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Opinion The global heat waves should be a warning for the future

A man lets his dogs drink from a fountain during a heat wave in Houston on July 11. (Mark Felix/Bloomberg News)
3 min

In Yosemite National Park’s famed Mariposa Grove, giant sequoias have grown for millennia. As some of the largest and oldest living things in the world, their preservation — which was first given legal protection under Abraham Lincoln — predates the National Park Service. This month, they were threatened by a nearby wildfire that was exacerbated by dry, hot conditions.

That is just one of many dramatic weather events taking place around the country and world. In Texas, record-breaking temperatures forced the state’s power grid operator to warn residents to cut back on energy use or face the risk of blackouts. Around 35 million Americans were placed under heat advisories or excessive heat warnings.

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Western Europe is also experiencing extreme heat waves — Spain is experiencing its second in less than a month, while the United Kingdom issued its first-ever “extreme heat” warning. Italy has faced prolonged heat and drought, and a glacier collapse officials attributed to climate change resulted in the deaths of 11 people earlier this month. In China, at least 86 cities released heat alerts; in the city of Nanjing, officials opened air-raid shelters for locals to escape the heat.

These cases should not be viewed in isolation. While links between individual weather events and global warming cannot be determined immediately, studies have found that concurrent heat waves affecting parts of North America, Europe and Asia have become more intense and frequent over the past few decades. An analysis by World Weather Attribution, a group of scientists who analyze whether extreme events are connected to climate change, found that last year’s devastating heat wave in the Pacific Northwest was “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.”

Such patterns have disastrous, far-reaching effects. Heat waves pose a particular threat to global food supplies, already under pressure from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They are linked with a range of health problems and correlate with higher rates of crime, anxiety and depression. A 2021 analysis from the Atlantic Council estimated that the drop in worker productivity due to extreme heat costs the U.S. economy $100 billion annually — a figure that could double by 2030.

As President Biden and congressional Democrats struggle to find enough support for their climate agenda, the ongoing heat waves offer a small window into what the future could look like if global warming continues unabated. Even if we keep the global temperature rise under 1.5 degrees Celsius — the threshold scientists believe should not be exceeded — the number of extreme weather events a person will experience would nearly quadruple, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A greater rise in temperature would be even more calamitous, with unthinkable consequences for global hunger, disease, migration, productivity and standards of living.

Slashing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to a greener economy at the scale and pace needed would require creativity, innovation and political courage. But the cost if we fail is far more daunting: a future in which climate disasters, and all the damage and instability that come with them, become the new normal everywhere.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).