It takes a crisis to reach Europe or the US for the think tanks and forecast idealogues to sit up and start squirming. Drought and locust infestation has killed thousands around the Horn of Africa for years; the Brahmaputra inundates hundreds of Assam’s villages every monsoon. Even the Australian bushfires of last year, which killed hundreds of animals and destroyed homes, were relegated to the regional media.
But when it is Europe that is burning with searing heat and wildfires; and it is England that has touched an all-time record with temperatures soaring to 40.3° C, forcing trains to be suspended and airports paralyzed because runways are melting, then climate change has arrived! Global warming and climate change – esoteric topics for kinky conferences – has finally caught up with the people that matter.
From Athens to Germany, crinkle-dry vegetation has made much of Europe a tinderbox. The worst hit has been Portugal and Spain, where heat-related mishaps have claimed over 2,000 lives. Dozens of monster blazes in Spain have forced suspension of train services in Catalonia, Ateca and Zaragoza regions. The European Commission has said over 98,000 acres have burned across France, Spain and Portugal in the past 2 weeks.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) chief Peterri Taalas says this is climate change at work, and that in future “these kinds of heatwaves are going to be normal and we will see even stronger extremes”. A string of climate summits have repeatedly warned it is the greenhouse gas emissions from human activities that have heated the planet by about 1.2°Celsius since pre-industrial times. A warmer baseline means higher temperatures can be reached during extreme heat events.
Low-pressure zones tend to draw air toward them. In Europe, the low-pressure zone has been steadily drawing air from North Africa, pumping hot air northwards. A study linked the increase partly to the changes in the jet stream. Researchers have found many European heat waves occurred when the jet stream had temporarily split in two, leaving an area of weak winds and high pressure air between the two branches that is conducive to the buildup of extreme heat. On the ground, climate change has raised hot and dry conditions that help spark blazes, and aid the spread of fires. Hotter weather also saps moisture from vegetation, turning it into dry fuel that helps fires to spread.
As the temperature of the Earth rises, the frequency and the intensity of the heat waves are multiplying alarmingly. As per the Inter-government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that presented its pioneering findings in February this year, a heatwave that occurred once per decade in the pre-industrial era would happen 4.1 times a decade at 1.5°C of warming, and 5.6 times at 2°C. Climate conferences have pledged themselves to ensure warming doesn’t exceed 1.5°C; but that is unlikely, which means more heat extremes in the future.
The rich-poor divide
That said, WMO chief Peterri Taalas predicts “emissions are still growing and therefore it’s not sure that we would see the peak in the 2060s if we are not able to bend this emission growth development, especially in the big Asian countries which are the largest emitters.” There it comes. Asia, and Africa, are still the white man’s burden! Emissions are a problem not with Europe but with those polluting guys in Asia.
In this crisis, Europe and the rest of the developed world are learning it is not possible to nurture a small Garden of Eden in Switzerland or Spain, while the rest of the poor world can do what it wants with Mother Earth. Degradation of the environment and greenhouse effect does not recognize national boundaries. Global warming is melting glaciers in the Arctic, and ocean levels are rising threatening islands like Fiji. Gargantuan water movements are whipping up cyclonic storms that are slowly chipping away at rich, coastal farmlands.
What Europe is not learning is the answer to the crisis of Global Warming has to be holistic and not region specific. India and the rest of the developing world still relies on fossil fuels like coal because they don’t have the money to develop alternative forms of ‘clean’ energy. Developing countries have lower emissions, but are still bearing the brunt of a hotter climate through more severe heat waves, floods and droughts.
This is what Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley had flagged at the recent climate negotiations at Glasgow (Cop26) demanding the creation of ‘loss and damages’ fund. The money from the richer nations could help countries rebuild after storms, replacing damaged crops, or relocating communities at risk. In 2020, it is estimated the loss due to climate and other natural calamities exceeded $220 billion.
The rich world had pledged $100 billion a year in ‘climate finance’ to help the developing countries reduce emissions. However, very little has been delivered. Perhaps, the raging fires in Europe will jolt the rich enclaves out of their fortress mentality.