Is This the Climate Turning Point?

In the wake of an 'impossible' heat wave, climate scientists are scrambling to understand what lies ahead.

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A third heatwave is pummelling California and parts of the Pacific Northwest. Just two weeks ago, the same region saw temperatures that climate scientists say should have had a zero per cent chance of being realised.

We’re living through an era of impossible weather. This week, reflections on what it means.

On Saturday, the temperature at Death Valley in California reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit, or 54 degrees Celsius. There’s controversy around the record, but it’s probably the highest temperature ever reliably recorded anywhere on Earth.

The next highest was 129.9 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded in the same place in August last year.

We all know the long run context here. Average global temperatures have risen by 1.2C since widespread industrialisation began in the late 19th-century. But there’s a chance that we’ll come to look back on 2021 as a breakpoint moment in this long story.

Across late June and early July, the northwestern United States and Canada saw a heatwave that shattered our previous best models of what to expect from a warming world. Portland hit 46.6C; hundreds died across the Pacific Northwest.

When scientists at World Weather Attribution analysed the event, existing models told them it was impossible. Even once they’d revised their model with data drawn from across the last few years – the last seven years are the hottest seven on record – they struggled to make sense of it. The model says in that even in today’s heated world, the Pacific Northwestern heatwave is a once in 1,000 years event.

Meanwhile, the density of freak weather events worldwide is rising, and the last few months are a window on that truth.

Just a week after the events outlined above, a new heatwave is now rising in southern California; see the record-beating global high in Death Valley on Sunday.

The Nordic countries are experiencing a heatwave of their own, which climate scientists believe is linked to what just happened in the US and Canada. Finland registered its hottest June since records began in 1844, and Kevo, in Lapland, hit 33.6C last Sunday. Yep, that’s beach weather at the home of Father Christmas. As for the southern hemisphere, New Zealand just recorded since it started keeping records in 1909.

So is this just a mad coincidence? An extreme outlier year, even when accounting for the fact that global heating is making these kinds of weather events more likely? Sadly, probably not.

Scientists at World Weather Attribution are now investigating the idea that a slowing of the jet stream may be amplifying heatwaves in ways we hadn’t anticipated. That would mean our models – even the newly-updated ones – are wrong. In other words, the Pacific Northwestern heatwave might have been a once in 1,000 years event a couple of years ago, but there’s a good chance that it’s not anymore. Heatwaves that were once impossible may become a regular occurrence.

‘This is by far the largest jump in the record I have ever seen,’ says World Weather Attribution founder Dr Friederike Otto of the US and Canada phenomenon. ‘We should definitely not expect heatwaves to behave as they have in the past.’

Widespread industrialisation, and the urbanisation that accompanied it, were a tear in the fabric of modernity. They led to the convulsions of 1914 to 1945. We should see a heated world and the human fallout it will produce as yet another such tear.

So, what convulsions lie ahead of us?

We still have some power to influence the answer to that question, though that power is waning fast.

Even if we limit warming to two degrees – which we won’t without a massive course correction – parts of our planet will become difficult or impossible to inhabit. The most widely shared estimate says climate change will force 200 million people to migrate into the Global North by 2050. The International Organization for Migration says the figure may reach 1.5 billion.

Last week I wrote about how some believe the defining division of our age is between those who want to accelerate technological advance, and those who want to slam on the brakes.

But fast forward 100 years, and the citizens of 2121 will be more interested in the way we polarised around a quite different question. That is, what are we we willing to do today to avert climate disaster tomorrow?

That, surely, is the question around which our politics must now divide. We need a far more honest and robust conversation about the pain associated with acting, and that associated with failing to act.

The extreme weather that continues to play out in 2021 is a stark reminder of the unavoidable trade off we face. Now, or later. If we’re to draw any good from it, we must finally confront that historic choice.

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Thanks for reading this week.

In November the UN’s COP 26 will bring world leaders together in search of an answer to the era-defining question: what today, for tomorrow?

New World Same Humans will be watching closely. And it will continue to examine the implications of a changing climate for our shared future.

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David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.