Is it hot enough yet for politicians to take real action?


Is it hot enough yet for politicians to take real action?

Pictured left: A man cools off by a fountain during a heat wave in Seville, Spain, on July 10th. Photograph by Cristina Quicler / AFP / Getty

The latest record temperatures are driving, again precisely as scientists have predicted, a cascading series of disasters around the world.

We’ve crushed so many temperature records recently—the hottest day ever measured by average global temperature, the hottest week, the hottest June, the highest ocean temperatures, the lowest sea-ice levels—that it would be easy to overlook a couple of additional data points from this past weekend. But they’re important, because they help illuminate not just the size of our predicament but the political weaknesses that make it so hard to confront.

Fort Good Hope, at 66.2 degrees north latitude, in Canada’s Northwest Territories (which is to say, just a few miles below the Arctic Circle), hit 99.3 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday afternoon, surpassing the old record by four degrees. The town of Norman Wells, a little to the south, topped a hundred. These are close to the high-temperature record anywhere that far north; it was hotter there over the weekend than it has ever been in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, which is twenty degrees latitude to the south. Canada was far from alone: Beijing experienced more than a week straight of temperatures higher than ninety-five degrees in a record heat wave affecting hundreds of millions of people (authorities opened air-raid shelters, some dating from the Japanese invasion in 1937, as cooling centers); temperatures were a hundred and twenty-two degrees in Kuwait and Iraq; on Thursday, Africa recorded its hottest nighttime ever, with the temperature at one site in Algeria failing to drop below 103.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

Those temperatures are driving, again precisely as scientists have predicted, a cascading series of disasters around the world. Remember one of the essential facts of our century: warm air holds more water vapor than cold. In dry areas that leads to drought, but once that water is in the air it’s going to come down. In the past few days, we’ve seen devastating flooding and mudslides in Japan (Al Jazeera reported that the rain had brought “southwestern Japan to a halt”), China (where more than a dozen people died in seasonal mountain floods, even amid a heat wave), northern India (where bridges and buildings were washing into rivers), Spain (cars were swept away down narrow streets), and the Hudson Valley, where roads disappeared and the historic buildings at West Point are feared to have sustained damage. My neighborhood in Vermont is under a high flood-risk warning as I write this; a little to the south of us they’ve been conducting high-water rescues of stranded campers, and downtown Montpelier, the state capital, had flooded catastrophically.

So the crisis is everywhere—that’s why it’s called global warming. But the case of Canada is interesting, because it’s a liberal democracy with a strong environmental sentiment—polling earlier this year found that seventy-five per cent of Canadians were anxious about climate change; twenty-one per cent of the population was having fewer or no children as a result. And the nation has an absolute front-row seat to the crisis: the Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth. As a result of an extraordinary spring heat wave, wildfires have already burned more of the country this year than in any full year on record—so far, the fire season has consumed fourteen hundred per cent more forest than usual. The costs of this kind of change are enormous: before the fire season started, an economic analysis from the Canadian Climate Institute suggested that climate change could cut the nation’s economic growth in half by 2025. By 2050, half a million jobs would be lost, “mostly from excessive heat that lowers labor productivity and causes premature death.” As with Chicago and New York, Canadian cities have had moments this summer when their air quality was the worst in the world; an Ironman triathlon was cancelled in Montreal, because people’s lungs are not, in fact, made of steel.

By Bill McKibben

Published on The New Yorker website