Governments and institutions are struggling to keep up with climate change, even as millions of people across the globe suffer record-setting heat waves and wildfires and global average temperatures reach their highest levels in 120,000 years.
“Heat waves put our health and lives at risk,” Ghebreyesus added. “The climate crisis is not a warning, it’s happening. I urge world leaders to act now.”
Three Continents Break Heat Records
In North America, more than 900 wildfires are raging in Canada, as multiple regions break maximum temperature records. The fires have disrupted roadways and left some remote communities like the Cree Nation of Chisasibi cut off from essential services as the year’s high temperatures accelerate wildfire season.
“The recipe for a wildfire is simple,” explains veteran wildfire specialist Mike Flannigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia. “You need three ingredients: First, vegetation. We call it fuel. Second: ignition, which in Canada is people and lightning. And, third: hot, dry, windy weather.”
This year, those ingredients came together in several places across the country, he told the New York Times. It has led to a fire season that stands “head and shoulders above any other year.”
Fires are also burning south of the border in California, amid a blistering heat wave. And nearly one-third of Americans—about 113 million people—are under heat advisories as a heat dome settled over the West and South continues to drive temperatures up. Phoenix, Arizona marked its 19th day in a row with high temperatures of at least 110°F/43.3°C. In Mexico, where heat-dome temperatures caused over 100 deaths in late June, outdoor workers are still struggling as temperatures spike to 50°C.
“There is no cloud cover, there is a lot of solar radiation coming in, there is no precipitation,” said Claudia Tebaldi, a climate scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, explaining how the heat dome feeds itself.
“You also trigger this feedback—you dry the soil, and there is no way for things to cool down by evaporation.”
In Asia, China recorded its highest temperature ever when a remote township in western Xinjiang region reached 52.2°C. Meanwhile, weather experts in Japan project that the country’s highest temperature ever—41.1°C, recorded in 2018 in the city of Kumagaya—could also be beaten.
Countries in south Europe braced themselves for the Cerberus heat wave last week. Named after the three-headed dog of the underworld, Cerberus was driven by a high-pressure weather system known as an anticyclone. Italians were warned to prepare for “the most intense heat wave of the summer and also one of the most intense of all time,” reported Al Jazeera. The country is now expecting another heat wave, dubbed Charon after the mythological ferryman to the underworld, while fires burn across southern Europe.
In early July, the United Nations confirmed the return of the El Niño weather pattern, reported the Guardian. “The last major El Niño was in 2016, which remains the hottest year on record.”
“Chances are that the month of July will be the warmest ever,” said Dr. Karsten Haustein, a research fellow in atmospheric radiation at Leipzig University. It will also be the hottest month ever on record, with ‘ever’ meaning since the Eemian interglacial period, which dates back some 120,000 years.
Authorities Struggle to Adapt
Despite repeated warnings, governments and institutions have been slow to respond to the dire impacts of extreme heat. Europe, which is warming more swiftly than the global average, seems “particularly unprepared,” reports the Times. “Part of the problem is that much of the burden has fallen on municipalities, which have limited resources and limited avenues for heat mitigation in sometimes ancient urban spaces that are prized and protected from dramatic alterations.”
Florence Mayor Dario Nardella said making changes in the Italian city’s historical centre is hard. “The national law to protect the cultural heritage is an obstacle,” Nardella said. “But so is our cultural identity and our history. Our cities have been like this for centuries.”
Meanwhile, a leaked climate plan for the United Kingdom has been deemed “very weak” by experts who say it fails to protect people from extreme heat and other climate impacts. This is despite the fact that a 2022 heat wave caused wildfires, drought, infrastructure damage, and 3,000 deaths across the country, reports The Guardian.
And as cooling devices drive demand for electricity, power grids in Canada, Mexico, and the United States are being pushed past capacity, with governments slow to deploy upgrades. Increasingly frequent blackouts loom as a result, said Rupp Carriveau, director of the University of Windsor’s Environmental Energy Institute.
UPS Workers Threaten Strike
Workers facing long hours of extreme heat are growing frustrated with inadequate protection and a lack of heat adaptation strategies. The union representing UPS delivery drivers in the U.S. is threatening to go on strike in August, with demands that include air-conditioned vehicles and ice for coolers. The strike would involve 340,000 workers, making it the largest single-employer strike in the country’s history, writes Grist.
In the financial world, asset managers have yet to grapple with the implications of extreme heat and other climate impacts for their investment portfolios. Research by S&P Global shows that more than 90% of the world’s largest companies will have at least one asset financially exposed to climate risks like water stress, wildfires, or floods by the 2050s. But a study by Impax Asset Management Group reveals that very few have seriously considered or planned for the liabilities from climate-related damages, Bloomberg reports.
Climate research has repeatedly shown there will be an increase in extreme weather events, but the number and severity of events this summer—including extreme heat, flooding, and wildfires—has surprised scientists, who predict more disruptions to come. While it isn’t always possible to link specific weather events to climate change, despite rapid improvements in attribution science, many scientists agree that emission-driven global warming is behind the intensification of heat waves, Al Jazeera writes.