Summer heat waves test the resilience of a world facing climate change

Summer heat waves test the resilience of a world facing climate change

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If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, you’re probably aware that it’s been quite hot. Parts of the United States are bracing for a potential record heat wave this week, while wildfires are already spreading across areas of the American West. The season’s earliest heat wave on record in Greece saw the closure of the famed Acropolis in Athens and a number of tourists collapsing and, in some instances, dying while hiking in parts of the Mediterranean nation. More than a dozen Muslim pilgrims died of heatstroke on the road to Mecca, as the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia was ravaged by extreme temperatures.

This seems all par for the course. Before the onset of the summer, heat waves had already slammed disparate stretches of the planet, from Bangkok to Barranquilla. “By the end of May, more than 1.5 billion people — almost one-fifth of the planet’s population — endured at least one day where the heat index topped 103 degrees Fahrenheit, or 39.4 degrees Celsius, the threshold the National Weather Service considers life-threatening,” according to my colleagues.

May also marked the 12th consecutive month during which average global temperatures surpassed all observations since 1850. A report published by a group of 57 scientists this month suggested that human activities were responsible for 92 percent of the warming seen last year, which was the planet’s hottest year on record. Scientists also expect at least one of the years in the next half-decade to surpass the record annual average temperature observed around the world in 2023.


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“Researchers have linked the rise in temperatures to the El Niño climate pattern and decades of global heating from human emissions of greenhouse gases,” my colleague Scott Dance wrote. “A decade ago, scientists had estimated that the chances of the planet warming 1.5 degrees C” — the threshold greater than preindustrial levels beyond which spells climactic disaster for the planet, according to the scientific consensus — “by 2020 were nearly zero. Now, the probability of that happening by 2028 is an estimated 8 in 10.”

In other words, the climate disaster is in many ways already here. By the midway point of the century, some 5 billion people on the planet “will be exposed to a month of health-threatening extreme heat when outdoors in the sun,” my colleagues projected last year. That figure will already be at 4 billion people by 2030.

In April, a record-smashing heat wave in Asia sent temperatures soaring between 100 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in an arc from the Philippines to India. “Thousands of records are being brutalized all over Asia, which is by far the most extreme event in world climatic history,” weather historian Maximiliano Herrera wrote on X.

“When the air is humid, sweat doesn’t evaporate as quickly, so sweating doesn’t cool us the way it does in drier environments,” noted Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University. “In parts of the Middle East, Pakistan and India, summer heat waves can combine with humid air that blows in off the sea, and this combination can be truly deadly. Hundreds of millions of people live in those regions, most without access to indoor air conditioning.”

This putative effect of climate change also illustrates the growing global divide in how it’s experienced. “Long-term projections indicate that future warming will also lead to milder winters, sparing people in the wealthy Global North,” my colleague Harry Stevens wrote. “But in hotter, less wealthy countries — the places where people are least able to buy air conditioners, where poor laborers can least afford to miss work, where water is scarcer and the power grid shakier — summer heat will grow more dangerous.”

For good reason, public health experts fear for the resilience of communities living in the age of climate change. The latest World Risk Poll Resilience Index, produced by Lloyd’s Register Foundation using data gathered by Gallup, found a global increase among 147,000 people surveyed in 142 countries in “people who say they can do nothing to protect themselves and their families from the impact of a future disaster.” Climate change looms over these sentiments, fueling what the index’s authors suggest is “a global loss of agency and growing sense of helplessness.”

The index scores levels of individual and societal resilience — defined as “people’s ability to handle shocks they face in their lives and to bounce back to ‘normal’ or near normal afterwards” — across the world.

Nancy Hey, director of evidence and insight at Lloyd’s Register Foundation, an independent global charity, told me that the group’s research “clearly shows that some people are more vulnerable than others, with the poorest fifth of households disproportionately more likely to have lower resilience scores than those who are better-off.” She added that gender disparities also figure into the equation: “Women’s resilience scores are also equal to or lower than men’s in all 141 countries on the Index, highlighting the importance of empowering women as a key element of climate resilience interventions.”

But political developments in the West don’t suggest much focus on these issues. In Europe, green policies have elicited a right-wing nationalist backlash in both national elections, as well as the recent European Union parliamentary vote. In the United States, federal scientists at several environmentally focused agencies are desperately trying to figure out ways to protect their work and their government mandates in the event of the return to power of former president Donald Trump, who is an avowed foe of many of the regulations and protections they champion.

All the while, the climate alarm bells are ringing. “For the past year, every turn of the calendar has turned up the heat,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said this month. “Our planet is trying to tell us something. But we don’t seem to be listening.”

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