Does Canada’s recent record setting heatwave indicate that parts of the world will become uninhabitable due to global warming? Simon Lewis, writing in the Guardian, claims Canada is a warning: more and more of the world will soon be too hot for humans.
The climate crisis means that summer is a time of increasingly dangerous heat. This week in the Pacific north-west, temperature records are not just being broken, they are being obliterated. Temperatures reached a shocking 47.9C in British Columbia, Canada. Amid temperatures more typically found in the Sahara desert, dozens have died of heat stress, with “roads buckling and power cables melting”.
Monday was incredibly hot. In Vancouver, temperatures reached a balmy 32°C (90°F). Where I live, about an hour inland of the city, it reached 41°C (106°F), and I can’t remember it ever being this hot here before. The record breaking temperature mentioned above was in Litton, a small town several hundred miles inland at the top of the Fraser canyon, which is always a hot spot in our province.
Another heatwave earlier in June saw five Middle East countries top 50°C. The extreme heat reached Pakistan, where 20 children in one class were reported to have fallen unconscious and needed hospital treatment for heat stress. Thankfully, they all survived.
Not everyone in our area was so lucky. We have had over a hundred deaths attributed to the high heat.
Additional warming from greenhouse gas emissions means that such extreme heatwaves are more likely and scientists can now calculate the increase in their probability. For example, the 2019 European heatwave that killed 2,500 people was five times more likely than it would have been without global warming.
The five times more likely figure is a prediction made using climate models, not a statistic drawn from real world measurements. It was made by World Weather Attribution. Though they claim to be a scientific organization, they seem to be activists: “Through extensive media engagement – including the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Times, Scientific American, CBS, BBC and many more – WWA has helped to change the global conversation around climate change, influencing adaptation strategies and paving the way for new sustainability litigation.”
In most places, extreme heatwaves outside the usual range for a region will cause problems, from disrupting the economy to widespread mortality, particularly among the young and old. Yet in places in the Middle East and Asia something truly terrifying is emerging: the creation of unliveable heat.
Likely Lewis is referring to the article Persian Gulf may soon be too hot for human life, climate simulation shows. Again, these predictions were made using climate models. They predicted 60°C summers in Kuwait by the end of the century in the worst case scenario (business as usual, no CO2 emission reductions).
While humans can survive temperatures of well over 50C when humidity is low, when both temperatures and humidity are high, neither sweating nor soaking ourselves can cool us. What matters is the “wet-bulb” temperature – given by a thermometer covered in a wet cloth – which shows the temperature at which evaporative cooling from sweat or water occurs. Humans cannot survive prolonged exposure to a wet-bulb temperature beyond 35C because there is no way to cool our bodies. Not even in the shade, and not even with unlimited water.
Air conditioning allows us to survive such temperatures, but at a cost in energy use. In BC, few people have air conditioned homes. Those that do must deal with a higher electricity bill. But at least our electricity is green (hydroelectricity). In the US, where AC is common, much of the grid is powered by coal fired generation, adding further emissions.
A 35C wet-bulb temperature was once thought impossible. But last year scientists reported that locations in the Persian Gulf and Pakistan’s Indus river valley had already reached this threshold, although only for an hour or two, and only over small areas. As climate change drives temperatures upwards, heatwaves and accompanying unliveable temperatures are predicted to last longer and occur over larger areas and in new locations, including parts of Africa and the US south-east, over the decades to come.
And these places will become uninhabitable, except by the wealthy, who can afford to live in air conditioned comfort.
What can governments, companies and citizens do? First, cut off the supply of ever more extreme heatwaves by halving carbon dioxide emission this decade, then reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
As I have now written so many times, if you are serious about reducing CO2 emissions, you must be open to building nuclear power stations. This existing technology allows us to immediately (in the time it takes to build the power stations) replace coal and gas fired power generation.
Second, prepare for the inevitable heatwaves of the future. Emergency public health planning is the initial priority: getting essential information to people and moving vulnerable people into air-conditioned locations. Heatwave forecasts should include wet-bulb temperatures so that people can learn to understand the dangers.
