Jul 19, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Experts saw Europe's devastating heat wave coming

Photo of a firefighter in northwest Spain looking at a line of fire
A firefighter in northwest Spain. Photo: Miguel Riopa/AFP via Getty Images

The heat wave wreaking havoc on Western Europe signals the arrival of a new era: extreme heat events that would have been virtually impossible without human-caused global warming are now a deadly reality.

Why it matters: The fact that we've arrived at this point — with deadly extreme heat virtually shutting down major industrialized nations, but without changing course to curb greenhouse gas emissions — is depressing and baffling to the scientists who have been warning about this moment for years.

Driving the news: Temperatures are forecast to soar above 104°F in the U.K. today. Such temperatures can prove deadly even to healthy individuals.

  • The U.K. saw its third-hottest day on record earlier this week. According to climate scientist Simon Lee, 3 of the 4 hottest days in UK history have occurred during the last 4 years.
  • Parts of France are also experiencing record highs, with temperatures in the southwest climbing to 108.68°F on Monday.
  • At the same time, massive wildfires have been burning in southwest France and also in Spain and Portugal, displacing thousands.

Context: Climate scientists have long warned of the tie between increasing global average temperatures due to human burning of fossil fuels for energy and an increased risk of extreme heat events.

What they're saying: This heat wave has left some climate scientists shaken and dejected at how prescient their warnings were, yet how little the global agenda has changed, with greenhouse gases still building up in the atmosphere and no signs of an imminent, sharp course correction.

  • "As a human, my heart breaks that we have not mustered the political will to meet the climate crisis with the urgency that is required," said Andrea Dutton, a climate researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, via email.
  • "My scientific mind understands that this summer will be one of the coolest for the rest of our lifetimes unless we decide to treat the climate crisis like the emergency that it is. What seems horrific today will seem mild in comparison to what is to come - unless we take our opportunity to act now," Dutton said.
  • Michael Wehner, who specializes in studying heat extremes at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said the early research connecting heat wave severity to greenhouse gas emissions is now more than two decades old.
  • "To my great disappointment, we were right. In fact, if anything, those early projections of extreme temperatures were overly conservative," he told Axios via email.

Many in the climate science community may empathize with Texas A&M University's Andrew Dessler, who told Axios that he has "run out of words to respond" to media inquiries on the heat wave.

  • "It's too depressing."

The other side: The extreme heat in Europe, along with heat waves seen in Asia and North America this summer, need not foster hopelessness, says NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel.

  • "It’s hard for me to hold two truths simultaneously in my mind, but I have to," she told Axios via email from the UK.
  • "The first truth is that we live in a nightmare. This is exactly what climate models projected was going to happen: intensifying extreme weather, severe public health consequences, and incredibly frustrating Congressional inaction. There is no reasonable scenario where the warming stops at 1.2°C, so it’s definitely going to get worse," she said.  
  • "The second truth is that we live in a world where things have changed beyond my wildest dreams. Clean energy is dirt cheap compared to fossil fuels, electric cars will soon be widely available, and state and local governments are proposing (and passing!) policies to cut emissions," she said.  

The bottom line: "The future is going to be worse.  But, if we refuse to give up, it’s going to be better, too," Marvel said.

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