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Will rising summer temperatures raise world’s climate change concern?

Why We Wrote This

It’s been an extraordinarily hot summer – with deadly effect – all across the Northern Hemisphere. Has the heat been changing how people think about climate change?

Max Rossi/Reuters
A man cools off as he waits for Pope Francis to lead a prayer Aug. 5 in Vatican City. Temperatures across Europe – and around the world – have soared.

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Wildfires have smoldered across California, Europe, and even the Arctic Circle. Japan has seen the highest temperatures it has ever recorded. Hundreds have died in a host of heat waves around the globe. And the experiences, so hard to ignore, appear to be reshaping how many around the world view the issue of climate change – and whether their governments are doing enough to build resilience against it. In May of this year – the hottest on record in the contiguous United States – more Americans than ever, 73 percent, said they believe there is solid evidence of global warming. In Greece, a 2017 poll asked residents about the greatest threats for future generations. The most cited answer was climate change – higher even than economic inequality, despite Greece being mired in economic crisis for the past decade. “Heat waves are getting hotter, and people should prepare for hotter weather than they are used to,” says Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, a senior researcher at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. “When I started in 1996, global warming was very abstract. Now it has gone so far you can just step outside and feel the difference.”

Andreas Kadas was fast asleep in his summer home in the Greek holiday resort of Mati when the phone awoke him to warn of the approaching fire.

While he survived Greece’s deadliest blaze on record – taking nine minutes from the first ring to when he reached the seaside on foot, smoke billowing around him – 91 people were killed in what he recalls a “huge tragedy” that burned around him.

The downpours that came three days later, and lasted for more than a week, should have come as a relief. Instead, they left him with a sense of dread that something larger about the weather pattern is shifting. “Mati is a region with many pine trees and strong winds blowing, so you could say that it is a high risk region for a firestorm. But these rains, which were fierce like rainstorms, remind me of a tropical climate,” he says. “No one was expecting something like this.… That is what really troubled me and has made me wonder what’s going on with the climate.”

Mr. Kadas is not alone in his experience. This has been a summer of extremes as wildfires rage, record temperatures are set, droughts keep farmers up at night, and downpours and heat waves turn deadly from western Japan to eastern Canada. Many citizens may have given little thought to the issue of climate change in their daily lives at present. But now they are starting to rethink whether it is a high enough priority – and whether their governments are doing enough to build resilience against it.

“I think the dramatic weather of this summer both globally and in the United States will likely move the needle,” says Christopher Borick, the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Penn.

‘We have already begun feeling the changes’

It may already be happening. In May of this year – the hottest on record in the contiguous US – more Americans than ever, 73 percent, said they believe there is solid evidence of global warming, according to the poll the Muhlenberg College Institute has run twice a year since 2008.

In Greece, a 2017 poll conducted by the public opinion research unit at the University of Macedonia asked residents about the greatest threats for future generations. Of the eight possible answers, the most cited was climate change with 43.9 percent, higher than No. 2, which was economic inequality and difficulties at 37.2 percent – remarkable for a country mired in economic crisis for the past decade.

Greeks may be shifting their views simply from their own personal experiences with heat. Dimitris Lalas, a retired professor at the University of Athens who represented Greece in international negotiations on climate change for 25 years, warned two decades ago that Athens would have Cairo’s temperature and Berlin would have that of Athens within a generation. At the time, the warning seemed more like science fiction to most ears, but he says that is no longer true. “We have already begun feeling the changes, and I think people will start being more sensitive to these issues so we can move forward.”

A report by researchers of the World Weather Attribution network in Europe compared temperatures in real time over a three-day period in late July in northern Europe – including stations in Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and two stations in Finland – with historical records dating back to the 1900s. The preliminary results from their attribution study not only found records smashed in some stations. They also concluded that heat waves were twice as likely or more in some of the locations because of climate change.

“Heat waves are getting hotter, and people should prepare for hotter weather than they are used to,” says Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, a senior researcher at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) who worked on the study. This message has gotten easier for scientists to impart. “When I started in 1996, global warming was very abstract. Now it has gone so far you can just step outside and feel the difference.”

The need to prepare

Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Center on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, chaired a panel in June that concluded: “It’s essential that Canadians act now to adapt and build their resilience to climate change.” It was days before a heat wave in Quebec killed more than 90 people, according to local estimates. Such adaptation measures that he supports include cool roofs or more tree canopy in cities, and designing new housing units with air-conditioning as a necessity – the way heating now is. “The single biggest problem we have in terms of climate change and extreme weather is not technical capacity to address problems,” he says. “The problem is complacency.”

This summer Japan experienced its deadliest weather-related disaster in more than three decades – 225 died and 10 remain missing in floods and landslides that were triggered by torrential rains in western Japan. That was soon followed by an intense heatwave that gripped the country, leaving more than 130 dead from heatstroke.

On July 23, the country grabbed headlines worldwide when the mercury hit 106 degrees F. in the city of Kumagaya, 38 miles northwest of Tokyo. It was the highest temperature ever recorded in Japan.

The leaders of Tatebayashi, a city 40 miles north of Tokyo known for extreme heat, were prepared. They had already been given warning of the arrival of a heat wave this summer based on long-range weather forecasts, says city official Yuzo Inoguchi.

The city provides its citizens with information about how to cope in a heat wave but also with a list of how to reduce their own carbon footprint. It also holds a regular citizens’ conference, which consists of local farmers, business officials, and environmentalists. The summer’s experience has given them more inroads to emphasize the need for individuals to act. “We have more opportunities to go to a community to discuss measures against global warming,” Mr. Inoguchi says.

The persistence of denial

As wildfires burned in the Arctic Circle, California battled its largest blaze in history, and records temperatures were set from Algeria to South Korea, the Guardian asked in a commentary: Is “this the heatwave that finally ended climate denial?”

The author, Michael McCarthy, asks the question after seeing a headline in a British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch. The Sun’s headline warned, “The World’s on Fire.” “It’s not always easy to recognize a historical tipping point when you see one,” Mr. McCarthy writes, “but I believe I spotted one when I walked into my local newsagent last Wednesday and saw the front page of the Sun.”

Some say that view could be too optimistic. Mr. Borick, for example, says those who deny climate change tend to also report fewer changes in the weather than those who believe in it. “We will see, even if it was indeed much hotter, climate skeptics will tell you, ‘no, it was no different,’ or ‘it was colder,’ ” he says. “Their world view is shaping how they are perceiving the environment, perceiving reality.”

“The human memory on weather conditions is very weak,” adds Mr. Lalas in Greece. “But every year we have strong evidence that things are getting worse.”

Lennart Nilsson, a farmer on the west coast of Sweden, says he has been waiting for the rain since April to relieve his parched cattle farm. He is not just worried about the economic loss.

“Hopefully it is ordinary variation in the weather,” he says. “But the stuff we have seen, we have never seen. We are a bit worried. This year has been very strange because the first month was a mild winter, then we got snow in March, everybody thought about a very late and cold spring, but we got summer directly in May, and now we have extreme drought. And of course we wonder why.”

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