The UK has had its hottest day on record. As global extreme weather events rise, what can be done?

Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated across Europe in recent days, with in parts of France, Spain, Portugal and Greece.
Temperatures in the United Kingdom reached over 40C for the first time on Tuesday. The Met Office said a new high of 40.3C had been recorded at Coningsby in eastern England.
At least 34 locations in the UK beat the previous record of 38.7C set in Cambridge, eastern England, in 2019.

Grassland fires erupted on the edge of London, with one forcing the evacuation of 14 people as farm buildings, houses and garages were consumed by the flames.

Experts blamed climate change for the soaring temperatures — and warned that worse is yet to come.
Heatwaves “are becoming more frequent and this negative trend will continue… at least until the 2060s, independent of our success in climate mitigation efforts,” UN World Meteorological Organization chief Petteri Taalas told reporters in Geneva.
“In the future these kinds of heatwaves are going to be normal, and we will see even stronger extremes.”
Across the Atlantic, the southern parts of the United States have been experiencing consistently high temperatures, while flash flooding has hit the southwest and northwest of China.
It all comes just weeks after torrential rain forced for the fourth time in 18 months.

So what’s causing of all this extreme weather, and what can be done to limit its frequency and severity?

What’s causing these extreme weather events?

Severe weather events aren’t uncommon in the northern hemisphere’s summer months, according to Dr Andrew King, senior lecturer in climate sciences at the University of Melbourne.
“People in the UK point to the 1976 hot summer, (when) temperatures did peak around 36 degrees,” he said.
“In more recent summers in the UK, there have been temperatures occasionally reaching 37 or 38 degrees.”

But the “frequency, intensity, and duration” of these heatwaves, like Western Europe is experiencing right now, “wouldn’t really be possible without human-caused climate change”, Dr King said.

“The temperatures associated with these heat waves are rising to the point now that we’re talking about 40, maybe even 41 or 42 degrees Celsius in the UK, which a few decades ago would have seemed really, really astounding,” he said.
“In a few decades’ time, it won’t be uncommon.”
As for whether climate change is responsible for the frequency and severity of extreme rainfall and floods, particularly those to hit the eastern states of Australia in recent months, Dr King said the evidence isn’t clear-cut.
“In Australia, our rainfall is really variable, and we tend to see wetter conditions when we have like we have the last couple of southern hemisphere summers,” he said.

“There isn’t a huge trend in the multi-day extreme rainfall that causes flooding in eastern Australia, but we are seeing more intense downpours and thunderstorms, which could exacerbate some floods.”

Dr Michael Barnes, research fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes at Monash University, was similarly conservative in his assessment.
“We must be careful in attributing things to climate change, especially singular events,” he told SBS News.
“When we are talking about climate change, we’re talking about how things are expected to change on average going forward in the future.

“But at the same time, we do need to be realistic about what’s going to happen in the future.”

Can we expect extreme weather events to happen more often?

Dr Barnes said while it’s difficult to attribute climate change to specific weather events, “we, in general, are expected to get more extreme events, whether that’s flooding in some areas, or drought in other areas or heatwave.”

That prediction could be even worse if the target set out in the Paris climate agreement to limit warming to well below two degrees above pre-industrial levels isn’t met, Dr King said.

“Even under the Paris Agreement, there’s a possibility of having 50-degree days in Melbourne and Sydney, for example,” he said.

“So if we fail to meet Paris agreement, we could get a reasonably high frequency of very extreme heat days exceeding 50 degrees, more often having days over 40 degrees in our biggest cities in Australia.”

What can be done to reduce the frequency and severity of extreme weather events?

Dr King said the “main thing” that needs to be done to limit the impact of climate change is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“People can take steps to reduce their own carbon footprints, but it really does rely on big businesses and governments to act as well,” he said.
“Governments really need to implement policy to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we’re going to have any chance of meeting the Paris agreement and limiting the future rise in extreme heat events like the ones we’re seeing at the moment.”

The federal government has a 2030 emission reduction target of 43 per cent from a 2005 baseline.

We must be careful in attributing things to climate change, especially singular events

Dr Michael Barnes

It’s also committed to legislating a target of net zero emissions by 2050.

But Dr King said Australia and other nations need to look at having more ambitious targets.
“Globally, as long as we have net positive greenhouse gas emissions, we’re going to be warming the planet,” he said.
“We need to actually reach net zero to stop that global warming, and to prevent further really dangerous climate change impacts, so

“Everything we can do to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible and keep global warming to us lower levels possible is really important.”

Adapting to a warming planet

Even if global emissions are reduced “very quickly”, Dr King said extreme heat events will continue for the coming decades, bringing with them “hundreds, if not thousands of excessive deaths”.
“The global temperature isn’t going to stop rising for a while until we reach net zero emissions,” he said.

“And after that, it would probably take a while to drop back again, so we need to adapt to be better able to cope.”

Dr King said there are a lot of “small ways take taken together can really improve” humanity’s ability to cope with extreme heat events.
“Greening our cities definitely helps,” he said.
“We know that where you have a lack of trees and shade, the roads, the pavements, the houses get a lot hotter, so things we can do to reduce temperatures locally can help a lot.”
“(Also) making sure that people know what to do in heat waves, so that we get fewer hospitalisations, and making sure that the health system has the capacity to cope with spikes in admissions.”

Dr King said it’s also vital to ensure public transport and other services are adapted so they can continue to run during intense heat waves.

Given more extreme rainfall events are also expected in the coming decades, where and how new infrastructure is built will be “important” in preventing such disastrous outcomes.
“Obviously, if you’re not building in a floodplain, you’re not going to have as much damage as if you are building in a floodplain, ” he said.
“So we need to make decisions based on common sense, but also the science that’s coming out as coming out.”

—With AFP

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