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Epic Global Heat Wave, Wildfires May Be Burning Climate Denial to the Ground

Carr FIre Tornado via Firefighting Australia/Facebook

A relentless wave of news reports, chronicling deadly heat and wildfires from California to Greece, from the Arctic to Japan, and from British Columbia to Quebec, may finally be undercutting some of the persistent, fossil-fueled climate denial that has slowed the response to a mounting global crisis.

A real-time attribution study released last month showed [1] that climate change made the current wave of heat at least twice as likely in different parts of northern Europe. And in the United Kingdom, “the blazing summer of 2018 has led to shift in tone from some right-wing skeptics who can no longer deny the obvious,” writes [2] Guardian opinion columnist Michael McCarthy. He makes the case based on a splash headline in The Sun—a Rupert Murdoch tabloid that is the country’s bestselling print publication—declaring that “THE WORLD’S ON FIRE”, with two supporting subheads: “PLANET GRIPPED BY KILLER HEATWAVE”, and “HUNDREDS DIE IN EUROPE AND JAPAN”.

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For McCarthy, the sign of a big change was The Sun’s willingness to quote Reading University climate scientist Len Shaffrey. “Global temperatures are increasing due to climate change,” Shaffrey told the paper. “The global rise in temperatures means the probability that an extreme heat wave will occur is also increasing.”

That simple statement was an indication that “the summer of 2018, which is throwing up extraordinary climactic extremes all over the northern hemisphere, from north Africa to the Arctic, is finally puncturing the bubble of so-called climate skepticism, at least in Britain,” McCarthy states. While it is “not always easy to recognize a historical tipping point when you see one,” he adds, “what we are witnessing now is a historic shift in the way that the threat of climate change is perceived by the world, from prediction to observation.”

In contrast to increasingly accurate and dire scientific projections dating back to 1990, “seeing things happening around you cannot be gainsaid like predictions can, and in this remarkable summer of 2018, events in the real world have been starting to catch up with the climate models’ forecasts of an overheating globe.”

Carbon Brief published a detailed review [4] of media coverage of the continuing heat wave, while The Guardian [5] and DeSmog UK [6] documented a banner moment—UK climate advocate Rupert Read refusing a BBC request for an on-air interview in which he would “debate” a climate denier on whether the crisis is real.

“I told [BBC Radio Cambridgeshire] that I will no longer be part of such charades,” Read explains. “I said that the BBC should be ashamed of its nonsensical idea of ‘balance’, when the scientific debate is as settled as the ‘debate’ about whether smoking causes cancer. By giving climate change deniers a full platform, producers make their position seem infinitely more reasonable than it is.”

He adds that “BBC Cambridgeshire is based in Cambridge, the science capital of the UK. I expected better from it, especially after the well-publicized ruling this year that the way that the BBC has been promoting climate change deniers on air is no longer acceptable [7].”

With 41,112 retweets and 58,681 likes for his tweet [8] on the matter, “it seems that quite a lot of people agree with me,” he adds. “If we get more momentum behind the idea of refusing to participate, it will force a change of coverage methods by the BBC,” because “the BBC cannot defend the practice of allowing a climate change denier to speak unopposed.”

But even if some news outlets are still scrambling to catch up, this summer’s reality has been inescapable across the northern hemisphere.

California’s Carr Fire had burned 1,555 homes as of August 2, covered an area four times the size of San Francisco, and produced a “fire tornado”, with winds above 143 miles per hour that collapsed a high voltage tower, uprooted trees, and stripped houses down to the sheeting. “The heat from the fire was so intense that it created a towering, rotating cloud six miles high—meteorologists call them pyrocumulus, but this one effectively was a giant tornado,” writes [9] meteorologist and Grist writer Eric Holthaus. “Fires need oxygen to burn, and the Carr Fire created its own weather to ensure a constant oxygen supply—to devastating effect.” Wildfire Today reports [10] that record-setting minimum temperatures in July helped keep California’s wildfires active at night, giving fire crews fewer options to fight the blazes.

“The pyrocumulus cloud is to this generation what the mushroom cloud was to the Boomers,” tweeted [11] Nearly Now author Alex Steffen.

“This is historic in the U.S.,” said [12] Craig Clements, director of San José State University’s Fire Weather Research Laboratory. “This might be the strongest fire-induced tornado-like circulation ever recorded.” (The Washington Post has a detailed explanation of how the tornado formed.)

