Hundreds of people killed by Canada’s record-breaking heat wave have added to the list of victims of global warming, which claims tens and, by some estimates, hundreds of thousands of lives every year. The heat kills even more people indirectly: drought in poor agrarian countries prevents a good harvest, leading to food shortages, rising prices and generally intensifying the struggle for resources, which often turns into armed confrontation. Scientists warn that extreme weather events caused by climate change could turn much of the land into scorched desert or even make the planet uninhabitable in decades to come.
The heat, the heat.
The first summer month of 2021 set new temperature records, not only in heat-weary Canada, but also in Northern and Eastern Europe (including central Russia), as well as in northeastern Siberia and some Asian countries.
June was the hottest June on record in North America, according to Copernicus, a European program that tracks long-term climate change. In Europe, it ranked “honorably” second.
In Canada alone, extreme weather has caused at least several hundred deaths. More accurately, the number of victims can only be calculated retrospectively, since many heat-related deaths add to the sad statistics belatedly, when the total excess mortality is calculated.
For example, the fact that about 70,000 people in Europe died from the extreme heat in the summer of 2003 became known only five years later. The initial estimates were much more modest: about 30 thousand deaths.
One of the main reasons of unprecedented hot summer of 2021, according to unanimous opinion of experts, was a global warming, i.e. heating of atmosphere as a result of greenhouse effect.
“There is absolutely no doubt that climate change played a key role here,” Frederike Otto, a professor at Oxford University’s Institute of Environmental Change, said at a press conference.
Heat doesn’t kill as visibly as other natural disasters – like hurricanes or tsunamis – but is often just as effective, she said.
“People rarely drop dead in the middle of the street,” she notes. – They die quietly in their homes, from poor insulation and lack of air conditioning.
Tens of thousands of victims
There are a number of studies that directly link heat-related deaths to climate change and estimate the magnitude of the catastrophe. According to recent estimates, had it not been for global warming, there would have been more than half as many victims of extreme heat.
At the end of May, the journal Nature published an article devoted to the influence of high temperatures on the death rate from any causes in different regions of the world. The authors of the large-scale study – 70 climatologists and epidemiologists from 43 countries – concluded that human-caused global warming was responsible for 37 percent of all heat-related deaths. And in some countries, like Colombia and Ecuador, the proportion exceeds three-quarters.
When we consider that more than 160,000 people died from heat waves between 1998 and 2017, according to the WHO, we are talking about tens of thousands of people who could have survived if not for the increasing climate change.
Other studies cite even more impressive figures. For example, the Lancet report states that during roughly the same period of time, extreme heat took about 300,000 lives only in the older age group (over 65). If all temperature cataclysms caused by climate change are taken into account, then, according to some estimates, over 5 million people become their victims every year.
The map drawn up by scientists clearly shows that regions closer to the equator, such as Thailand, Brazil, or Peru, are particularly hard hit by the unbearable heat.
According to Tip Palmer, professor of atmospheric physics at Oxford University, this is not surprising at all. The dreaded June heat wave in Canada and eastern Europe pales in comparison to the hellish heat waves that are increasingly common as summer temperatures rise in tropical and subtropical countries.
“Not only the heat, but also the humidity reaches such levels that the human body is simply not able to sustain life under such conditions,” he warns. – We have to admit that in the developing world the hot periods will not even compare to what we have seen in Canada. Extreme weather will manifest itself there much more intensely and will claim many more lives.”
Research done at Oxford University, Professor Palmer continues, clearly demonstrates that in high atmospheric pressure conditions, even a relatively small natural increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can lead to a temperature increase of several degrees in just a couple of weeks. And in extremely hot weather, this could well prove critical.
Tired of the Sun
Heat not only kills directly, but also indirectly – and much more effectively, since humans are actively helping it to do so.
In poor agrarian countries, the slow but steady rise in average temperatures increasingly leads to drought, drought to crop failure, and crop failure to famine. Under such conditions, the struggle for resources intensifies, which sooner or later inevitably leads to conflicts.
Research conducted in 2018 provides compelling evidence of a causal link between climate change and the rise of conflicts, as well as mass migration from regions affected by natural disasters caused by rising temperatures. In particular, drought was at least one of the main causes of the Arab Spring, the mass protests that took place in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and other countries in 2010-2012. In many of these countries, popular uprisings resulted in the overthrow of the incumbent authorities.
