What counts as a normal summer’s day in 2019?
Temperatures across Europe are likely to reach 40 degrees Celsius this week. In some parts of Spain it will feel more like 47 degrees Celsius, due to high humidity. That’s really hot. So hot, in fact, that you would struggle to function in that kind of heat. If your body’s core temperature rises above its normal level of about 37 to 38 degrees Celsius to 39 to 40 degrees Celsius, it can slow down. You can feel nauseous and start sweating profusely. This is called heat exhaustion. If you don’t treat it by drinking water, having a cold shower or getting into a cool area, your body’s temperature will continue to rise and, after a while, your vital organs will start shutting down.
In the summer of 2003, France was hit by a dramatic heatwave in which almost 15,000 people – mainly elderly – died. The country was unprepared and supermarket storerooms had to be converted into emergency morgues.
Traumatised by that summer, this week Parisian officials have decided to keep public swimming pools open late, install new drinking fountains and create special “cool rooms” in municipal buildings.
The French health minister Agnès Buzyn warned people on Monday not to carry on as normal. “I’m worried about people who are downplaying this, who are continuing to exercise as usual or stay out in the sun. This affects all of us; nobody is a superman when it comes to dealing with the extreme heat we’re going to see on Thursday and Friday.”
Heatwaves are the most tangible aspect of climate change. A group of scientists recently concluded that the unprecedented heatwave in the northern hemisphere last summer, which saw wildfires everywhere from Greece to the Arctic Circle, “could not have occurred without human-induced climate change”.
As Carbon Brief reported, the researchers found that heatwaves on the scale of 2018 had a one in six chance of occurring in today’s climate, where global temperatures have increased to almost 1 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial average, compared to virtually no chance in the period from 1955 to 1988, where average temperature was only 0.28 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
We might not be able to offer a succinct explanation of how greenhouse gases heat the earth, but, if we’re old enough, we know that it’s hotter now than it was when we were kids. We know that it’s not normal for temperatures in India to hover above 40 degrees Celsius for more than a month, or for a bit of Greater Manchester to go on fire. We know that none of this is normal. What’s more difficult to work out is what we’re supposed to do with that.
As the climate continues to change, heatwaves will increase in frequency and severity. Those scientists that linked last summer’s high temperatures to climate change found that if we are able to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, 2018-style heatwaves could occur about every two to three years. But if we go up to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, they calculated a 97 percent probability of them happening every year. Every damn year.
How would we react to that?
As extreme weather events have become more frequent in recent years, human beings have displayed a remarkable ability to make do and mend. Frances Moore, an environmental scientist at the University of California studied the responses of American Twitter users to various extreme weather events in the country over the last eight years, from the polar vortex in the Midwest to wildfires in California. Moores’ team spotted something quite alarming.
As extreme weather events repeated, people were less like to Tweet about them. They got used to a more hostile environment. “What’s worrying about this is that the constant rate of adjustment,” Moore told Yale Climate Connections. “This rate of normalisation of two to eight years, that’s pretty quick compared to the rate at which climate change happens.”
Normalisation is how people cope with tremendous change. We might be really worried about climate change, but we carry on with our lives. Putting it to the back of our minds and trying to focus on the positive aspects of the end of human civilisation. Its 20 degrees in February? Let’s have a barbecue!
It’s only by engaging with the issue in a meaningful way that we can hope to address it. This week, I’ve taken heart from Jay Inslee’s comprehensive plan to phase out fossil fuels in the US. The Washington governor is running for president and has virtually no chance of winning, but as David Roberts at Vox has pointed out, his programme to end fossil fuel subsidies and reject new oil, gas and coal infrastructure can act as a to-do list for the next Democratic president.
It’s a start, basically. A sign of a new world where don’t just have to make do with our increasingly unliveable planet. That we might stop dangerously hot summer days becoming normal.
Joe Sandler Clarke is a reporter for Unearthed.