Letters & Opinion

Europe and US gripped in lethal heatwave: Will this bring long delayed action on Climate Change?

Image of Sir Ronald Sanders
By Sir Ronald Sanders

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the OAS.  He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.  The views expressed are entirely his own)</1>

Over the last few weeks, global warming has caused the deaths of thousands of people in Europe, and it has dislocated communities in the United States.

Suddenly, Climate Change is a big item on major news programmes and talk shows in the international media.  It is tempting to say, “thank God for it”, and to recall that when worse conditions decimated entire nations in the Caribbean and the Pacific, scarce attention was paid to them.

But suffering is unacceptable, even in circumstances where people, by their own irresponsibility, contributed to the extreme weather conditions that now plague them.

More than 100 million Americans are now being roasted by record temperatures.   More than a dozen wildfires are engulfing areas from Texas to California and Alaska.  The inhabitants of San Antonio, Texas have endured more than 12 days of temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and they are still rising.  Temperatures in Phoenix, Arizona hit 104 Fahrenheit, causing heat-related deaths this year.  And, in Fort Worth, Texas, a “red flag” warning has been in place as temperatures soared as high as 109 Fahrenheit.

Today, the situation is so serious that, on July 20, President Joe Biden, in language usually used by leaders of small island states, told the American people, “Climate change is literally an existential threat to our nation and to the world”.

Small states must welcome the US to the Club.   Climate Change has long been an existential threat for their people for decades.  But they received little more than lip service as hurricanes, droughts and flooding hit them year after year.

President Biden announced  an investment of $2.3 billion to help adapt to Climate Change and global warming.  That money is for Americans only.  It is to help “communities across the country build infrastructure that is designed to withstand the full range of disasters we’ve been seeing up to today -– extreme heat, drought, flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes”.  And, just to help “millions of people suffering from extreme heat at home”, the President is working with his team “to deploy $385 million right now” to pay for air conditioners in homes and to set up “community cooling centres in schools where people can get through these extreme heat crises”.

It is good that America has the resources to so instantly respond to the suffering that Climate Change is causing; developing countries, especially small island states, don’t have that capacity.

The US is the second largest contributor to the global C02 emissions that cause Climate Change.  In 2020, its CO2 emissions was 14%, second only to China which holds the dubious number one position at 29%. India produces 7%.   Therefore, between these three countries, they are responsible for 50% of all CO2 emissions.  But the US has been the greatest CO2 emitter for a century, and so the longest and biggest contributor to the world’s current circumstances.

To be fair to President Biden, he came into office determined to change the situation.  His job was made tougher by the four years of encouragement given by former President Donald Trump to Corporate America, which made huge profits from activity that emitted 416,738 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020 – the highest global figure in that year.

A Climate package that Biden put to the US Congress was thwarted by Republicans.  The President complained publicly that, “Not a single Republican in Congress stepped up to support my climate plan. Not one.”

Countries in Western Europe, which, over the past three decades, have done more than any other region in the world to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, have suffered greatly in recent weeks.

A blistering heatwave engulfed Spain and Portugal as wildfires destroyed vast stretches of Western European forestland. Temperatures rose to an unaccustomed 104 degrees Fahrenheit.  In southwestern France a wildfire raged for days, ripping through 1,000 hectares of pine trees, prompting the evacuation of 150 residents from their homes. In Britain,  an “amber” alert — the second highest of three levels — was issued, indicating that the extreme heat will have a “high impact” on daily life and people.  A British climate official said there was every chance of a new British record, beating the highest recorded temperature of 101.7 Fahrenheit recorded on July 25, 2019.

And, it’s all expected to get worse, according to World Meteorological Organization spokeswoman Clare Nullis.  She said, it has also been “a very bad season for the glaciers”. Last week an avalanche killed 11 people.  It was triggered by the collapse of the largest glacier in the Italian Alps, due to unusually warm temperatures.  More than 1,500 persons have already died from the effects of the heat.

Given all this, the Europeans would be right in pointing fingers at the world’s largest polluters who are causing their current grief.

Maybe now, with so many people in Europe and the US feeling the pain of Climate Change, the pressure will build on their governments and legislatures to do what small island states have been urging for decades – save us all by curbing the causes of Climate Change.

There really is no time left.  At the 2015 Paris Accord, it was agreed that rising temperatures could not, in any circumstances be allowed to rise beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.  It is now at 1.1 degrees.

As President Biden told his citizens on July 20, “Climate change is an emergency”.   He promised that “in the coming weeks, I’m going to use the power I have as President to turn these words into formal, official government actions through the appropriate proclamations, executive orders, and regulatory power that a President possesses”.  The world must wish him well.

The problem, which small states have long warned is threatening their existence, has started to strangle people in the big countries.  Like COVID-19 – it knows no boundaries, respects no power, and does not discriminate between rich and poor.

Now perhaps President Biden might get greater success in the US, and then, perhaps, China, India, Japan and Canada will intensify and accelerate their own actions.

Dare we hold our breath?

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