable answer.

Word Watch

Deadly temperatures
There have been at least eight heat-related deaths in the US and Canada in the last week.
Lucifer heatwave
The nickname for an extreme heatwave in Europe during the summer of 2017. “Lucifer” is traditionally a name for the devil.
Beast from the East
The UK and much of Europe were blasted with bitterly cold winds in March and April when the northern polar jet stream twisted its direction unexpectedly, drawing in arctic air from Siberia in northern Russia.
Water wars
In his book Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall predicts that access to water will be a major source of conflict between countries, particularly in north-east Africa.
Have not changed
A major study published in Nature journal in 2012 found there has been no meaningful change to global droughts in the past 60 years.
Extreme event attribution
An area of science that aims to directly link extreme weather to climate change.

Subjects

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