Editorials

Feeling the heat of climate change

Japan has been punished by extreme heat in recent weeks. We are not alone, however: Record-breaking high temperatures are a global phenomenon this summer, and scorching heat waves are one manifestation of extreme weather that is itself widely believed to be the result of climate change. This is not a one-off experience: This is the new normal. Governments and societies must do more to stop climate change — reduce greenhouse gas emissions — as well as work to mitigate the impact of this grim reality.

The heat wave that has descended upon Japan has claimed dozens of lives. According to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, 65 people died from heat-related illnesses and 22,647 people were emergency-treated for heat stroke in one week in mid-July, the most in a decade. Temperatures hit 41.1 degrees in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, the hottest reading ever in Japan. As summer festivals across the country were canceled or rescheduled, 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games organizers pondered plans to ensure that the summer heat does not ruin the games.

Other regions are suffering too. South Asia experienced record-setting heat waves this spring. All-time high temperatures have been recorded across North America, Britain, Europe, Africa and Russia. In Quriyat, Oman, temperatures did not drop below 42.6 C for an entire 24-hour period, the highest “minimum” temperature ever recorded on Earth. On July 5, a weather station in the Algerian Sahara noted a temperature of 51.3 C, the highest ever reached in Africa. The next day, Los Angeles recorded its own high of 43.9 C.

There is no relief in higher latitudes. In northern Siberia, temperatures are more than 20 C higher than usual; 50 wildfires have been reported in Sweden’s Arctic Circle and more are burning elsewhere in Scandinavia. Experts estimate the number of wildfires in Europe this year is 43 percent higher than the average for the last decade and they identify increasingly dry conditions — another result of climate change — as a key factor. The European Environment Agency projects “an expansion of the fire-prone area and longer fire seasons” across the continent.

Heat-related deaths are on the rise across the planet. In some cases, they are the result of fires, as in California and Greece, where dozens of lives have been lost. In other cases, like Japan, they are not. Nearly 90 people died in Quebec as a result of “heat-related complications.” At least 10 people have died in South Korea. A report from British parliamentarians concluded that heat-related deaths in the United Kingdom could triple by 2050 as global temperatures rise.

The death toll in Japan is exacerbated by social decisions. The Cool Biz campaign has pushed thermostats higher to reduce energy use. Many public spaces do not have air conditioning. A recent government survey found that less half (42 percent) of public elementary and junior high schools had air conditioning, and most apartment buildings do not have centralized climate control systems. An underappreciated element of the heat wave is rising nighttime temperatures, which are rising faster than daytime temperatures. This intensifies strain on the elderly and the young.

Economic losses triggered by extreme weather are mounting. In addition to physical damage done by fire, there is mounting evidence that heat reduces productivity. Of course, laborers who work outdoors are affected but so too are those who work indoors in cities. A study by British researchers showed that high temperatures could cost London’s economy more than €2.3 billion in productivity as heat makes office workers work more slowly and make more mistakes.

Heat is not the only manifestation of extreme weather. Japan has experienced some of the worst damage from torrential rainfall in recent history, with more than 200 people dead or unaccounted for in the downpours that caused flooding and landslides in broad areas of western Japan in early July. Climate scientists attribute the flooding and heavy rains of recent years to climate change since warmer air holds more warm water, which results in more intense rainfall.

While weather is a local phenomenon, it reflects long-term climate trends. In other words, extreme weather is the evidence of climate change. Scientists warn that this summer’s heat wave will soon become ordinary. The question is what we can do to reduce the damage, both now and in the future. Governments must get serious about greenhouse gas reductions to slow the changes already underway. The 2015 Paris climate accord is a start, but it is only that.

Equally important are efforts to mitigate the harm, which in an aging society requires far more systemic and creative solutions. Japan has to rethink fundamental assumptions about energy use and urban planning. It is a daunting assignment, but one in which this country can excel and lead the world.