In recent days, tens of thousands of people have been evacuated across Europe. in parts of France, Spain, Portugal and Greece.
The UK is also sweating from the grueling heat and is bracing for the hottest day on record, with temperatures predicted to top the 38.7 degrees recorded in 2019.
This prompted the Met Office to issue the country’s first extreme heat red warning for parts of central, northern, eastern and southeastern England.
Across the Atlantic, the southern parts of the United States are experiencing persistent high temperatures, while flash floods have hit southwest and northwest China.
All of this comes just two weeks after heavy rain forced for the fourth time in 18 months.
So what is causing all these extreme weather events and what can be done to limit their frequency and severity?
In recent years, the average temperature of 1901-2000 was 1 degree higher.
What causes these extreme weather events?
Severe weather events are not uncommon during the northern hemisphere summer months, according to Dr. Andrew King, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science at the University of Melbourne.
“People in the UK point to the hot summer of 1976, [when] The temperature did peak around 36 degrees,” he said.
“Recent summers in the UK, temperatures sometimes reached 37 or 38 degrees.”
But the “frequency, intensity and duration” of these heatwaves that Western Europe is now experiencing “would not really be possible without anthropogenic climate change,” Dr. King said.
“The temperature associated with these heatwaves is rising to the point where we are now talking about 40, maybe even 41 or 42 degrees Celsius in the UK, which would have seemed really amazing a few decades ago,” he said.
“In a few decades, this will not be uncommon.”
As to whether climate change is responsible for the frequency and severity of extreme rainfall and flooding, especially those that have hit Australia’s eastern states in recent months, Dr King said the evidence is mixed.
“Precipitation is really intermittent in Australia and we tend to see wetter conditions when we have like us [had in] the last couple of summers in the southern hemisphere,” he said.
“There is not a big trend for multi-day extreme rain that is causing flooding in eastern Australia, but we are seeing more intense downpours and thunderstorms that could exacerbate some of the flooding.”
Dr. Michael Barnes, a research fellow at the ARC Center of Excellence for Climate Extremes at Monash University, was equally conservative in his assessment.
“We have to be careful linking things to climate change, especially single events,” he told SBS News.
“When we talk about climate change, we are talking about how things are expected to change on average in the future.
“But at the same time, we need to be realistic about what will happen in the future.”
Average annual rainfall was exceeded in Sydney by early April.
Can we expect extreme weather events to occur more frequently?
Dr. Barnes said that while it is difficult to link climate change to specific weather events, “generally, we are expected to experience more extreme events, whether it be flooding in some areas, drought in others or heat waves.”
That outlook could be even worse if the goal set out in the Paris Climate Agreement to limit warming well below two degrees above pre-industrial levels is not met, Dr. King said.
“Even under the Paris Agreement, for example, Melbourne and Sydney can have 50-degree days,” he said.
“So if we don’t meet the Paris Agreement, we could get a fairly high frequency of very extreme heat days in excess of 50 degrees, most often days in excess of 40 degrees in our largest cities in Australia.”
What can be done to reduce the frequency and severity of extreme weather events?
Dr. King said the “most important” thing to do to limit the impact of climate change is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“People can take steps to reduce their own carbon footprint, but it really also depends on the actions of big business and governments,” he said.
“Governments really need to pursue policies to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we have a chance of meeting the Paris Agreement and limiting future increases in heat extremes like the ones we are seeing now.”
The federal government has set a goal of reducing emissions by 43% by 2030 from a 2005 baseline.
It also seeks to legislate a goal of zero emissions by 2050.
But Dr. King said that Australia and other countries need to think about more ambitious targets.
“Globally, as long as we don’t have positive greenhouse gas emissions, we will be warming the planet,” he said.
“We need to actually reach zero to stop global warming and prevent further really dangerous effects of climate change, so
“Anything we can do to get to zero emissions as soon as possible and keep global warming at a lower level is really important.”
Adapting to a warming planet
Even if global emissions are reduced “very rapidly”, the extreme heat will continue in the coming decades, leading to “hundreds if not thousands of excessive deaths”, Dr. King said.
“Global temperatures won’t stop rising for a while until we hit zero emissions,” he said.
“And after that, it will probably take some time to fall back again, so we need to adapt to cope better.”
Dr. King said there are many “small ways that, taken together, can really improve” humanity’s ability to cope with extreme heat events.
“Greening our cities definitely helps,” he said.
“We know that where there are no trees and shade, roads, sidewalks and houses get much hotter, so what we can do to bring down temperatures locally can help a lot.”
“[Also] make sure people know what to do in the heat so we have fewer hospitalizations and make sure the healthcare system is able to handle surges in hospitalizations.”
Dr. King said it is also vital to ensure public transport and other services are adapted so they can continue to operate during the heat wave.
With more extreme rain showers also expected in the coming decades, where and how the new infrastructure is built will be “important” to prevent such catastrophic consequences.
“Obviously if you don’t build on the floodplain, you won’t get as much damage as if you were building on the floodplain,” he said.
“Therefore, we need to make decisions based on common sense, as well as science, which comes out as it comes out.”