Too hot now? This is one of the coolest summers we’ll ever have

Hottest ever, wettest ever, highest ever. And it's only just beginning.

Temperature tourism: People pose for photos at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center, Sunday, July 11th in Death Valley – and the temperature continued to rise. Photograph: Roger Kisby/The New York Times

Temperature tourism: People pose for photos at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center, Sunday, July 11th in Death Valley – and the temperature continued to rise. Photograph: Roger Kisby/The New York Times

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While we were busy worrying about digital passports and whether unvaccinated children should be in restaurants, ominous things were happening in other parts of the world.

A “flood of death” swept across Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, destroying homes and towns and leaving at least 100 people dead, and many hundreds more homeless or unaccounted for. In California’s Death Valley, the temperature was the second hottest ever recorded on Earth. So-called heat tourists posed in front of the thermometer displaying 135 degrees Fahrenheit (56 degrees Celsius) with plastic bottles of ice on their heads and bragged that they could roast beef without an oven.

What we knew as normal has evaporated in the deadly heat of one record-breaking summer after another

This was no cutesy Instagram moment, but anyone who has been paying attention to climate warnings would not have called it unexpected. All of it is unfolding as we have been told to expect. The western United States is experiencing its third heat wave in three weeks; 67 weather stations, from Washington State to New Mexico, have recorded their hottest temperatures ever this summer. Late last month, cherries cooked on trees in the tiny village of Lytton in British Columbia as temperatures reached 49.6 degrees – 4.6 degrees higher than the previous record. And then the wildfires came and incinerated the town.

Hottest ever, wettest ever, highest ever. I don’t blame you if you turn away now. It’s too much to think about; far easier to quibble about whether individual weather events can be linked to climate change or hold forth on how annoying you find Greta Thunberg. It would be different if you had the money and the power to do something.

Of course, if you had the money and the power to do something, there’s a chance you’d just make like Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson and launch a testosterone-fuelled jaunt into space. Branson’s 160km jolly came at a cost of 12kg of CO2 per passenger per km; for comparison, a business class seat on a transatlantic flight is about 0.2kg per km. Bezos is planning his own cosmic skite next week. Elon Musk explained to the begrudgers who wondered on Twitter how this was supposed to benefit anyone else that “those who attack space maybe don’t realise space represents hope”. Billionaires playing astronaut or billionaires paying taxes? I know which one looks more like hope to me.

There was a brief flurry of optimism at the start of the pandemic that the great pause might provide some breathing space for the planet. In reality, it just allowed us the luxury of worrying about something else. Here’s another thing you won’t want to think about on this glorious sunny weekend. Too hot now? This is one of the coolest summers we’ll ever have again.

That half degree will mean more deadly heatwaves, more extreme rainfall events, more drought in the Mediterranean region, more vanishing ecosystems

My youngest daughter, who was five when it began, barely remembers the world before the pandemic. I’ve been telling myself there will still be time for normal childhood memories. Who am I fooling? What we knew as normal has evaporated in the deadly heat of one record-breaking summer after another. We moaned about the chilly weather here in June, but globally it was the fifth warmest on record. The four warmest were all in the last six years; nine of the top 10 were in the last 11 years. Broken records don’t even make the news anymore. Expect to read headlines if there’s ever a “normal” summer again. This is normal now: cherries cooking in orchards and homes across northern Europe swept away in an unstoppable swell of floodwater and sewage.

The idea of the world warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – a prospect that looks increasingly wildly optimistic – may not sound that bad beside, say, a virus that sweeps across the world and locks you in your home for months. The world is already one degree hotter. What’s another 0.5 of a degree? But that half degree will mean more deadly heatwaves, more extreme rainfall events, more drought in the Mediterranean region, more vanishing ecosystems.

Two degrees warmer – the target that had served as a default for years, until scientists realised what it actually meant – would see 420 million more people exposed to extreme heatwaves and more heavy precipitation events across swathes of the globe, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It will mean more poverty, food shortages, water shortages and entire summers with no ice in the Arctic. Eighteen per cent of insects will vanish, 8 per cent of vertebrates and 99 per cent of coral reefs. By the time my smallest child is in her 80s, presuming humans make it that far, an additional 10 million people will have seen their homes disappear due to rising sea levels. These are not wild projections: 20-40 per cent of the world’s population lives in an area that has already broken the 1.5 degree barrier.

For privileged Europeans to take action, they need to see privileged Europeans suffer

Scientists worry about the dangers of climate doomsaying, so here’s the mandatory optimistic bit. Last week, as heat tourists fried eggs on the asphalt in Death Valley, the European Union unveiled its climate action plan, Fit for 55. The measures include higher tax on dirty fuel, tougher pollution standards and a Continent-wide electric car-charging network. The last petrol and diesel cars will be gone by 2035.

There is likely to be resistance to the plan, though perhaps not as much as there might have been. As disquieting as it was to see distraught Germans who lost their homes offered up as pre-election poster children for failed climate action policies, that may be what it takes.

For privileged Europeans to take action, they need to see privileged Europeans suffer. Well, that much is guaranteed. There will be suffering. Some parts of the planet will be hit sooner, harder, worse than others, but it’s all one planet. By the time my daughter is in her teens, it will be mostly too late to change its trajectory.

Hottest ever, wettest ever, highest ever. And it’s only just beginning.

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