The world is experiencing extreme weather events like never before. What can be done?

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Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated across Europe in recent days, with in parts of France, Spain, Portugal and Greece.
The UK, too, has been sweating through a grueling heatwave and is bracing for its hottest day on record with temperatures set to top the 38.7 degrees recorded in 2019.

It prompted the Met Office to issue the country’s first-ever red extreme heat warning for parts of central, northern, eastern and south-eastern England.

Across the Atlantic, southern regions of the United States experienced consistently high temperatures, while flash floods hit southwest and northwest China.
Everything comes just a fortnight after torrential forced rains for the fourth time in 18 months.

So what is causing all these extreme weather conditions and what can be done to limit their frequency and severity?

Recent years have been up to 1 degree above the average temperature of 1901-2000.

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 talk about the hot summer of 1976, [when] temperatures peaked at around 36 degrees,” he said.
“In more recent summers in the UK there have been temperatures reaching 37 or 38 degrees at times.”

But the “frequency, intensity and duration” of these heatwaves, like the ones western Europe is currently experiencing, “wouldn’t really be possible without human-induced climate change”, Dr King said.

“The temperatures associated with these heatwaves are rising to the point now that we’re talking 40, maybe even 41 or 42 degrees Celsius in the UK, which a few decades ago would have seemed really, really amazing,” did he declare.
“In a few decades, that won’t be uncommon.”
On whether climate change is to blame for the frequency and severity of extreme rainfall events and flooding, particularly those that have hit Australia’s eastern states in recent months, Dr King said the evidence was unclear.
“In Australia our rainfall is very variable, and we tend to see wetter conditions when we have like us [had in] the last two summers in the southern hemisphere,” he said.

“There’s not a huge trend in extreme multi-day rainfall causing flooding in eastern Australia, but we are seeing more intense showers and thunderstorms which could exacerbate some flooding.”

Dr. Michael Barnes, a researcher at Monash University’s ARC Center of Excellence for Climate Extremes, was also conservative in his assessment.
“We have to be careful in attributing things to climate change, especially singular 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 have to be realistic about what’s going to happen in the future.”

A graph showing how rainfall has been higher this year in Sydney than average

The average annual rainfall figure was exceeded in Sydney in early April.

Can we expect extreme weather events to happen more often?

Dr Barnes said that while it is difficult to attribute climate change to specific weather events, “we, in general, should have more extreme events, whether it’s flooding in some areas, drought in other regions or a heat wave”.

This prediction could be even worse if the target set in the Paris climate agreement to limit warming to well below two degrees above pre-industrial levels is not met, Dr King said.

“Even under the Paris agreement, it’s possible to have 50-degree days in Melbourne and Sydney, for example,” he said.

“So if we don’t stick to the Paris agreement, we could get a reasonably high frequency of extreme heat days over 50 degrees, with days over 40 degrees more often in our biggest cities in Australia.”

What can be done to reduce the frequency and severity of extreme weather events?

Dr King said the “main thing” to do to limit the impact of climate change is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“People can take action to reduce their own carbon footprint, but it’s really up to big business and governments to take action as well,” he said.
“Governments really need to implement a policy to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we are to have any chance of meeting the Paris agreement and limiting the future increase in extreme heat events like the ones we are experiencing. we see right now.”
The federal government has set an emissions reduction target of 43% for 2030 compared to 2005.

It has also pledged to legislate a goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

But Dr King said Australia and other countries should consider having more ambitious targets.
“Globally, as long as we have net positive greenhouse gas emissions, we are going to warm the planet,” he said.
“We really need to get to net zero to stop this global warming and prevent other really dangerous impacts of climate change, so

“Anything we can do to get to net zero emissions as soon as possible and keep global warming as low as possible is really important.”

Adapting to a warming planet

Even if global emissions are reduced “very quickly”, Dr King said episodes of extreme heat will continue for decades to come, bringing with them “hundreds if not thousands of excess deaths”.
“The global temperature is not going to stop rising for a while until we reach net zero emissions,” he said.

“And after that it would probably take a while to come back down, so we have to adapt to cope better.”

Dr King said there are many “little things, when taken together, can really improve” humanity’s ability to cope with extreme heat events.
“Greening our cities certainly helps,” he said.
“We know that where you lack trees and shade, the roads, the sidewalks, the houses get a lot hotter, so the things we can do to reduce temperatures locally can help a lot.”
“[Also] making sure people know what to do in the event of a heat wave, to reduce the number of hospitalizations, and making sure the healthcare system has the capacity to deal with spikes in admissions.”

Dr King said it was also essential to ensure that public transport and other services were adapted so that they could continue to operate during intense heat waves.

Given that more extreme rainfall events are also expected in the coming decades, where and how new infrastructure is built will be “important” to prevent such disastrous outcomes.
“Obviously, if you don’t build in a floodplain, you won’t have as much damage as if you build in a floodplain,” he said.

“So we have to make decisions based on common sense, but also on the science that comes out as an output.”

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