The challenges of climate change and living in a warmer world

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Last week, the calendar finally marked the start of fall, and people across the northern hemisphere should breathe a sigh of relief. Summer is supposed to be warm, but not as hot as the past few months have been for much of the globe.

Early September, California suffocated under the temperatures as high as 117˚F, setting new all-time highs and breaking previous September records by several degrees. But the season started hot in some parts of the world like worried meteorologists that the extraordinary combination of heat and humidity engulfing India would test the limits of human survivability in the most densely populated region of the planet.

In July, it was Europe’s turn as the continent baked in historic heat and drought. Wildfires have engulfed parts of Portugal, Spain and France, while in the UK, no less than 34 reporting stations surpassed the UK’s previous national heat record, this in a country that has been measuring and reporting weather for longer than any other on earth. In the weeks that followed, rivers and lakes dried up through Europea crisis overcome only by the unprecedented heat and drought affecting China in August.

The 104F temperatures that baked London in mid-July were enough to prompt the very first red heat warning code for the country, as officials warned of “widespread impacts on people and infrastructure”. Residents of San Antonio or Phoenix might roll their eyes, but the warnings have been borne out by events. Not only have health services been put under pressure by elderly patients struggling to cope in a country where air conditioning is scarce, but closed airports as the asphalt tracks melted and warped, closed data centers that the cooling systems were overwhelmed, and engulfed forest fires parts of east London in scenes more reminiscent of California than the “green and pleasant land” of England. These effects remind us that when it comes to heat, it’s all about what you’re used to, which is both good and bad news in a constantly warming world.

On the one hand, human beings are clearly able to cope with far higher heat and humidity than Britain endured in July, even without air conditioning. Many people in the tropics do this on a daily basis, and indeed India’s supposedly deadly heat wave in May turned out to be less dangerous than expected. Plus, we have the ingenuity and know-how to mix the asphalt that not melt to 100˚F; otherwise, no one would be able to drive for months in Arizona.

God designed human beings to be the most adaptable species on earth.

The climate change optimist might just look at this year’s 104˚F in the UK and last year’s 121˚F in southwestern Canada and simply see an investment opportunity: it’s time to begin installing air conditioning and redesigning airport runways throughout the northern hemisphere.

After all, God designed human beings to be the most adaptable species on earth. Even before the advent of modern technology, our ancestors huddled in igloos in Labrador or trekked thousands of miles across the Sahara Desert. Today we can survive in the middle of Antarctica or even outer space. Whatever changes occur in the climate, the truth is that most of us will find a way to overcome them. Whether China’s power grid collapses under the pressure of a historic heat wave, it may just mean that the Chinese need to innovate to better prepare for the next one.

At the same time, the ripple effects of recent heatwaves, from out-of-control wildfires to dwindling reservoirs to overheated data centers, remind us that adapting to a warmer world is not just about to add more shorts and tank tops to your high-latitude wardrobe. In many cases, our current infrastructure and lifestyles reflect centuries of building around the expectation that “it will never be this hot here,” expectations will likely be challenged many times in the years to come.

Adapting to a warmer world will require foresight, innovation and significant investment, perhaps challenging the assumption that it would be cheaper to adapt to climate change than to reverse it. Moreover, it is crucial to remember that while richer countries can usually afford to invest in the necessary changes, poorer countries cannot always do so.

Once again, climate optimists and pessimists have important points to make. Yes, with time and ingenuity, we should be able to adapt to life in a warmer world. But no, it won’t be easy, and no one should pretend otherwise.

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