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When the heat becomes deadly

  • Published at 04:33 pm August 25th, 2018
Too hot for comfort BIGSTOCK

The problem is compounded for densely populated countries like ours

The last few months have seen deadly fires scorching swathes of the Northern Hemisphere from California to Arctic Sweden and down to Greece on the sunny Mediterranean. Drought and sweltering heat in Europe has turned verdant land barren, while people in Japan and Korea are dying from record-breaking heat. 

Since the beginning of May, 119 people have died in Japan from that country’s ongoing heat wave. There have also been floods which have destroyed many villages. Officials in South Korea have stated that 29 persons have been have also died in that country from the after-effects of hot weather. 

Ninety-one people in Greece have died in wildfires. It started in forests and then swept down into villages on the sea coast -- well-known all over Europe as desired tourist destinations. Latest reports indicate that the ongoing fires in California have taken at least eight lives. Temperature reached 48C in Death Valley of California. 

Spain and Portugal are also experiencing an exceptionally hot week where an extreme heat wave has killed some persons and pushed temperatures toward record levels. In fact, on August 4, temperatures hit record highs of 46C -- something that normally happens in the middle of deserts in Saudi Arabia. In these European countries, authorities have closed playgrounds and called on people to avoid picnics and outdoor activities that holidaymakers normally associate with summer in Europe.

Scientists have pointed out that the major greenhouse gases -- carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide -- all rose to record levels last year. The global average carbon dioxide concentration was the highest ever recorded. The symptoms of climate change have been dramatic. This summer has made it clear that climate change is here and is affecting the entire globe.

A report released on August 1 by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has given the Earth in 2017 a grim report card. The NOAA report has indicated that last year was probably the second hottest year on record. A new record for global sea levels was also set. Unprecedented coral bleaching occurred, and both the Arctic and the Antarctic saw record-low levels of sea ice, as warmer air and seas continued the trend of thinning out the polar ice.

Some are pointing fingers in this regard towards the increase in spending on oil and gas during 2017. According to the International Energy Agency, this has also pushed up the share of fossil fuels in energy supply investment for the first time since 2014. Investment in renewable energy has however dropped 7%, while demand for coal has risen; largely to keep Asia’s furnaces burning as the region rapidly develops.

Angela Dewan of CNN in this context has recalled the decision last year of US President Donald Trump who announced his plan to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement. This was a terrible blow to global action on climate change. The negative significance of this decision needs to be viewed in the context of the US being the world’s second-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. The disassociation of the US has significantly weakened the scope and potential impact factor of the Climate Agreement.

However, more Americans are starting to accept the fact that climate change is taking place. Analysts have mentioned that this understanding that climate change is happening has a lot to do with what people are seeing and experiencing around themselves.

Critics on more than one occasion have pointed out that the 2015 Paris Agreement suffered from some major flaws -- it is not legally binding and it is unenforceable. Nevertheless, there are certain positive aspects pertaining to the Paris Climate Agreement that needs to be noted. It engaged more than just developed nations. In addition, those who have ratified it had to make pledges to combat climate change as their countries saw fit. They are also obliged to report on their mitigation and adaptation measures transparently. 

This creates accountability within the international paradigm. Another success of Paris was the recognition that the world should try to contain warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, or two degrees as a worst-case scenario. The agreement, however, did not include the legally binding goals to reduce carbon emissions that were sought by Europe but largely opposed by the US.

These inherent factors are now leading climatologists and environmental groups, after this summer’s heatwave, to call on the rest of the world to make stronger commitments. Claire Norman, speaking for Friends of the Earth in the UK, has gone on to suggest that “all other nations have to ditch incremental action for transformational change.” It is being hoped that the UK will be more pro-active after their hot summer of 2018.

Some other environmental groups from South Asia have also observed that even if some countries are able to aggressively cut back on fossil fuel emissions, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, rising temperatures and humidity levels will combine to increase the intensity and frequency of deadly heat waves.

An international team of researchers, led by Mora and the University of Hawaii at Manoa has completed analyzing hundreds of historic heat waves to quantify what weather conditions posed the greatest risk of death in humans. Using data from 783 lethal heat waves in 164 cities and across 36 countries, researchers have discovered a common threshold where the heat wave becomes deadly. 

This threshold is driven not only by the air temperature, but also relative humidity. It has also been ascertained that higher-latitude locations will warm more than the tropics under global warming. Consequently, this study indicates that a greater threat to life will be in the more humid, tropical locales. Dr Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s Atmospheric Sciences Program, has added another interesting fact. He has noted that we also often overlook the impact that cities have on the intensity of heat waves, through the “urban heat island effect.” Those who live in Dhaka in the midst of little greenery and open space will vouch for that.

We need to remember that one of the biggest concerns for Bangladesh is climate variability and its consequential effects. We are attaching serious attention to this unfolding disaster. We have sought technical and financial assistance from the developed world to facilitate our efforts directed towards mitigation and adaptation measures. 

The problem is further compounded because of ours being a densely populated country. Like many other island states, we have tough tasks ahead. However, if we all work together, we might succeed in containing the deadly effects of global warming in our part of the world.

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]