Historic heat waves, wildfires, floods and drought spanning vast regions of the globe have the international community on high alert this week, prompting fresh criticism from climate advocates who say nations are failing to wean their economies off planet-warming fossil fuels and properly prepare for the increasingly deadly consequences of global warming. The warnings come as world leaders meet in Germany to discuss how to resuscitate their Paris Agreement pledges, which are flatlining in the wake of a global pandemic, rising inflation and Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
A fierce heat wave stretching across most of western Europe in recent days has contributed to more than 700 deaths in Spain and Portugal, prolonging drought conditions and fueling intense wildfires from the Iberian Peninsula to the Balkan Islands, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes. And on Tuesday, the United Kingdom—where air conditioning is rare and infrastructure isn’t designed for extreme heat—saw its hottest day on record at 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking its previous record of 101.7 degrees set just the day before.
In one incident, terrified passengers caught on video expressed shock and disbelief as a wildfire raged on both sides of their train in southern Spain.
Both China and the United States are also dealing with their own scorching heat waves this week. For two weeks, persistent extreme heat has buckled roads and strained area hospitals across much of southern China, with soaring temperatures expected to last through August and exceed 107 degrees later this week. And some 40 million Americans are now under heat alerts from California to New York as potentially record-breaking temperatures threaten much of the nation. In fact, the heat has been so excessive in Texas that officials have twice asked residents and businesses to cut back on their power consumption, fearing the surge in air conditioning use would collapse the electrical grid.
In almost every aspect, extreme weather this summer has appeared to fulfill the dire predictions of scientists who for years have warned that humanity was quickly on track to runaway climate change. Extended droughts in Africa, including Somalia and Malawi, as well as in parts of Italy and Mexico, are depleting critical water supplies and raising concerns of future food insecurity and famine. Early-season and fast-spreading wildfires in nations around the world are continuing to break records. And, since this spring, biblical flooding in the U.S. and Australia has swept away roads, homes and has even altered the paths of rivers.
The situation has prompted world leaders and top climate advocates to issue dire warnings of rapidly deteriorating ecosystems while castigating countries for their failure to transition the world away from fossil fuels—the primary cause of human-induced global warming—despite global pledges to do so under the Paris Agreement.
At the conference this week in Germany, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told leaders from 40 countries that they now faced “collective action or collective suicide,” as nations continue to falter on their promises to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years and decades. Spurred in large part by the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many countries have balked on their climate pledges, blaming high inflation and a deepening global energy crisis.
“Half of humanity is in the danger zone from floods, droughts, extreme storms and wildfires. No nation is immune. Yet we continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction,” Guterres told the conference attendees via video on Monday. “Facing this global crisis, we are failing to work together as a multilateral community” and “nations continue to play the blame game instead of taking responsibility for our collective future.”
Guterres, who leads the United Nations, laid out a multipronged strategy at the summit for tackling the climate crisis, including eliminating coal use, rapidly building out renewable energy sources and doubling down on promises to help the world’s most vulnerable nations adapt to the impacts of global warming. Those strategies aren’t new, and are in fact the main premise of the Paris Agreement, but the wealthiest nations that are predominantly responsible for causing global warming have so far failed to follow through on those commitments.
“People in Africa, South Asia and Central and South America are 15 times more likely to die from extreme weather events,” Guterres said. “This great injustice cannot persist.”
Global levels of carbon dioxide are now at an all-time high, sitting around 420 parts per million, and are continuing to track upwards despite wide public support for the international effort to rein them in. Even in the United States, where a right-wing majority Supreme Court and a narrowly divided Congress have hobbled President Biden’s ambitious climate agenda, a vast majority of Americans support key climate policies such as adopting more renewable energy sources and planting trees to help absorb carbon dioxide.
Yet Biden’s climate ambitions are now on life support ahead of key elections this November that could further jeopardize not only the nation’s ability to address global warming, but the global effort as well. Because the United States alone produces 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and is historically the biggest contributor to the climate crisis, its failure to follow through on its commitments under the Paris Agreement—including slashing its emissions in half by 2030—puts the entire international endeavor at risk.
Last week, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the key Democratic swing vote in Congress and a critical obstacle to Biden’s climate efforts, killed negotiations for national legislation to slow global warming for at least the second time in a year, saying he wouldn’t support the climate measures included in a larger national spending package over fears of exacerbating inflation. While Biden said he would counter the defeat by taking stronger executive action, the move leaves the U.S. with very limited options to achieve the kind of sweeping emissions reductions needed to stay on track with the Paris Agreement.
The United States “will find it very hard to lead the world if we can’t even take the first steps here at home,” Nat Keohane, president of the environmental group Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told the New York Times in response to Manchin’s announcement. “The honeymoon is over.”
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That’s how many deaths can be attributed to a devastating 2003 heat wave that broiled much of Europe in temperatures as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit, according to one estimate. Researchers also say that climate change played a role in that summer’s deadly heat.