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As heat waves hit U.S. and Europe, leaders split on climate change

While Europeans talk of tackling climate change, near-record summer heat in Oklahoma, Texas and South Dakota has not shifted the politics

Workers install infrastructure under a Texas flag tent during a heat wave in Austin on July 11. (Jordan Vonderhaar/Bloomberg News)

As summer temperatures spiked in Oklahoma — heading toward at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday — the city of Tulsa pondered what to do about its 36-hole municipal golf course. Should it replace the fescue turf with Bermuda grass that’s resistant to heat and drought? The cost of showering it nightly with 1 million gallons of water had gotten pricey, at $5,000 a pop.

“There is a point where we may have to start prioritizing tees and greens and fairways and not as much on the rough,” said Randy Heckenkemper, a golf course architect based in the city, in an interview.

But for now, officials were lavishing water on the city’s Page Belcher course, as Oklahoma baked in a massive heat wave that is also scorching parts of Texas, Kansas and South Dakota. Residents are cranking up their air conditioners, putting pressure on the power grid, and farmers are using more water at a time when the region could slide into drought.

But across the Atlantic, as the same weather pattern broke centuries-old records in Europe, political leaders seized on the heat wave as a call to action.

“This is the consequence of climate change,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a tweet Monday. “Tackling the climate emergency must be at the top of the to-do list for the next Prime Minister.”

The sharp policy divergence could have profound implications for the planet, as the world’s biggest historic emitters of greenhouse gases grapple with how to confront their new climate reality. Many European nations are working to shift away from fossil fuels, but the combination of intense summer heat and energy shortages stemming from the war in Ukraine threatens to delay this transition.

Visualizing Europe's heat wave, with melting popsicles

In the United States, President Biden is struggling to advance his environmental agenda in the face of intense opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

The dueling heat waves are both the result of sprawling zones of high pressure, or heat domes. Underneath these heat domes, the air sinks and clears out cloud cover — while allowing the sun to beat down relentlessly.

With temperatures expected to surpass 110 degrees in some U.S. states on Tuesday, nearly 69 million Americans were facing the risk of dangerous heat exposure, and heat-related illnesses are projected to rise from Dallas to Pierre, S.D.

“When it’s 110 outside, you’re a prisoner in your home,” said Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “Is this the kind of life you want to live?”

Despite those concerns, conservatives leading these sweltering red states are reluctant to link these conditions to climate change. And those politicians are less likely to propose a plan to adapt to it.

Asked whether she thinks the climate is changing, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) said, “I think the science has been varied on it, and it hasn’t been proven to me that what we’re doing is affecting the climate.”

And in Texas, a major fossil fuel producer that has grown 2 degrees hotter than the previous century, climate adaptation is rarely mentioned in a political arena focused on gun rights and abortion.

Dessler said his state should immediately draw up plans to adapt, but he doubts that will happen. “The first thing they need to do to adapt is to be able to say the words ‘climate’ and ‘change,’ ” he said.

Texas’s approach to adaptation, Dessler said, was summed up by former governor Rick Perry’s call to the public during a time of drought and wildfires in 2011. At the time, Perry said, “I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers ... for the healing of our land.”

The demand for power in Texas hit an all-time high Monday, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the grid for about 26 million customers. The operator asked Texas air quality regulators to relax their enforcement rules for the afternoon and evening so that the state’s fossil fuel plants could pollute more than normally permitted, in an effort to generate enough power to keep the state’s lights on.

“They haven’t done forward planning,” said Ed Hirs, an energy economist at the University of Houston. “With a state growing as fast as Texas, it was just going to be a matter of time before [energy] demand outstripped available supply.”

Grid operators in Texas have been pleading with consumers to cut their energy use and calling on utilities to put off maintenance and other down time for their power plants, elevating the risk of system failure as the summer wears on.

Elsewhere in the Plains, many emphasized that high heat arrives every summer.

Doug Sombke, who operates a farm in northeastern South Dakota, said people lean a little too hard on the climate change angle. Farmers have learned to drink iced tea to keep cool and spray livestock with water, he said, when it becomes windy, dry and hot at the end of June, through July and August.

