Heat waves took a deadly toll this summer



This graphic, created by the EPA and used in this CNN story, makes it easy to visualize how average temperatures are increasing and extreme hot temperatures are more common.

Heat waves took a deadly toll this summer

By Philip Finkelstein

With the term “climate change” used more often than “global warming” these days, sometimes it’s easy to overlook one of the key changes we can expect: extreme heat. This summer, devastating heat waves swept across the Northern Hemisphere. From Japan to Canada, across Europe and the United States, extreme temperatures have taken hundreds of lives.

Extreme weather events, include heat waves, are becoming more frequent in response to rising levels of greenhouse gases increasing the earth’s average surface temperature. Periodic cooling and outlying atmospheric conditions may still occur, but in aggregate, the globe is warming at an alarming rate. This summer was no exception to the developing trend. With record heat waves on four continents and the hottest La Niña year ever documented, 2018 is incontrovertible proof of man’s pernicious impact on the planet.

While the earth is being scorched by rampant wildfires engulfing the Pacific Northwest, extreme heat been a killer too. Heat waves throughout the continental United States saw temperatures consistently rise above 90 degrees F during the month of July, endangering up to 100 million Americans. From New York to California, dozens were dealt a fatal hand due to the heat crisis, as heat stroke can become a lethal condition when not effectively treated, especially among the elderly, the very young, or those with heart and respiratory ailments. Making matters worse, these problems are exacerbated in impoverished communities where the heat disproportionately affects people lacking the resources or refuge to keep cool.

North of the border, more than 70 people in Canada succumbed to temperatures exceeding 95 degrees F in the Montreal area. In Europe this summer, countries like Spain and Portugal faced heat waves of their own. With temperatures not uncommonly approaching 115 degrees F, death toll projections are unsettling given that a similar heat wave in 2003 was responsible for killing approximately 70,000 Europeans.

Japan, too, was not immune from the pandemonium, seeing its hottest day ever recorded at 106 degrees F in the city of Kumagaya, 40 miles outside Tokyo, where at least 44 people perished. The Arctic Circle also reached high temperatures, catching Scandinavian countries off guard as they raced to contend with unprecedented wildfires sparked by the 90-degree weather. Even parts of Africa maxed out the record books on July 5 in Ouargla, Algeria, when temperatures rose to a staggering 124 degrees F.

Still, the danger does not simply lie in the fact that hotter weather contributes to a greater occurrences of heat stroke and death by exposure. Increased temperature has been linked to reductions in brain functioning, causing things like productivity on the job to go down and the likelihood of fatal car accidents to go up. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows how higher temperatures lead to a decline in the efforts made by public safety workers and government regulators. This means at times of greater risk, political institutions are at their weakest—a very dreary premise when the trend of global warming is still heading upward.

This global phenomenon of extreme heat is putting 2018 on track to be the fourth hottest year on record, only after 2015, 2016 and 2017. This should serve as a warning of what is to come if nothing is done to mitigate anthropogenic warming. “The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle,” according to Michael Mann, a climate scientist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. “We are seeing them play out in real time in the form of unprecedented heat waves, floods, droughts and wildfires. And we’ve seen them all this summer,” he said. Solutions such as a Carbon Fee and Dividend (CF&D) must be promptly legislated to attack the source of humanity’s heated predicament.

Originally from Vermont, Philip Finkelstein is a recent Political Science graduate from the University of British Columbia. He has a deep passion for writing and desire to bring about meaningful change.