After the coronavirus, the heat wave?

After the coronavirus, the heat wave?

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While we were well confined, in fear that a nasty virus would send us ad patres, global warming was quietly continuing its progression. We didn't realize it too much, deprived of the freedom to go outside, but the thermometer was at record highs in this month of April. The summer promises to be hot, very hot, and this is just the beginning. A study released this week indicates that the heat will continue to increase over the next 30 years; one to three billion people may experience unbearable, life-threatening temperatures.

Did the coronavirus scare you? The expected heat waves should worry you even more and push the whole planet into action. The time has come not to disarm ourselves in the face of the climate as we have done in the face of the pandemic that has been predicted.

Since the beginning of 2020, the temperature in France has averaged 9.6°C, i.e. an anomaly of +2.3°C compared to the normal 1981-2010. This is the warmest temperature measured over the same period since the beginning of the 20th century.

Departure from normal maximum temperature 1981-2010 - Period from January 1st to April 23rd, 2020 (source Météo France - Data from 24/04/2020)

The Météo France bulletin states that after remarkably warm January and February for the season (+2.2°C and +3.6°C) and an equally mild March (+0.7°C), " April 2020 could appear on the podium of the warmest April months " with temperatures +3°C above normal.

The mild temperatures since the beginning of January are particularly hot in the afternoon, with exceptional highs 2 to 3 °C above normal and up to 4 °C over a wide north-eastern quarter (see map). Since 1 January, the maximum temperature anomaly has averaged +3.8 °C in Lyon and reached +4 °C in Strasbourg.

Abnormal situation

An abnormal situation that raises fears of heat waves and drought this summer. Emmanuelle Wargon, Secretary of State to the Minister for Ecological and Solidarity Transition, expressed concern in a press briefing about the hydrological situation in France, expecting water shortages in certain territories.

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Indeed, the rainfall in autumn and winter 2019-2020 has allowed a significant recharge of groundwater resources everywhere in the hexagon, except in southern Alsace, the Saône and Rhône corridors and the eastern Massif Central. However, the anticyclonic conditions of the last few weeks and the low rainfall throughout the country have led to a drying up of the soil, particularly in the eastern half of the country. Already low flows have been observed in the upstream part of the Loire basin and in the Allier basin.

The situation is more worrying overseas, where a drought is particularly affecting the West Indies (Guadeloupe and Martinique); water shortages are already affecting the distribution of drinking water and leading to major restrictions.

This record-breaking heat situation is being recorded in other parts of the world: in Western Europe, Siberia, Central, and Northwest Africa, as well as in Western Australia and Mexico. A report from the Copernicus Climate Change Service also states that temperatures were also well above average in parts of Greenland and Antarctica. A new heat stroke accelerated the decay of the ice caps.

Surface air temperature anomalies for April 2020 relative to the April average for the period 1981-2010. (Sources: Copernicus Climate Change Service / ECMWF)

Risk to human life

These temperature anomalies represent a risk to human life. We sometimes forget this, but we are like all animals. Humans live, like bears, birds, or bees, in a particular temperature niche that is favorable to their lives. Most humans living on this planet live in regions where average annual temperatures range between 11 and 15°C.

Researchers have just published an alarming study in the journal Proceeding of National Academy of Sciences.According to them, with the increase in temperatures caused by climate change, a good third of the world's population would be located in 2070 in a geographical area where average annual temperatures would exceed 29°C. Double the normal.

This scenario is calculated on the assumption that the human population would reach 11 billion people and that average global temperatures would have increased by 3.2°C compared to the pre-industrial era. Let us recall that the Paris Agreement sets a threshold not to be exceeded by 1.5° which we are far from reaching since some estimates project us towards 4° or even more than 6°C of increase if we continue with our fossil habits.

In the hypotheses of the authors of the article published in PNAS, 1 to 3.5 billion human beings would live in regions where the average annual temperature exceeds 29°C, i.e. regions where life is impossible. These geographical areas correspond to the poorest regions of the world.

20 % of the Earth's surface that has become uninhabitable

There are regions of the world today where average annual temperatures are already as high as 29°C. They are located around the Sahara and the Persian Gulf; representing less than 1% of the world's surface area, they are currently occupied by some 20 million people. But with global warming, the ultra-hot zones will, in fifty years' time, cover 20% of the Earth's surface and will be home to 1 to 3.5 billion people. Researchers have concluded that large areas of Africa, Asia, South America and Australia are likely to fall within these extreme temperature ranges.

Map of regions with annual temperatures above 29°C in 2070 © Chi Xu et al. PNAS

It is obvious that faced with an environment subject to such a temperature, the choice is a quick one: stay and die, or leave. Unless these regions are equipped with the infrastructure to enable people to survive in extreme heat, climatologists estimate that at least three billion climate refugees are expected to move to more temperate regions.

One of the authors of the study, ecologist Marten Scheffer of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, estimates that with each 1.8-degree increase in the global average annual temperature due to human-induced climate change, about one billion people will find themselves in areas far too hot to live in.

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The time has come

The coronavirus crisis is not over, but it has already taught us a great lesson: leaders - like public opinion - never hear the warnings and practice a policy of denial in the face of predicted disasters. This denial translates into incomprehensible negligence, which is incomprehensible but singularly culpable when the facts come to light.

Forecasts of a major pandemic crisis were innumerable, published, sweated and seen. But they remained unheard of until the last few days of December 2019, when a fire broke out in a market at the end of the world.  

Climatologists have been warning us for years that temperatures are rising dangerously. We are heading for a disaster. From 1900 to 1980, a new annual heat record was set every thirteen and a half years; since 1981, it is now every three years that the temperature beats the records detailed by the world's decoders. The alerts follow one another, the lights are bright red, the State itself admits that 62% of the French population is exposed to strong or very strong climatic risks.

However, while the climate machine is getting out of control, actions to curb it and anticipate the risks are lacking. At best, when they are carried out, they are not up to the challenge. But what is being announced is not just "climate change", an environmental injury. It is a series of major events of all kinds - health, economic, social, political and geopolitical - that are looming ever closer. The coronavirus has brought the world's economy to its knees, it has forced populations to obey coercive measures restricting their freedoms, it has produced deaths by the thousands and social deaths in proportions that have yet to be evaluated.

Covid-19 has revealed the fragility of our world, which is subject to global and growing risks. Some minds, such as the emblematic Nicolas Hulot, believe that " the time has come "; climate change, the collapse of biodiversity, growing inequalities, they write, are risks that threaten us just as much as Covid-19. They " require far-reaching responses as soon as possible " while " a return to old habits is looming ". 

In a manifesto published on his website , the former Minister of Ecology presents 100 principles to warn " that if we do not learn from this crisis, if we do not decide to look in the same direction, ecological transition, social justice, and economic prosperity will remain nothing more than wishful thinking ".

The Covid-19 crisis demonstrated our fragility and our common destiny. But it also showed that in the face of tangible and immediate dangers we knew how to free ourselves from political and economic dogmas. The coronavirus crisis opened a window, changed states of mind and gave us a glimpse of a common horizon for all humanity. In the face of climate change, this cruel but magical moment must not be extinguished, even if the flame is fragile.

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