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Europe sees firsthand the link between war and climate change

Travelers from the Middle East who landed at London’s Heathrow Airport this week were left in shock. Escaping the summer heat to the milder climes of Europe has become a tradition for many families in the region. But at 1pm GMT on Tuesday, Heathrow’s weather station reported a record temperature of 40C, one degree hotter than the mercury in Abu Dhabi.

In countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, 40°C is the average at the end of July. In the UK this is almost double the norm for this time of year. Elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Spain and France, this heat wave caused forest fires on a scale not seen for 30 years. Portuguese authorities reported more than 1,000 heat-related deaths last week.

Perhaps the only people who weren’t taken by surprise – though none the less shocked – were the world’s climatologists. They’ve been warning for years that the global average temperature is only rising and that extreme heat episodes will soon become a feature – not a bug – of life on Earth.

What is done cannot be undone, at least not without great difficulty; scientists have now persuaded most governments and much of the general public that humans have damaged the planet’s atmosphere enough that a return to a pre-industrial climate is unlikely to be on the cards. But a course correction that preserves and, in fact, improves the current climate to a large extent remains possible. The devastation seen in Europe this week is expected to spark global awareness that is accelerating much-needed change to reduce carbon emissions. A number of countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and France, are already leading efforts to ensure a smart energy transition.

Perhaps the only people who weren’t taken by surprise – though no less upset – were the world’s climatologists.

Clean energy is now cheaper than ever. More importantly, thanks to huge investments in the sector and sophisticated production processes for solar panels and wind turbines, it is cheap even in non-relative terms. More attention is also being paid to hydrogen and nuclear energy.

A much more difficult task – although it shouldn’t be – is to invest in a more peaceful and stable world. Even before this week’s heat wave, Europeans were preparing for tough times ahead. Russia, which is under European sanctions, is the main supplier of much of the continent’s natural gas. This month, several EU countries, as well as the UK, warned their citizens that adequate winter energy supplies are far from assured in the absence of any diplomatic resolution to war in Ukraine. Thanks to unprecedented demand this month for air conditioning and cooling systems, the pressure will be even greater.

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Agriculture is also expected to suffer. “We expect to see major impacts on agriculture,” Petteri Taalas, head of the World Meteorological Organization, said on Tuesday. “In previous heat waves in Europe, we lost a lot of the harvest.”

The world is already in the midst of a food crisis – exacerbated, again, by the war in Ukraine and growing desertification. A bad harvest in Europe will have repercussions all over the world. All of this makes innovations in agro-technology more important than ever.

The fight against climate change is a global problem. It takes a long-term perspective, mental stamina, and patience for immediate sacrifices to bear fruit many years from now. In the meantime, however, it highlights the smaller picture – the damage caused by war, poor governance and persistent and widespread poverty. The world must find a way to become closer, and do it quickly, because the next heat wave is inevitable. We must hope that it will affect a more peaceful and cooperative planet, rather than today’s crisis.

Posted: July 21, 2022, 03:00 AM