Monday, 3 Oct 2022

Opinion | It’s Been a ‘Summer of Disaster,’ and It’s Only Half Over

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By David Wallace-Wells

Opinion Writer

“We’re naming summer ‘Danger Season’ in the U.S.,” wrote Kristy Dahl, the principal climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, in early June. A couple of days later, at Axios, the climate reporter Andrew Freedman echoed that warning: “America is staring down a summer of disasters.”

The season is now only half over, and the worst months for California fires, which typically provide the most harrowing images of the summer, still lie ahead. But the calendar has already been stuffed with climate disruption, so much so that one disaster often seemed layered over the last, with newspaper front pages almost identical across the Northern Hemisphere. In July, Carbon Brief’s Simon Evans began compiling them on Twitter, running out of steam when he got past 100. Climate segments of newscasts cut quickly from one part of the world to another, telling almost identical stories, day after day.

And yet the mood of those newscasts — in which warming is shown clearly to be blanketing the world, country by country — has mixed horror with a reluctant acceptance. Climate change is here, you think, your mind perhaps drifting past what can be done to limit future warming and toward what can be done to manage living in that future. The disruptions are large already, and arriving as prophesied — indeed, often earlier than predicted. They’ve also been normalized enough that, alongside the shock, they raise practical questions.

The term for this is “adaptation,” and the wallpaper texture of the climate news cycle this summer — with once-horrifying impacts now seeming commonplace — suggests that efforts to acclimate to new realities are following quite quickly on the footsteps of alarm.

Each summer now is also a prelude. This year on Planet Earth, more than 100 million Americans were under extreme heat advisories that seemed almost unexceptional given the punishing temperatures across Europe, where multiple distinct heat waves have each set records, and in China, where residents found protective shade in underground fallout shelters and demand for air-conditioning threatened the electricity grid nationwide.

One year after temperatures so extreme that climate scientists worried about the calibrations of their models, a heat dome settled over the Pacific Northwest again, with Seattle recording six straight days above 90 degrees for the first time and Portland, Oregon, experiencing seven above 95, also for the first time.

This year’s most conspicuous heat episode began in the late spring, when more than a billion people in South Asia endured several months of almost uninterrupted temperatures above 100 degrees. Then came the monsoon rains, and the floods with them, affecting, as Inside Climate News tabulated, “more than 7.2 million people in Bangladesh, submerged over 2,000 villages in India and caused more than 300 deaths in Pakistan.” In a single province of Pakistan, Balochistan, 9,000 homes were washed away. The survivors navigated the floodwaters by rope.

There has been lethal flooding in Uganda. In Iran, floods and landslides have left dozens dead and dozens more missing. In Spain and Portugal, where fires tore through the peninsula in July, the recent heat killed nearly 2,000 people. In Britain, where off-the-charts temperatures shattered records kept nearly as far back as William Shakespeare’s time, perhaps 1,000 people died, and so many fires broke out in London that firefighters had their busiest day since World War II.

Britain also offered two of the most memorable media moments of the summer. In the first, a buoyant television presenter pushed a meteorologist to look on the bright side of the deadly heat. In the second, real weather seemed to match a worst-case climate scenario for 2050 put together just a couple of years before. But what was perhaps most remarkable about the contrast of those forecasts — the warning, set for 2050, and the real one, this year — was that the same thing had happened a few weeks earlier in France, when a separate heat wave matched forecasts climate scientists had mocked up just a few years before, as a sort of worst-case future for France in 2050. This year, in the midst of an energy crisis, France was forced to power down nuclear power plants, a carbon-free energy source, because the local rivers got too warm to use to cool the reactors. Water was poured on the pavement just ahead of bikers in the Tour de France to ensure the asphalt didn’t melt. The bikers themselves soldiered on.

In the United States, the most memorable images of weather disaster so far this summer have probably come from heartland flooding events. In the Midwest, where extreme precipitation events have grown by 42 percent, some neighborhoods were flooded last week by seven feet of water and firefighters had to rescue children from their homes. In St. Louis, which got two months’ worth of rain in the space of six hours, families swam to safety out their front doors. The same weather system delivered another deluge, considerably more deadly, to eastern Kentucky. Both were considered once-in-a-thousand-year events; overnight into Wednesday, another thousand-year storm hit Illinois.

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