Jul 20, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Europe heat wave's scorched lessons

Illustration of a hand lighting a fuse on a bomb shaped like earth

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The heat wave in Europe should best be viewed as another deadly and startling warning regarding how far we've pushed the planet's climate into less hospitable territory, and how unprepared we are for what's coming.

Catch up fast: In the past week, temperature records dating back centuries have been obliterated, particularly on Tuesday in the U.K. The heat is shifting east, into a swath of Europe extending from Germany to Sweden.

Why it matters: The heat wave upended life in several major industrialized nations and killed more than 1,000 people, a toll likely to increase. Many of the wildfires it breathed life into are still burning out of control.

By the numbers: A staggering 34 weather observing stations in the U.K. provisionally broke the country's all-time high temperature record on Tuesday.

Between the lines: Nobody was fully prepared. For all the talk of climate adaptation, the U.K., and London specifically, did not fare too well.

Threat level: Scientists warn this isn't an aberration. It is clear to scientists that events that used to be unthinkable, such as the heat wave in the Pacific Northwest last year, are swiftly trending toward becoming commonplace.

  • Unless society sharply alters course, studies show, 40°C days in a country largely devoid of air conditioning will become events that occur every few years, warns the U.K. Met Office.
  • "I wasn't expecting to see this in my career but the UK has just exceeded 40°C," said Met Office chief of science and technology Stephen Belcher in a Twitter video.
  • "Research conducted here at the Met Office has demonstrated that it's virtually impossible for the UK to experience 40°C in an undisrupted climate," Belcher said. "But climate change driven by greenhouse gases has made these extreme temperatures possible."

Yes, but: International conflicts are causing an energy crisis that is suddenly improving the fortunes, and possibly extending the lifetime, of natural gas power plants and infrastructure in Europe and elsewhere.

  • At the same time, political stalemates in Washington have made it unlikely for the Biden administration to advance its agenda to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
  • In the face of these realities, the heat wave is a reminder that Mother Nature doesn't care about a West Virginia senator's concerns over inflation, or a boost in U.S. liquified natural gas exports to Europe.
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