Will Europe's heatwave be climate change wake-up call?

Parasols dot a crowded beach of sunbathers in Nice as summer temperatures continue and authorities maintain a heat wave alert in France, August 1, 2018.
Parasols dot a crowded beach of sunbathers in Nice as summer temperatures continue and authorities maintain a heat wave alert in France, August 1, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Two Spanish men died on Friday from heat stroke as forecasters warn that Europe's scorching temperatures could break records this weekend. While there's increasing evidence linking climate change to extreme weather events, experts say the public must be educated on the necessary action to take.


“We don’t really need any individual temperature records or heatwaves to know that climate change exists," Richard Black, Director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a non-profit organisation in Britain, told RFI.

While the scorching heat has forced several European countries, including Italy and France, to issue red alerts, Black says more work must be done in making this evidence relevant to the general public.

Local application

"Often scientists talk in terms of a global trend, a global increasing temperature of whatever it might be. But people experience weather where they are," he says, referring to farmers in the UK who have been battered by drought-like conditions and whose wheat crops are expected to fall to a five-year low.

"If you’ve been farming in an area such as southern France or Spain, where you have warm summers, you’re already used to what needs to be done," he comments. "But, if you’re further north in the UK, you’re not used to seeing these hot summers."

He calls for a change in agricultural practices to adapt to the warm weather, adding that hospitals and care homes must also adapt.

"If we go back to the 2003 heat wave that hit France, thousands of people died prematurely because basically people weren’t ready for it," he comments.

French alerts

This time round, weather alerts have been issued in 67 of 95 of France's départements, with the health ministry rolling out a TV and radio campaign alerting people to take precautions.

"They have to be taken seriously," reckons Robert Vautard, a senior scientist at France's National Scientific Research Organisation (CNRS).

"Although this summer will probably not go through records in the coming days [unlike the 40°C that killed 5,000 people in 2003], it’s a very long-lasting episode," Vautard told RFI. "It should be taken seriously especially for old people who are quite vulnerable to repeated days and nights without fresh air."

Emergency services under pressure

The heatwave gripping large stretches of Europe has already been blamed for deadly forest fires and crop failures and it has claimed the lives of two men in Spain.

Emergency services in France say they're struggling to cope.

We are "under severe strain," Patrick Pelloux, who heads the French Association of Emergency services, told RFI.

"French hospitals in general are struggling to cope and have been for a number of years due to lack of resources. Therefore this new crisis caused by climate change, with this heat wave that has struck two thirds of the country, only means that there will be more patients seeking emergency treatment and more pressure on us," he said.

For the CNRS's Vautard, there's no doubt that climate change is to blame. He and a group of other experts found that climate change more than doubled the odds of having a heatwave.

"We know that climate change is due to additional greenhouse gases, due to human activity. This adds to the anti-cyclonic weather, which makes the heatwave even more extreme than in the past," he explains.

None of this is new. Scientists had already revealed everything that is happening now 30 years ago in a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Attribution science on the rise

What has changed, reckons Black, is people's curiosity.

"We’ve seen how thirsty people were for information about whether this current northern European heatwave was linked to climate change," he comments.

He predicts that forecasters will soon be able to provide instant assessments of global warming’s influence on extreme events in real time.

“If you have a heatwave or a drought and it is scientifically shown that climate change made that more likely or more intense, then you have direct attribution between the underlying science and that particular extreme weather event," he says.

More than 40 scientific papers finding a link between climate change and specific extreme weather events have been published in just two years.

"Where I think sometimes some journalists and environment groups go over the top is in saying that we’ve got all this heat across Europe and that proves climate change, I think that’s not the right way to look at things," Black says, warning that if temperature records aren't broken this weekend, that could provide further ammunition to climate nay-sayers to maintain that climate change is a hoax.

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