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Heatwaves raise new debate on climate change

A vessel navigates the Rhine this week as the partially dried-up river bed is seen in the foreground in Duesseldorf, western Germany. Europe, the south-western parts of the US, China and other parts of Asia are experiencing weeks of heatwaves. Picture Ina Fassbender/AFP

A vessel navigates the Rhine this week as the partially dried-up river bed is seen in the foreground in Duesseldorf, western Germany. Europe, the south-western parts of the US, China and other parts of Asia are experiencing weeks of heatwaves. Picture Ina Fassbender/AFP

Published Jul 30, 2022

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By Darryl Fears and Andrea Eger

As summer temperatures spiked in Oklahoma – heading toward at least 43ºC this week – the city of Tulsa pondered what to do about its 36-hole municipal golf course.

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Should it replace the fescue turf with Bermuda grass that’s resistant to heat and drought? The cost of showering it nightly with 4.5 million litres of water had become pricey, at $5000 (R84439) a time.

But for now, officials were lavishing water on the city’s Page Belcher course as Oklahoma baked in a massive heatwave 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 heatwave as a call to action. “This is the consequence of climate change,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a tweet.

“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.

In the US, President Joe Biden is struggling to advance his environmental agenda in the face of opposition from Republicans and Senator Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia. The duelling heatwaves are both the result of sprawling zones of high pressure or heat domes.

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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 43ºC in some US states, nearly 69 million Americans were facing the risk of dangerous heat exposure, and heat-related illnesses are projected to rise from Texas to South Dakota.

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 Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, 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.”

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And in Texas, a major fossil fuel producer that has grown two degrees hotter than in the previous century, climate adaptation is rarely mentioned in a political arena focused on gun rights and abortion. Climate scientist Andrew 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. The demand for power in Texas hit an all-time high on 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 the effort to generate enough power to keep the state’s lights on.

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“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 are calling on utilities to put off maintenance and other down times for their power plants, elevating the risk for system failure as the summer wears on.

Doug Sombke, who operates a farm in north-eastern South Dakota, said people lean a little too hard on the climate change angle. “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: “110ºF (43ºC) 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. 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”, 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.” Europe has become a hot spot for heatwaves, with a notable spike in the past two decades. In the past 42 years, the continent has seen an increase in extreme heatwaves three to four times faster compared with the rest of the northern latitudes, research shows.

“It is now well accepted that anthropogenic climate change acts in reinforcing heatwaves, 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 heatwaves over the past four decades. Typically a relatively strong jet stream, a narrow band of strong winds about 10km 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 heatwaves, Rousi said.

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

Britain, where temperatures rose to 40ºC on Tuesday, is looking for ways to adapt to a climate that is 1.1 degrees warmer than the 1961-1990 average. This rise of a single degree Celsius can dramatically intensify heatwaves. A study by the UK Met Office found the nation is 10 times more likely to experience a 40ºC 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 40ºC,” said Friederike Otto, a climatologist and senior lecturer at Imperial College London.

“It is not surprising. Climate change is not a surprise. Neither is the fact that it leads to much more frequent heatwaves and higher temperatures.” Otto welcomed the fact that the UK Met Office issued a red warning and informed people of potential adverse health effects, but she 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 is not a big problem in most of the US. Unlike Europe, where about 20% of households have air-conditioners, more than 85% 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 that the number of Americans who took up the game since the pandemic began is 30% 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, they recognise they cannot sustain this approach for long. Oak Tree National, in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, is in the midst of a six-month overhaul of its greens. Its new crop of hybrid TifEagle Bermuda grass appears to be weathering the heat.

* This is an edited version of the article first published in The Washington Post.

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