Extreme heat, wildfires and the cost of climate change

Wildfires in Greece (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Wildfires in Greece (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

From water shortages to wildfires, the past 12 months have raised global awareness about the economic and human cost of extreme heat events. There have been wildfires in places that are unprepared for such outbreaks due to unusually hot weather.

Drought and blistering heat have been turning forests into tinderboxes in places that were previously fire-free.

Sweden has experienced 65 fires already this year, up from an annual average of three fires over the past decade.
Blazes are now happening as far north as the Arctic Circle, according to Copernicus, the European Union‘s Earth observation programme.

At least 91 people died last month in the worst wildfire to hit Greece in decades. Fire raced through a seaside area northeast of Athens.

The entire community of Keswick, California, has been turned to ash - nothing remains. The fire was described as a “tornado of flames” and there was nothing firefighters could do to stop it.

The residents were able to flee just before the fire overtook them, but the future of the town is now in doubt.

“I don’t know they will have the resources to rebuild the town ... It’s a low-income type of area so I am not sure a lot of people will be able to rebuild,” says Leonard Moty, Shasta County supervisor.

So, how unusual are this year’s extreme weather events? What’s the cost of climate change? And how to move forward?

“At the moment these events feel slightly unusual ... but if we start looking forward and factor in climate change, then this will become the new normal,” explains Sam Fankhauser, director of the Grantham Research Institute on climate change and the environment at the London School of Economics.

“There are predictions that the kind of heat we have this year, we might experience every other year from about 2040 onwards. There’s quite a clear link between the probability of having a heatwave and climate change,” he points out.

“The climate or the weather fluctuates, but you add a stock of temperature on top of that fluctuation and we’re about one degree warmer now on global average than we were in pre-industrial times 100 years ago. That means we can statistically start to show that the probability of certain events increases because of climate change. What we’re currently seeing in Northern Europe, preliminary estimates tell us, is about two times as likely than it would have been if there wasn’t man-made global warming.”

Fankhauser says climate change isn’t limited to extreme heat events and we will have to adapt.

“Climate change affects a lot more variables that can be dangerous to us, we’ll see more drought events and that will be really, really disruptive ... We might have too much water in other instances ... flooding events, hurricanes ... There are very high damages associated with too much water as much as damage from not enough water,” he says.

“It will be very disruptive [to the economy], but we can adapt to certain things. We can change our agricultural practices ... we can air-condition our houses ... But it will be ultimately very disruptive and we’ll have to change our infrastructure ... It will be worth doing because we’ll have a very different climate, but it’ll be very, very expensive.” — Al Jazeera

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