In particular, the study looks in detail at the situation in Syria, where a prolonged drought and shortage of fresh water led to several consecutive years of very poor harvests in the country. The rural population, impoverished as a result, began to leave in increasing numbers to work in the cities, which were not prepared for such a massive influx of migrants.
Soon unemployment and housing shortages rose as expected. Against the backdrop of continuing inflation (largely caused by the drought and food shortages), dissatisfaction with the policies of the authorities, who were unable to resolve the crisis, began to grow in the country. As a result, mass demonstrations turned into a revolution, which, in turn, escalated into a full-scale civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
According to the latest data (as of December 2020), in less than 10 years of fighting in Syria, almost half a million people have died (almost a third of them civilians), more than 200,000 more are missing.
According to the same study, the mass exodus of refugees from conflict-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East is also at least partly due to long-term climate change.
Yet current models of climate change for the coming decades make bleak predictions.
According to one such study, if now the average annual temperature that most people of the world are accustomed to varies from 11 to 15° Celsius, in 50 years almost a third of the world’s population will live in regions where this figure will exceed 29° Celsius.
Today, less than 1% of the land is under such climatic conditions – mostly the hottest spots of the Sahara Desert. However, if scientists’ forecasts are correct, by 2070 this temperature regime will prevail in almost a fifth of the land.
Whether humanity will be able to survive in such conditions in principle is a big question, say the authors of the article “The Future of the human climate niche” – an international team of researchers working in Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, USA, China, Japan and Uruguay.
The fact is that our ancestors for thousands of years lived in a relatively narrow “temperature niche” where the average annual temperature does not exceed 15 degrees, the authors explain. Under such climatic conditions, the physiology of modern man has formed at least the last 6000 thousand years, and it is to them that our bodies are best adapted.
The steady rise in temperature threatens to destroy this temperature niche. And this, according to scientists, will inevitably lead to disaster.
“Global warming will have a significant impact on entire ecosystems,” the paper’s authors warn, “and will also seriously affect human health, life support systems, food security, water supplies, and economic growth in general.
Simply put, in such a climate mankind will not be able to feed itself and provide sufficient water. To say nothing of the fact that heat contributes to the widespread spread of infections, which will become much more difficult to treat.
In general, scientists summarize, if the planet continues to heat up at the same rate as now, in a few decades we risk finding ourselves in conditions that are simply uninhabitable.
“If We’re Lucky.”
Sir Brian Hoskins, professor at University College London and founder of the Institute of Climate Change and the Environment, is seriously concerned that in some regions reality may be far worse than any forecast.
“Climate models describe the future we will find ourselves in if we are lucky. And the estimates they make may be too conservative,” he warns.
Adopted five years ago, the Paris climate agreement tries to keep the increase in average annual global temperatures within 1.5-2° compared to the pre-industrial period. However, experts say that these figures should be interpreted very carefully.
The fact is that the aforementioned 1.5-2° is, as they say, the average hospital temperature. In reality, however, the heating of the planet is extremely uneven, and the land areas heat up much faster than the surface of the ocean.
In England, for example, the average temperature of the calendar summer (from June to August) for the last 100 years has already increased by 2-3°. And several cities in Canada and the northwestern United States recorded temperatures in June that exceeded last years’ records by 5° at once.
If the calculations of British scientists are correct and by 2070 the planet will warm up by “only” 3° on average, then on land our usual average annual temperatures will increase by about 7.5°.
For today a lot of lives are saved by air conditioners, providing inhabitants of hot countries with life-giving coolness. But in the long term we should not hope for this option.
Firstly, air conditioners rather strongly pollute the atmosphere – the same carbon dioxide, the greenhouse effect of which warms up the planet even more. And secondly, their work requires a lot of electricity, and in hot weather, power grids often fail and burn down – and as average temperatures rise, this will happen more and more often.
Meanwhile, the planet is getting hotter and hotter. According to recent studies, the snow and ice cover of the Earth is reduced by almost 90 thousand square kilometers annually, which is twice the area of the whole of Estonia and comparable to the territory of Azerbaijan.
Where the water is still frozen in winter, this is happening every year later – and the ice is melting earlier in the spring. Because of this, from 1979 to 2016, the world has already lost an average of about ten days of “winter:
Not surprisingly, one of the authors of the Climate Change Act 2008 in Britain, Baroness Worthington, does not rule out that the point of no return is about to be passed and it will not be possible to find a way out of the current climate crisis.
“If we used to say that scientists were worried about the situation, they’re not anymore,” she says. – Now they’re scared as hell in earnest.”