/ 15 August 2021

Will we weather the extreme weather?

India Weather Monsoon
Too hot to handle: Boys play on a submerged structure at Daraganj Ghat, one of the flooded banks of the Ganges River in Allahabad, India. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP)

While our country smouldered after an unprecedented looting and killing spree, the rest of the world was focused on another kind of burning: the global blaze that puts our planet on a collision course with extinction.

Here at home, you’d have thought we were on a cli-fi post-apocalyptic Mad Max set, with stampedes and crazed “fight to the death” scenes in retail outlets. Then the burning from lobbed Molotov cocktails that left incinerated shells of buildings and cars. And smoke. Plumes of acrid, lethal white smoke. Large toxic billowing clouds as far as the eye could see, a harbinger of the sadness and sorrow that would follow.

While we were having what was euphemistically called “unrest” during one of our coldest winters, in a crippling pandemic third wave, the Northern Hemisphere was feeling the full effect of what is to come: the wrath and vengeance of our aggrieved planet played out in extreme natural phenomena.

We’ve brought this on ourselves; caused our own potential downfall as we systematically continue to destroy our home planet, Earth. We know this because everywhere there is evidence. Also, it has been drummed into our skulls by relentless teenage climate change activist, Greta Thunberg. (Remember her? She’s the kid former United States president and climate change denialist Donald Trump told to “chill”.)

So there should be no surprise that heat waves are getting hotter. Our forests are on fire. Obliterating floods are being unleashed with the fury of Poseidon cursing Odysseus.

Talking about fiery hot, temperatures in Lytton in Canadian British Columbia, a town considerably closer to the (once) frozen North Pole than the equator, rose to 47.9°C in July. These are Sahara conditions, more likely to be found in the arid city of Las Vegas, where the thermometer clocked in at 47.2°C.

Scientists wrung their hands as they used words like “unprecedented” and “statistically freaky” that the records were being surpassed — and some by two or three degrees Celsius above previous records — in this current heat wave.

Dozens of people died of heat exhaustion, roads buckled as tar bubbled up, power cables melted, train tracks became tacky and dangerous.

Humans are not made to survive in such conditions as people in five usually super hot Middle Eastern countries discovered when the mercury topped 50°C.

On June 22, the Kuwaiti city of Nuwaiseeb recorded the highest temperature in the world so far this year at 53.2°C. Neighbouring Iraq recorded 51.6°C and Omidiyeh in Iran 51°C.

The United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia came in at 50°C.

In Europe, torrential rain fell on Germany and Belgium. At the same time, a deluge in central China and flash flooding in the United Kingdom left subway and underground users wading waist-deep in water as they fought their way to the surface.

A heat wave in one of the world’s coldest regions, Siberia, has sparked forest wildfires and left the region covered in thick chemical-filled toxic clouds that will make this one of the world’s worst ever air-pollution events.

Is this the beginning of the end? Scientists warn that more and more of the world will soon be too hot for humans.

A prescient 2014 cli-fi, Interstellar, depicts a dystopian future where the Earth has become uninhabitable. Images of vast tracts of dead brown fields turned into dust bowls are a chilling forecast for those parts of the globe that will be unfit for human habitation.

Writing in The Guardian, Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University of Leeds, explains that the occasional extreme heat wave — outside the usual range for a region — will cause problems that include damage to the economy and deaths among the young and old.

Here is what the professor calls “truly terrifying”: the emergence of unliveable heat in places in the Middle East and Asia.

We apparently have an inbuilt ability to survive temperatures of well over 50°C when humidity is low. But, when both temperatures and humidity are high, neither sweating nor soaking ourselves can cool us.

Imagine this scenario: large uninhabitable territories that will have to be evacuated; vast numbers of those residents turned climate refugees.

Already, the United Nations Refugee Agency counts 82-million displaced people in the world, forced to flee their homes. 

Could the world cope with adding many, many millions to that number? What would that do to the resources of the countries they would have to flee to? 

Yet again, the rich-poor divide would expose the shocking difference between the haves and have-nots. Those who could afford to buy their way into safety would live, and those who couldn’t would probably die. Of heat stroke and hunger. The inequality of mankind would, once more, raise its ugly head.

And all because we failed to take care of our home planet.

Billionaires Richard Branson and Amazon boss Jeff Bezos took quick rocket trips orbiting Earth, giving them enough time to look down on our blue planet and make comments.

Firefighters monitor a backfire they lit to stop the spread of the catastrophic Dixie fire in California, United States. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

With humans having ruined our own planet, Bezos has an idea on how to save it: “We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space. And keep Earth as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is.”

Just looking at July 2021, where we saw temperature records being smashed in North America, and devastating floods in Europe and China, climatologists say it is clear that climate change is affecting the planet.

The “future scenarios” from scientific forecasts and Hollywood climate disaster movies are being played out in real time.

Surely this is enough to push those in charge of the money and therefore the decisions — the heads of the world’s richest countries, yes, but us Africans too — to begin to legislate more speedy and more implementable changes?

Dramatic reductions in global emissions will limit the risk of unprecedented extremes further.

But the International Energy Agency estimates that global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will surge by 1.5-billion tonnes this year, the second largest increase in history.

This will reverse the pandemic causing decline of 2020 and be the biggest annual rise in emissions since 2010.

The key driver is coal demand, up by over 4% in the last year, with (someone tell Eskom) the electricity sector accounting for three-quarters of this increase.

South Africa wants to reduce its emissions cuts by almost a third in 2030, according to a draft climate plan published in April this year.

This will be done by shifting from heavy industry to service sectors, allowing for deeper carbon cuts.

But, coal remains a key component of the energy mix.

Here’s a curious thing: the five countries that top the list as climate change deniers —the majority of their citizens believe the climate is not changing — are, themselves, in greatest trouble.

Statista, a German market and consumer data company, lists Indonesia, the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and India as countries who scoff at the possibility that the climate is changing, or that humans are responsible for it.

Meanwhile, here at home, the weather service said that this winter, we broke records for the lowest temperature ever recorded.

Kroonstad in the Free State came in at -8°C, while the mercury on thermometers in Kimberley in the Northern Cape rested at -9.9°C.

Is it time for us to rethink how we live and move where we live underground?

The people of the Cappadocia region in modern-day Turkey decided in 1800 BC that the extreme weather and constant threat of war made the environment hostile. So they dug an underground city, Derinkuyu, that had schools, houses, shops, churches and temples.

Helsinki in Finland finished building their 214 square kilometre underground city in 2019 and say it provides shelter from the long cold winter. And, of course, it’s a wonderful hidey-hole if the world goes puff or there’s a nuclear war or … the possibilities of needing to escape from the aboveground world are endless.

In the meantime, to paraphrase sultry voiced jazz singing legend Ella Fitzgerald:

“The world’s having a heat wave,

A tropical heat wave,

The temperature’s rising,

It isn’t surprising …”