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The Burning Question: What This Summer’s Heatwave Says About Climate Change

Across the world, people are feeling the heat. As temperature records break across the northern hemisphere, many people are asking: is this our lives now?
by Juan Salazar | Aug 8 2018

While weather isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of climate, this summer’s heatwave has many people asking if this is a one-off anomaly or real-time evidence of global warming.

All across the northern hemisphere, the summer sun has been smashing records, often with tragic consequences. Nawabshah in Pakistan registered a whopping 50˚C (122˚F) in April of this year. Ouargla, a city in the Algerian Sahara, saw record temperatures of 51.3˚C (124.34˚F) which is likely not only the highest temperature ever recorded in the region, but in the whole of Africa. Wildfires in Sweden, Portugal, Greece, Italy, the U.S., and even inside the Arctic Circle are claiming lives and destroying homes and landscapes.

The current spike in temperatures has been largely caused by drastic changes in the speed of the jet stream. The jet stream is normally a fast-flowing, high-altitude river of air that winds its way above the northern hemisphere. This summer it has all but stalled, trapping large areas of high pressure which dries out air and prevents cloud-formation and as a result, rain.

According to an article published on the BBC on July 27, scientists have compared current temperatures with historical data from seven different locations across the last 100 years and concluded that “climate change resulting from human activities made the current Europe-wide heatwave more than twice as likely to occur.”

While our planet’s climate has always been in constant fluctuation, this process used to be so gradual, and so subtle, that one century tended to look a lot like the next. Not anymore! Yet, many people still believe that global warming is a theory that is yet to be proven.

In The Burning Question, Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark explain that, contrary to this belief, every single reputable scientific institution in the world agrees that our planet is getting warmer, and that greenhouse gases emitted by human activity are almost certainly the main cause. For over two centuries, we’ve known that additional greenhouse gases in the air, such as carbon dioxide and methane, will warm the planet, and we have still been releasing those gases into the atmosphere, where they’ve been continuously accumulating.

According to Henry Pollack, author of A World Without Ice, this should come as no surprise when we consider just how drastically humans have altered the land they live in. In his book, Pollack explains the role ice plays in Earth’s climate as well as how human activities became the main driver of climate change. Forests have been wiped out to be able to sustain our need for agricultural land and housing is built with the resulting timber. Logging and burning forests releases the CO2 that is contained within those living trees into the atmosphere.

Even though this contributes to the infamously noxious effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation is still common practice in many parts of the world. The massive growth of the human population to about 7 billion people is an even bigger issue, because it intensifies this very need for cleared forest lands.

Human industrial activity is, by far, the biggest driver of climate change today. Since the eighteenth century, the extraction and burning of coal, petroleum and natural gases has had a massive impact on global climate. CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased by 22% in the last 50 years, thanks to the burning of fossil fuels. And yet, we continue to rely on these activities to sustain human productivity, because of corporations that thrive when production is kept low-cost, regardless of its consequences.

You might wonder just how bad life on Earth can get if we continue our polluting, global-warming ways. Let’s start with glacial ice, then. There are some good reasons to take a closer look at ice and its place in the world, starting with the fact that, without it, we might run out of water for drinking, for flushing away sewage, and for agriculture.

For agricultural activities, meltwater arrives right on time for the spring planting and summer growing seasons. In the winter, rainfall freezes to create a source of water in the warmer seasons. But in a warmer world, mountaintops will have less and less snow, which means less meltwater when it’s needed most. This could lead to water shortages, which are already a real threat for many nations, as well as a potential cause for international conflict and war.

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything sums this problem up in a wonderfully succinct way — it’s capitalism vs. the climate. Government intervention is necessary to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. And to make our representatives act, we need a broad social movement that sparks action beyond just fighting climate change, and changes the ways in which we define and seek prosperity.

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