This year, heatwaves have broken their earlier record in many continents. Last week, an extreme heatwave created havoc in most of the Western parts of Europe. Several countries declared a state of emergency; intense heat caused deadly wildfires, melted roads, and runways, and triggered widespread power outages.
Nearly 800 heat-related deaths have taken place in Spain and Portugal. Several people drowned in the UK by jumping into water bodies to escape the summer heat. The heatwave continues to engulf more than half of China, and all but two of its provinces have issued high-temperature warnings.
This year, the heatwave started much earlier than usual, even before the Summer Solstice. By mid-June, one-third of the US was under some form of heat advisory. South Asia began to heat up in March and April unusually. The unprecedented heatwaves have become a common feature in different parts of the world in recent years.
It is no more a rare event. There is enough evidence to conclude that heatwaves are becoming longer, deadlier, and more frequent due to global climate change. Europe is suffering mainly due to Arctic warming.
If climate change is not controlled, heatwaves will soon become ordinary summer days. The IPCC has already warned that even with 1.5 degrees C of global warming, the planet is bound to experience more heatwaves, longer summer, and shorter winter days. If global warming reaches 2 degrees C, the extreme heat condition will have far-reaching effects on food security and human health.
The WHO counts that more than 166,000 died worldwide from heatwaves between 1998 and 2017. Extreme heat has already become one of the biggest weather-related killers in the US. Many people, particularly the elderly and homeless face medical emergencies due to extreme heat.
High humidity and increased night-time temperature make the impact of heatwaves on human health much worse. Hot and humid conditions deteriorate air quality and complicate heart-related diseases and respiratory illnesses.
High temperature also makes the drought situation worse for a country. Droughts have a severe impact on agriculture. Besides reduced agricultural output, droughts lead to a higher number of plant diseases and, in some cases, total crop failure.
That can ultimately lead to famine. Extreme temperature threatens crops as well as cattle. This year’s heatwave in India has reportedly led to the decline of crop yields to nearly 10-35% in parts of the country.
Farm workers and farm animals are succumbing to extreme heat in larger numbers worldwide. In June this year, at least 2,000 cows died in Kansas due to a spike in temperature.
Besides exacerbating drought conditions, extreme heat can result in drying out the ground and plants, and with it, the greater chances of causing forest fires. Once the fire starts, warm and dry weather makes it easier for the fire to spread and difficult to contain.
In the last two decades, 15 forest fires in the US have resulted in at least $1 billion loss each. Not only trees and wildlife, but the high cost due to massive forest fires also includes homes, infrastructure, and the cost of firefighting.
Heatwaves are also causing massive infrastructure damage, particularly in northern Europe, where roads, railways, buildings, and factories are not built to withstand soaring temperatures. In a country like the UK, at least 20 per cent of its infrastructure is highly vulnerable to overheating.
Power generation and supply systems and water distribution networks in this part of the world are facing severe strain under extreme heat. In several countries, critical infrastructures have started failing during heatwave conditions.
Soaring temperature no doubt affects the health and well-being of people. Moreover, its cascading effects on food production, energy generation, and infrastructural capacity lead to enormous economic loss. In European Environment Agency’s estimation, the continent’s countries have incurred a loss of about $71 billion between 1980 and 2000 due to hot weather.
As climate change has made the heatwave conditions more severe, the World Economic Forum calculates that by 2030, the heatwaves will result in the loss of 80 million full-time jobs worldwide, and the countries will bear a total cost of $2.4 trillion.
As global warming continues, intense heatwaves have become more common. There is no doubt that extreme heat events impact people and the economy across the globe. Still, developing countries are more vulnerable due to widespread poverty and lack of resources and technologies.
They are far from adapting to this new situation emerging out of climate change. A recent study claims that climate change has made the occurrence of heatwaves 30 times more likely in a vulnerable region like South Asia. In these countries, poor people suffer more in extreme heat conditions as they have no option but to work outside to survive.
Heatwaves are becoming more frequent and intense in a warming climate. It will be suicidal for countries to not seriously commit themselves to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C.
Even if they become successful in achieving that target, there is also the need for the rich and industrialised countries to support the developing world with resources and technologies that individuals, communities, and governments can use to manage the already developing extreme heat conditions.