“It’s typical weather for us this time of year,” he said, adding, “This year is better than last year.”

But in the next breath he said: “One hundred ten degrees is extreme. ... It’s something we need to learn to adapt to.”

In Sombke’s mind, that means slowly transitioning from petroleum use to biofuels and solar and wind-generated energy. “It will take time.”

In Europe, which has shattered several temperature records this week and is experiencing severe wildfires, politicians are already planning for a hotter future. France’s capital has launched an adaptation project dubbed Paris at 50° C (122 degrees Fahrenheit), chaired by Green Party member Alexandre Florentin.

“This is neither prophecy, nor an intuition, nor a hypothesis,” Florentin told the newspaper Le Monde. “We are in a new climate situation in which some people are already suffering, and which is going to get even worse.”

Why the European heat wave is so bad, and what it means for future climate change

Europe has become a global hot spot for heat waves, with a notable spike in the past two decades. In the past 42 years, the continent has seen extreme heat waves increasing at a rate three to four times faster than in the rest of the northern latitudes, research shows.

“It is now well accepted that anthropogenic climate change acts in reinforcing heat waves, in terms of frequency, intensity and persistence,” said Efi Rousi, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “This is simple physics. As mean temperatures are rising, heat extremes are also rising.”

Changes in the jet stream — potentially tied to climate change — have also played a role in increasing the number of heat waves over the past four decades. Typically a relatively strong jet stream, a narrow band of strong winds about 6 to 7 miles above ground, brings cooler air from the North Atlantic Ocean. But winds have gotten weaker over the continent, and the jet stream is splitting into two branches, paving the way for persistent and intense heat waves, Rousi explained.

“Under continued anthropogenic emissions we expect to see more and more of those extreme heat waves in Europe,” Rousi said. “This is why taking action and reducing emissions in order to limit warming according to the Paris agreement levels is very crucial.”

Britain's hottest day in at least 363 years

Britain, where temperatures surpassed to 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) on Tuesday, is looking for ways to adapt to a climate that is 1.1 degrees warmer than the 1961-1990 average.

This rise in temperatures by a single degree Celsius can dramatically intensify heat waves. A study by the U.K. Met Office found the nation is 10 times more likely to experience a 40C day now, compared with a world unaffected by human-induced climate change.

“What is astonishing is that many people seem to be surprised that we are now seeing temperatures of 40C,” said Friederike Otto, a climatologist and senior lecturer at Imperial College London, in an email. “It is not surprising, climate change is not a surprise, neither is the fact that it leads to much more frequent heat waves and higher temperatures.”

Otto welcomed the fact that the U.K. Met Office issued a red warning and informed people of potential adverse health effects but said the government needs to do more to help people prepare for these unprecedented scorching waves.

“Building homes, schools and hospitals that cannot be cooled is still happening, and it really shouldn’t,” Otto said.

That problem is less of a problem in the United States. Unlike in Europe, where about 20 percent of households have air conditioners, more than 85 percent of American households have them installed.

Golf course operators in Oklahoma and elsewhere also have a powerful incentive to keep their fairways lush: money. The National Golf Foundation reported this spring that the number of Americans who took up the game since the pandemic began is 30 percent higher than the previous record-breaking span between 1999 and 2000, when Tiger Woods’s winning streak inspired millions of Americans to take up golf.

But even as operators in places in Oklahoma douse their courses this summer, they recognize they cannot sustain this approach for long.

Oak Tree National, located in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, is in the midst of a six-month complete overhaul of its greens. Its new crop of hybrid TifEagle Bermuda grass appears to be weathering the heat.

“We’ve already done the back nine and tomorrow we’re sprigging the front nine,” said Oak Tree President and chief operating officer Tom Jones, who has been running golf courses for 40 years. “Because of the caliber of players we have out here, our goal is when someone steps into the tee box, they look out and think, ‘You could play a tournament here tomorrow.’ ”

Eger reported from Tulsa. Evan Halper, Kasha Patel and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.

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