Other recent reports have documented record heat [13] in southern Europe, with Lisbon hitting 43°C, an after-action report [14] on wildfires that killed 80 people in Greece, Sweden’s tallest glacier peak shrinking [15], nuclear plants in Europe powering down [16] due to the risk of overheating, a string of active wildfires [17] from the Arctic to the Baltic, 466 fires [18] burning across British Columbia, with the biggest now occurring [19] in the Similkameen region, air quality issues [20] in Nevada, California, and Oregon, and high school football coaches in the U.S. beginning to recognize [21] that a string of player deaths due to high heat could have been preventable.

For French heat wave expert Robert Vautard, the deluge of daily news points to a change in tense in the conversation about climate impacts.

“In many places, people are preparing for the past or present climate. But this summer is the future,” he told [22] InsideClimate News. “Near the Arctic, it’s absolutely exceptional and unprecedented. This is a warning.” In last month’s real-time attribution study, Vautard and colleagues found that “global warming caused by greenhouse gas pollution made the ongoing heat wave five times more likely in Denmark, and twice as likely in Ireland,” ICN notes.

“We know very well that global warming is making heat waves longer, hotter, and more frequent,” added Corinne Le Quéré, director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. “The evidence from having extreme events around the world is really compelling. It’s very indicative that the global warming background is causing or at least contributing to these events.”

Le Quéré said the impacts are showing up in infrastructure that was “not built to withstand the heat levels we are seeing now.” InsideClimate reports that “in these latest heat waves, railroad tracks [23] have bent in the rising temperatures, airport runways [24] have cracked, and power plants [25] from France to Finland have had to power down because their cooling sources became too warm.”

(Click here [22] for more detail in ICN’s report.)

In a release July 31, CARE International notes [26] that countries like Canada, Greece, Japan, Sweden, and the United States “are now experiencing the reality of climate change impacts that many poor countries have been experiencing for decades. This situation will become worse if countries, particularly those that have contributed the most to climate change, do not significantly ramp up their ambition and decrease greenhouse gas emissions to prevent more frequent and intense heat waves.”

“As climate change continues to escalate, the world is experiencing its consequences in the form of record temperatures, wildfires, heat-related deaths, and droughts,” said Sven Harmeling, CARE’s global policy lead on climate change and resilience.

“It is vital that humans decrease their impact on climate change by immediately shifting to renewable energies to prevent a rise in temperature above 1.5°C,” he added. “If we do not see countries make a significant reduction in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, the devastating impacts of climate change will further ravage the planet, particularly the most vulnerable, many of whom are women and girls.”

The last couple of weeks have seen a cluster of studies and comments that solidified the link between heat, wildfires, and climate change—beginning with a paper that foresees a sharp rise in heat-related deaths in some regions of the world unless greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control. “Deaths caused by heat waves could increase dramatically in tropical and subtropical regions, the study found, followed closely by Australia, Europe, and the United States,” Reuters reports. “Published in the journal PLOS Medicine, the study’s results suggest stricter mitigation policies should be applied to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because lower greenhouse gas emissions are linked with fewer deaths due to heat waves.”

While the frequency and severity of deadly heat waves will increase as the climate changes, said co-lead Antonio Gasparrini of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, “the good news is that if we mitigate greenhouse gas emissions…then the projected impact will be much reduced.” The study modelled 12 times more excess heat-related deaths in the Philippines between 2031 and 2080 than between 1971 and 2020, five times more in Australia and the United States, and four times more in Britain—but all based on relatively simple assumptions about countries’ climate adaptation policies. So the findings “should therefore be interpreted as potential impacts under hypothetical scenarios, and not as projections,” the researchers said.

But multiple news reports carried expert comment suggesting conditions will get worse as climate change progresses.

“What we’re seeing over the last few years in terms of the wildfire season in California…[is] very consistent with the historical trends in terms of increasing temperatures, increasing dryness, and increasing wildfire risk,” Stanford Earth System Science Professor Noah Diffenbaugh told [27] The Independent. “They’re also very consistent with what we can expect in the future as global warming continues.”

“These fires are burning more intensely,” agreed [28] University of Guelph biologist Merritt Turetsky, referring to the spate of wildfires raging across North America. “These are a direct consequence of climate change.”