The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Climate change isn’t an intangible future risk. It’s here now, and it’s killing us.

David Attenborough, narrator of the Netflix series “Our Planet,” spoke about the impacts of climate change on the natural world. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)
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Four hundred deaths in the Netherlands. More than 18,000 hospitalizations in Japan. An estimated 169 million people on alert in the United States.

This isn’t the plot of a disaster movie. The numbers reflect the impact of extreme heat waves that smothered countries around the world in July and early August, a phenomenon that scientists warn will intensify as the Earth warms.

July was the hottest month on record, said Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, as he discussed the record. “This is not science fiction. It is the reality of climate change,” he said. “It is happening now, and it will worsen in the future without urgent climate action.”

In the Netherlands, 400 more people died in the next-to-last week of July than normally would have during a typical summer week, the country’s statistics agency said Friday. In the week that began on July 22, 2,964 people died, which is 15 percent more deaths than the country typically sees in a summer week. Scorching heat had toppled records across Europe in late July, and on July 25, Paris experienced its hottest day on record — a previously unthinkable 109 degrees.

On the other side of the planet, a heat wave in Japan stretched from July 29 to Aug. 4 and killed at least 57 people, while more than 18,000 others were taken to hospitals, with 100 in serious condition, The Washington Post reported Friday. A 50-year-old construction worker toiling on an Olympics project in Tokyo died of suspected heat stroke Thursday, when temperatures reached 95 degrees. Organizers of the Olympics told Reuters that the “precise cause of his death remains unknown,” but still, the city had numerous heat-related fatalities. On Friday, NHK reported that 45 people in Tokyo had died in a week because of the heat.

Heat wave smashes temperature records across Europe

In the United States, most of the country endured a sweltering heat wave in July; several heat-related deaths were reported across the country. The month saw scorching and unusual temperatures across Alaska.

Heat waves are already deadly. A 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that extreme heat events “are the most prominent cause of weather-related human mortality in the U.S., responsible for more deaths annually than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.”

And climate change will only make the situation worse.

Last year’s National Climate Assessment, compiled by the Trump administration, warned that heat-related deaths would continue to increase. Climate change would cause illnesses such as asthma and hay fever to become more severe, while wildfires and pollution also posed a risk to respiratory health. Rising temperatures would alter the geographic distribution of disease-carrying insects and pests, endangering new populations.

Europe never understood America’s love of air conditioning — until now

“Climate change is a public health crisis,” Vijay Limaye told The Post. “The science is really strong in telling us that with climate change accelerating, we expect heat waves to be more frequent, more intense and longer.”

Limaye is currently a fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council, but used to study the impact of climate change at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A 2018 study written by Limaye and his former colleagues found that climate change would lead to thousands more heat-related deaths in the eastern United States by the middle of the century. They said 11,562 additional annual deaths could occur among people 65 and older because of cardiovascular stress caused by heat, and increasingly high minimum temperatures would result in 8,767 additional fatalities.

“As a nation and as a globe, we are not prepared to confront an ever-mounting heat risk in terms of our health,” he said. For example, while air conditioning was known to save lives, Limaye warned that increased reliance on the technology could have a harmful long-term effect if the energy used for cooling continued to come from fossil fuels.

“We really need to focus on solutions that can stem the underlying climate problem,” Limaye said, “Or we’re not going be able to adapt our way out of this.”

Read more:

Here’s how the hottest month in recorded history unfolded around the world

Perspective: Europe’s killer heat waves are a new norm. The death rates shouldn’t be.

Opinion: Your air conditioner is making the heat wave worse

Greenland wildfire part of unusual spike in Arctic blazes this summer