Scorching heatwaves a stark reminder of need for strong global action

For the first time ever, a heatwave has been given an official name. And that is a bad sign for the world. 

Until recently, only hurricanes and typhoons had names, but now, the Spanish city of Seville has developed a naming and ranking system for heatwaves, and named the first one “Zoe”.

Bearing down on Seville in the past week, Zoe hit the top tier in the ranks when temperatures hit 43 degrees Celsius. 

And this was the fourth major heatwave this summer, as temperatures broke one record after another across Spain and in Italy, Greece, Germany and other countries. Across most of Western Europe, the mercury topped 40 C at one point or another in the last couple of weeks. In Portugal, there were reports of the heat melting road surfaces.

Sadly, this is not an isolated bout of extreme heat. Tens of thousands of people in Europe have been hit by heatwaves in 2003, 2006, 2010, 2015, 2018, 2019 and 2020. But the torrid spells this year are worse and are popping up around the world.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, close to 120 million people in the United States are living under a heat alert. 

The US National Weather Service has said that more than 60 temperature records have been set. More heat — along with wildfires and storms and floods — are also expected. Across the US, there are 85 major wildfires burning in 13 states on more than 12,000 square kilometers of land. 

Slightly to the north, parts of Canada are also suffering from heatwaves, although the wildfire season there has been milder than usual.

Further west, across the Pacific Ocean, China’s southern metropolis of Guangzhou is battling its longest heatwave since 1951. Temperatures topped 41 C in Fuzhou. More than 900 million people are living under a heat warning of some kind. 

And as the world gets hotter, sadly, there are still far too many opponents of efforts to tackle climate change.

Perhaps the most visible example of unwillingness to do anything about the issue is the US which continues to dilly-dally with federal legislation to address the issue. In mid-July, climate change legislation was scuttled by a single lawmaker who, by a chance of electoral math, holds the balance of power in the US Senate. 

On July 27, there is news that a deal may have finally been struck to move forward with some parts of a climate policy, but whatever it turns out to be, there is little doubt that it will be a much watered-down version. As things stand today, the US is unlikely to meet carbon reduction targets over the next few decades.

Earlier, on June 30, the US Supreme Court announced a decision restricting federal regulation of carbon emissions from power plants, a ruling that made the nation’s climate change fight harder. 

A review of six different studies on greenhouse gas emissions in the US done by Science magazine suggests that all things remaining equal — with more efficiencies in energy use and more electric cars and other changes — emissions in the country could drop by 6 percent to 28 percent by 2050, far short of the goal set by the administration of President Joe Biden of cutting emissions by 50 percent compared to 2005 levels. 

In short, not enough is being done there to help the world become cooler, or even to slow down the warming. 

A new analysis released in mid-July by researchers at Dartmouth College led by Chris Callahan, has determined that the US, the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, has caused $1.9 trillion in damage to other countries since 1990 through its emissions. Other big countries like China, Russia, India and Brazil are also in the top five, but the US accounts for about a third of the total damage. 

In the Southern Hemisphere, which is in the middle of winter, there are also countries not doing enough to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Brazil, for instance, has had a decidedly mixed approach to climate change. On the one hand, a federal decree in May has set up a national system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. But on the other, the country’s carbon market, known as RenovaBio, has been criticized for driving up the prices for credits while failing to reduce emissions. 

At the same time, deforestation of the all-important Amazon rainforest hit a record high during the first half of 2022, with the Brazilian Space Agency showing that 3,980 square kilometers of rainforest was razed in that period. The Brazilian rainforest is a key carbon sink for the world, one that helps regulate regional weather patterns. According to some studies, as much of a quarter of the Amazon rainforest could disappear this decade.

Market-based incentives to reduce emissions have emerged and are having an impact. Electric cars, cleaner appliances, solar and wind power, energy-efficient houses and buildings and more will all help. But these market-driven efforts are not enough. More policy efforts are necessary. For Zoe’s sake, governments must step up. 

The author is managing director of Bahati, an editorial services agency based in Hong Kong. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.