How is this UK heat wave linked to climate change?

people drowning in the basement

people drowning in the basement

The Met Office says we could see the hottest temperature on British history within hours, an extraordinary milestone.

So why are we seeing such brutal temperatures? Most climatologists say the answer is climate change.

The Met Office estimates that the extreme heat we’ll see over the next two days has become ten times more likely because of it.

They warn us that it could be life-threatening even to normally healthy people, and just look at the impact it’s having on our hospitals, schools and transportation systems.

Now remember, this is when average global temperatures have risen just over 1C above levels seen before many parts of the world industrialized.

One degree doesn’t sound like much, does it? But we are living in the hottest period in 125,000 years, according to the UN’s climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

We know what’s behind it – greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, which trap heat in our atmosphere. They helped push the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the highest levels seen in 2 million years, according to the IPCC.

person sheltered under umbrella

person sheltered under umbrella

So where is our climate going?

The goal set by the UN is to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels. He says the most dangerous effects of climate change should be avoided.

To do this, emissions must have peaked by 2025 – yes, in just two and a half years.

CO2 emissions from energy rose by 6% in 2021 to 36.3 billion tonnes – the highest level ever, the International Energy Agency estimates.

They need to be effectively halved by 2030 – we need a minimum 43% reduction by the end of this decade, according to the IPCC.

Then the world must reduce emissions to net zero by 2050. That means reducing greenhouse gases as much as possible and finding ways to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to replace what’s left.

It’s a huge challenge – many people believe the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.

Remember that big UN conference in Glasgow last year? If all the promises made by the governments there were actually implemented, then we would be looking at a temperature increase of 2.4 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

But the truth is that even if we manage to reduce emissions to that truly ambitious target of 1.5C, UK summers will continue to get hotter.

“In a few decades this could actually be a very cool summer,” says Professor Friederike Otto, a climatologist at Imperial College London.

We should expect more and more heatwaves in the future, says Professor Nigel Arnell, a climate scientist at the University of Reading.

We’ll see more heat alerts, more heat days — days when it’s too hot to work — and harmful extreme temperatures to rise, he warns.

Street scene with people wearing sun protection

Street scene with people wearing sun protection

So what is the UK doing about it?

Nowhere near enough, is the stark conclusion of the Commission on Climate Change (CCC), the government’s climate change advisers.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that the world is “one minute to midnight” on climate change in his speech at the opening of the Glasgow climate conference.

But in a report on the UK’s progress towards net zero, the CCC warned that its government’s current policies are highly unlikely to do the job.

He said the government had set many targets and put many policies in place, but warned there was “little evidence” that those targets would be met.

And the country is not doing enough to prepare for the more frequent and intense heatwaves that climate change will bring.

Heatwaves caused an extra 2,000 deaths in 2020, according to the UK’s Health Safety Agency.

That figure is likely to triple in the coming decades without government action, according to Baroness Brown, vice-chair of the Commission on Climate Change.

“We have been telling the government for over 10 years that we are not well prepared in the UK at all for the very hot weather we are seeing now,” he says – particularly the extreme heat many people are experiencing in their homes.

It’s a “disgrace” that people are dying of heat – or for that matter cold – in the UK, says Professor Hannah Cloke of the University of Reading.

Most of the UK’s buildings and infrastructure were not designed to cope with the kind of temperatures we are seeing this week and much more needs to be done to adapt, he says.

“We’ve made great strides in predicting extreme weather and climate in recent years. Now we need the systems for people and governments to act on the warnings we can provide, whether three hours, three days or three decades in advance.”

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