A Blue Mountain tourist stretch during the winter fog six months after the 2019-20 bushfires in Australia. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne. - Photo: 2023

Global Heatwave Tells North and South that Climate Change Is Here

Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne

SINGAPORE. 5 September 2023 (IDN) — When heatwaves hit Southeast Asia, India and China in July, breaking temperature records across Asia, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the “global boiling” era has arrived. And it didn’t take long for wildfires fuelled by high temperatures to spread across North America, Hawaii and Europe.

Singaporean climatic scientist Winston Chow, who co-chairs the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) working group on climate impacts and adaptation measures, told Eco-Business that while policymakers at the forthcoming COP28 climate talks in December will lock horns over how to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the current state of global warming –1.1°C – is already a “matter of life and death” for millions of people living on the frontline of climate change.

Significantly, this climate change frontline has shifted to the North as well.

Chow notes that though climate adaptation or how the world should adjust to climate change has not enjoyed the same level of attention as its “sexier” sibling mitigation, there will be enormous rewards to be gained from “protecting things of value” that are under threat from climate change right now.

Those who have faced the brunt of the wildfires across the world (and those watching it on television) should not be in any doubt as to what Chow is referring to. It’s not only houses and farms; in the Mediterranean, for example, at the peak of the European summer holiday season, tourist operators lost tourists who had to flee from the impact of fires.

In 2019, Australia faced its worst-ever bushfire disaster across three states, burning 12.6 million hectares and billions of dollars worth of destroyed properties and rural villages. WWF-Australia estimates that 61,000 koalas and about 143 million other native mammals were killed by the fires. Almost 3 billion animals, 181 million birds and 51 million frogs are also estimated to have perished due to the flames. The kolas have now been declared an endangered species in Australia.

“Adaptation is essentially protecting things of value from the adverse consequences of climate change. It’s the twin sibling of mitigation, which tackles the root causes of climate change,” explains Chow, associate professor of urban climate at Singapore Management University.

Chow says that UN chief Guterres has made a good point and that has to be in the minds of negotiators at COP28 in Dubai in December. He points out that at 1.1°C, it’s become a matter of life and death, especially for people in the developing world whose livelihoods are affected. Crops are failing chronically. Traditional fishing grounds are no longer plentiful because the oceans are too warm or too acidic. “Imagine what is in store at 1.5°C?” he asks.

Rich countries also affected

Developing countries and rich countries—some of whom have been accused by poorer countries of causing climate change—are now facing what some may call ‘karmic’ retribution.

On 21 August 2023, 30,000 households in Canada’s British Columbia province, where some 400 wildfires were raging, were told to evacuate their homes quickly. Fires have already charred houses in parts of the province, in West Kelowna, a city of 36,000 people.

Canadian climate experts have said that climate change has increased the risk. Hot, dry weather that fuels wildfires and long spells of hot weather are drawing more and more moisture out of the ground that helps wildfires spread at an incredible pace.

Wildfires that tore through western Maui in Hawaii in early August is now considered the deadliest for more than a century in the United States, which has killed over 100 people. Hawaii governor Josh Green has described the fires as the “largest natural disaster we’ve ever experienced,” he said it would take an “incredible amount of time to recover”.

Australia is still recovering from the devastation of the 2019-20 bushfires to their natural habitat. The Australian Government is investing AUD 200 million (USD 130 million) to help native wildlife and their habitats recover from the devastating impacts of the fires. This investment is designed to secure the future of treasured native animals, such as the Koala, Kangaroo Island dunnart and the Northern Corroboree frog, as well as unique plants, such as the Wollemi Pine, Monga Waratah and Gippsland Bottlebrush.

This northern summer, as temperatures soared to the 40°C mark in many European countries, forest fires soared in France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Greece.

Fires broke out in south-eastern France, with 350 hectares burned in Gard and 35 hectares near Marseille. While in Portugal, over 400 firefighters were deployed to put out forest fires about 40 km north of Lisbon. After a fire broke out in Berlin near a police munition storage depot, sending plumes of smoke into the air due to explosions, Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey visited the scene, calling the events “unprecedented in the post-war history of Berlin”.

Thousands were evacuated from Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands as wildfire authorities deemed the fire “out of control”. Tenerife is a popular tourist destination for Europeans during the summer. Though the tourist beaches were not on the line of fire, it has dented the image of the tourist industry, with hundreds cancelling holidays.

On 2 September, the Greek government sent 100 extra firefighters to the country’s northeast fires, which have raged since 19 August. Speaking in parliament in Athens, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis defended his government’s response to the fire saying climate change and a protracted heatwave assisted by powerful winds were largely to blame for the raging fires. But opposition lawmakers have argued that the government has left the country “unprepared and defenceless against this danger”.

Europe also debating impacts of climate change

With the wildfires assisted by heatwaves creating debates about the impacts of climate change in Europe reminiscent of those that have taken place in developing countries for over a decade, it is hoped that the North and the South would be able to find common ground to hammer out a workable approach to tackle these environmental dangers at COP28.

Chow argues that we need good storytellers “who know the basics of science” to connect with people from different cultures and communities.

“In the last assessment cycle of the IPCC, we highlighted the concept of climate-resilient development, where climate adaptation is combined with climate mitigation and biodiversity conservation because we know ecology is critical (to fight climate change),” says Chow. “Telling a good story to the right people gets everybody on the same page and is essential for climate-resilient development.”

However he notes that people are motivated to act for different reasons. “Finance people might be motivated by profit or by reducing financial losses or capital expenditure as much as possible. I’m motivated by wanting my kids and their friends to have a liveable world to live in in the future,” he adds.

“To tell the climate story, you need to find the thread that links these things together and conveys it in a genuine way that makes people understand what is at stake and motivates them to act,” declares Chow. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image: A Blue Mountain tourist stretch during the winter fog, six months after Australia’s 2019–20 bushfires. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne:

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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