I suggest installing central air conditioning. I had the plenum of my furnace rebuilt and, while that was being done, had my furnace company (Sheehan Heating and Plumbing) install a heat exchanger. This cost less that CAN$2000. The next year, I had them come back and install the condenser. This cost less than CAN$3000. It’s a bit expensive to run and has difficulty keeping up, but keeps my house much cooler than the outside on a hot day.
Plans should account for the fact that heatwaves intensify structural inequalities. Poorer neighbourhoods typically have fewer green spaces and so heat up more, while outdoor workers, often poorly paid, are especially vulnerable. The rich also buy up cooling equipment at high prices once a heatwave is underway and have many more options to flee, underscoring the importance of public health planning.
For those who can’t afford central air, a good quality window mounted unit is much more affordable (around CAN$300), and runs off a standard electrical outlet (the central air conditioner’s condenser requires a 240V circuit). Don’t wait until there’s a heat wave to buy one. We used one for years to keep the bedroom cool on hot nights.
Of paramount importance is energy supplies being resilient to heatwaves, as people will be relying on electricity for cooling from air-conditioning units, fans and freezers, which are all life-savers in a heatwave.
The shared infrastructure needs to have the capacity to deal with demand. This is one case where our socialist government has done a fairly good job. Our government run BC Hydro seems to have adequate capacity.
Similarly, internet communications and data centres need to be future-proofed, as these are essential services that can struggle in the heat.
I know of a Vancouver data center that had cooling problems during the recent heat. They had to bring in additional cooling because some of the equipment was overheating and failing.
Beyond this, new regulations are needed to allow buildings to keep cool and for transport systems, from roads to trains, to be able to operate under much higher temperature extremes.
We have building codes. These need to be updated periodically.
Many of these changes can meet other challenges. Retro-fitting homes to be energy-efficient is also the perfect opportunity to modify them to also keep us cool. For example, installing electric heat pumps to warm houses in the winter means that in the summer they can also be switched to run in reverse to work as a cooling system. Cities can be kept cooler with green roofs and more green spaces, which also make them better places to live.
Forced air heating is common in Canada, and much more efficient than electric heat exchangers for heating. Of course, it is powered by natural gas, and therefore CO2 emitting. The ducting used for heating is not ideal for cooling, since the vents tend to be on the floors because hot air rises. Cold air tends to collect in the basement, which is generally already the coolest part of the house.
The final task is future-proofing agriculture and the wider ecosystems we all ultimately rely on. Heat can cause havoc with crop production. In Bangladesh, just two days of hot air in April this year destroyed 68,000 hectares of rice, affecting over 300,000 farmers with losses of US$39m (£28m). New heat-tolerant varieties of crops need developing and deploying. The alternative is higher food costs and food price spikes with the increased poverty and civil unrest that typically accompanies them.
According to a study by Moody Analytics, increases in global temperatures will likely lead to a slight additional increase in GDP for Canada by 2048. This is because the costs of adjusting to global warming are more than offset by the benefit of a longer growing season and reduced need for heating (which is more expensive than cooling). Of course, not all countries will be as lucky.
Given these immense challenges how are governments doing on climate adaptation? Very poorly. The Paris agreement on climate change obliged countries to submit their adaptation plans, but only 13 countries have done so. One of those is the UK, but government plans were judged by its own independent advisors to have “failed to keep pace with the worsening reality of climate risk”.
Here in BC, Richmond, a city which is already barely above sea level, is already well on the way to upgrading its infrastructure, as is the Vancouver international airport. See my post The Truth About Sea Level Rise.
The Glasgow Cop26 climate talks will need to put the spotlight on adaptation planning and funding for vulnerable countries. To curtail the impacts of ever more ferocious heatwaves, reducing emissions will need to go hand in hand with adapting to the swelteringly hot world we are creating. Stabilising the climate by 2050 is well within the timeframe of one working lifetime, as is adapting to allow us all to prosper in this new world. There is no time to lose.
Everyone keeps saying this, but no one is advocating for nuclear power. If you truly thought that there was no time to lose, you would do so. Until you do, I find it hard to take the “climate crisis” rhetoric seriously.