Science·Analysis

European heat wave isn't a surprise — it's a warning of what inaction could mean for our future

Europe is living in a disaster movie. Unprecedented temperatures have killed more than 1,000 people, roads in France are under threat of melting, runways have been forced to shut down. But this shouldn't come as a surprise, since climatologists have been sounding the alarm for years.

From extreme heat to fires to droughts, Europe faces unprecedented events

Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire next to the village of Tabara, in northern Spain, on Monday. Emergency services battled several wildfires as Spain and much of Europe remained in the grip of an exceptional heatwave. (Miguel Riopa/AFP via Getty Images)

Europe is living in a disaster movie.

Unprecedented temperatures — 47 C in Portugal over the weekend; nearly 40 C in parts of Britain on Monday — have killed 1,000 people

Roads in France are under threat of literally melting. Rail lines are in danger of buckling. Runways at airports are forced to shut down.

Wildfires are spreading across several countries as thousands evacuate their homes.

"In some southwestern areas, it will be a heat apocalypse," meteorologist Francois Gourand told the news agency AFP about the heat wave in France.

At one time, this may have sounded like hyperbole, but the fact is every year countries around the world break long-standing temperature records — as was seen in B.C. last year — and then thousands die.

WATCH | Europe endures extreme heat and wildfires: 

Wildfires in Europe force thousands to flee homes

26 days ago
Duration 2:02
The relentless heat wave in across Europe is causing dozens of wildfires in multiple countries, scorching forests and farms. Meanwhile, those living in large cities struggle to cope with high temperatures.

All of this should come as a shock to no one. Climatologists have been sounding the alarm for decades, warning of the increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves and droughts.

When asked if this type of heat wave comes as a surprise to him, climatologist Michael Mann, said in an email, "Sadly, not. We have seen a recurring pattern of a very wavy jet stream this summer. That pattern is associated with the extreme events we're seeing right now in the U.S. and Europe."

When the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released in 1990, it addressed the potential increase in heat waves, stating, "Some scientists believe that in a warmer climate the earth can be expected to experience more variable weather than now, with a likelihood of more floods and drought, more intense hurricanes or typhoons, and more heat waves."

There have been four more assessment reports since then, with the language growing stronger and stronger about how the world needs to limit warming to 1.5 C above the pre-industrial average or it will face dire consequences. 

In its Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 C, the IPCC noted that "Limiting global warming to 1.5 C instead of 2 C could result in around 420 million fewer people being frequently exposed to extreme heat waves and about 65 million fewer people being exposed to exceptional heat waves, assuming constant vulnerability."

Underestimating heat waves of the future

But those reports aren't just talking about the future — at roughly 1.2 C of warming right now, we're already seeing the effects of climate change, particularly in the summer months.

The worst part, Mann said, is that climatologists may have underestimated the long-term predictions of heat waves.

"The mechanisms by which climate change is impacting this sort of jet stream behaviour isn't well captured in current state-of-the-art climate models, which means that model simulations might not be capturing the full impact of climate change on these extreme heat events," he said. "It's a reminder that uncertainty isn't our friend. If anything, the models may be underestimating the catastrophic consequences of an 1.5 C or 2 C warming."

A traffic light in Nantes, France, is seen in front of a pharmacy thermometer showing a temperature of 45 C, as a heat wave hit the country July 13. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

Other climate scientists are similarly concerned. 

Looking at Britain, Spain and Portugal, where temperatures either soared near 40 C or above that, it's a stark reminder that without serious action we will face temperatures we've never seen before. In recent years, the continent has had several heat waves and will face more with a warming planet.

But there is still time, scientists say, to avoid tens of thousands of deaths and to reduce the suffering of millions.

"There is no such thing as too late when it comes to climate change. Every tenth of a degree matters," Caroline Brouillette, the national policy manager for the Climate Action Network Canada told CBC News. 

"There's a difference between something being extremely hard and something being impossible. Limiting warming to 1.5 C is definitely a massive social and economic undertaking that we have to do. But that doesn't mean it's impossible."

At a climate meeting in Berlin, UN Secretary General António Guterres — who has always been blunt with his climate messaging — told representatives of 40 countries, "Excellencies, this has to be the decade of decisive climate action. That means trust, multilateralism and collaboration.

"We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands."

In December 2021, Netflix released the hit disaster movie, Don't Look Up, a satirical — but seemingly all-too-real — look at how leaders ignore the threat of an incoming comet. It was a thinly veiled look at our response to climate change. As the comet smashes into Earth, destroying it, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a gut-punch of a last line: "We really did have everything, didn't we? I mean, when you think about it."

We don't want a future generation saying the same.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at Nicole.Mortillaro@cbc.ca.

With files from Jaela Bernstien

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now