Japan's Unprecedented Heatwave Declared A Natural Disaster As Dozens Die

Land of the Scorching Sun. Sakarin Sawasdinaka/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 24 Jul 2018, 17:15

Let’s be clear here: None of these potent events can currently be directly linked to anthropogenic climate change. Saying that, as the 2014 US National Climate Assessment makes clear, more intense, widespread, and frequent heatwaves like this are exactly what we should expect to see as time ticks on.

These heatwaves do happen naturally, and it’s important not to accidentally overstate the influence of climate change. However, as Prof. Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, told IFLScience: “We’ve altered the background conditions of our planet to such an extent that every event now has some component of human influence, moderated and modified by natural variability.”

Climate change is complex, and it isn't always about warming – sometimes it leads to cooler and wetter conditions, for example. Nevertheless, the extreme nature of these heatwaves is potentially and partially symptomatic of our inability to curb our greenhouse gas emissions. Our actions have already led to a long-term global warming trend, and heat extremes are easier to set if the lower boundaries are pushed ever higher.

“As climate changes, the statistics of our heat extremes are also changing, becoming more frequent and more severe,” Hayhoe noted. “It’s like a pair of dice: we always have a chance of rolling that double six, that killer heat wave, naturally.”

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Over time, though, “climate change is sneaking in when we’re not looking and replacing one, then another number, with another six – and maybe even a seven. Now our chances of rolling that double six are greater, and we might even roll an unprecedented seven.”

What’s happening in Japan, Greece, Scandinavia, North Africa, and elsewhere is a disaster, that’s for sure. It’s also a perfect example of how climate change affects everyone – although poorer, inequality-riddled regions suffer the most severely – no matter where in the world you are.

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