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The Guardian view on Europe’s heatwaves: warnings from Hades

The weather map of southern Europe remains a deep, sinister red, as the heat soars above 40C in places and closer to 50C in Sicily and Sardinia. In Madrid, some nights are equatorial rather than tropical, as the temperature stays above 25C. June was the hottest month recorded on Earth for 120,000 years. The hottest week came early this month. “Very dangerous long-duration heat”, to use the language of the recent alert issued by the US National Weather Service in Arizona, sums up the experience of the last few weeks across much of the northern hemisphere. Extreme heat, wildfires and floods are ravaging parts of the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, India and China.

Global heating is not the sole explanation for the hellish impact of Cerberus and Charon, the heatwaves named after mythical denizens of Hades. As in 2016 – the hottest year ever recorded – an emerging El Niño weather pattern is helping drive the barometer upwards. But each time this natural and sporadic event recurs, typically adding 0.2C to the average global temperature, it heats up a planet that is already warmer than before as a result of greenhouse gas emissions.

The hotter the Earth gets, the greater the danger of feedback loops and unanticipated events. In Europe, an established high pressure system in the south is currently trapping the region under a heat dome, and unusually high surface temperatures in the Mediterranean are helping to lock in the heat on land. With Cerberus, we have entered, according to the World Meteorological Organization, “uncharted territory”. As soon as this year or next year, say some scientists, global temperatures could breach the all-important 1.5C threshold prioritised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Loss of life, mass migration, crop losses and soaring food prices as a result of extreme weather are already a stark new reality. Worse is almost certainly to come.

At an intuitive level, we know this. But faced with these colossal and immediate challenges, European politics is showing alarming signs of drift. The aftermath of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis, and the spectre of economic recession, are combining to drain momentum from net zero targets. Last week, a core piece of the European Union’s green deal was only passed by the narrowest of margins, after being heavily watered down. In key areas for reaching climate neutrality, such as transport, lifestyles and agriculture, progress is too slow.

In Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and elsewhere – as Gordon Brown has noted – the radical nationalist right is successfully turning the green agenda into a battleground for its culture wars. In Britain, it has become depressingly clear that the climate emergency is not a priority for Rishi Sunak. The Labour party has meanwhile revised the timetable of its potentially transformative £28bn-a-year green transition plan.

After so many IPCC reports, Cop summit communiques and political statements of intent, the idea that these heatwaves could be considered a wake-up call for Europe’s governments and populations seems somewhat otiose. Cerberus and Charon are searing reminders that the climate emergency cannot be put on hold as other crises are addressed. Europe is heating faster than any other continent, but its politics is not keeping pace. Time really is running out; progressive politicians need to rediscover the courage of their convictions and a sense of urgency.

Source: The Guardian