Jul 19 2022

UK Heat Wave

Europe is experiencing an extreme heat wave, with the UK set to reach the highest temperatures ever recorded there in the 363 years it has been keeping records. The current hottest temperature recorded in the UK was in 2019 at 38.7 C. The top ten hottest years have all been since 2002. Now the UK is predicted to hit 40-41 C in the current heat wave, and have already hit 37.5 C.

This should come as a surprise to exactly no one. Of course, weather is not climate, and heat waves happen. No one heat wave is evidence of climate change, the same way a cold day in December is not evidence that the planet is not warming. We have to look at global temperatures in aggregate, but also global warming does increase the probability of things like heat waves, droughts, and fires, and how extreme they are. There are also separate reasons why Europe in particular is seeing extreme heat waves, but this only explains why Europe is especially vulnerable, not why the heat waves are happening at all.

Science is also confirmed by how well it makes predictions. If we go back 20 years, the climate change denial community was claiming that global warming had “paused”. They used this claim to bolster their bigger claim that climate change was not happening at all, that we were just looking at a natural variability in climate that was regressing to the mean. The next 20 years, they predicted, would see a return to more historically average temperatures.  Meanwhile, scientists were predicting that global warming trends would continue. They predicted that the next 20 years would see increasing average temperatures, more hottest years on record, more heat waves and droughts.

Well, it’s 20 years later. It’s pretty clear who’s predictions were correct. Nine of the ten hottest years on record have all occurred in the last decade. The probability that the consensus of scientists was wrong and that the temperature increases we have been seeing in the last 20 years is just a statistical fluke is close to zero. Also, in retrospect we can say with confidence that the warming “pause” was never real. It was never statistically significant, and was always a bogus claim based on using selective data or misunderstanding how climate averages are made (also just like climate scientists were saying at the time).

This is the point where climate deniers retreat to their “safer” position that – OK, the planet is warming, it’s just not due to human activity. But that is nonsense. Scientists predicted the warming of the last two decades because of climate models, which indicated warming because of increasing CO2 levels due to human activity. So in essence the deniers would have to claim that climate scientists were correct in their predictions but for the wrong reason. But of course they have no viable alternate hypothesis to explain the warming that they predicted would not happen.

We are at a strange moment in the climate change saga. The Russian aggression against Ukraine has distracted the world from the urgent issue of climate change. This is understandable to some extent, as Europe may face a cold winter without Russian oil and gas to help heat their homes. In the short run it does seem like there is no alternative but for others to pump more fossil fuel to make up for the short fall. But this is also not the time to forget about climate change, and this moment can also be a wake up call and an opportunity.

Germany, for example, bet on an infrastructure entirely of renewables. They decided to close down their nuclear power plants, because of strong anti-nuclear political sentiment in Germany. They were warned that this would make them more dependent on Russian oil and gas – and that’s exactly what has happened, and it has now bit them in the behind quite strongly. Now Germany is opening coal-fired plants, and Europe overall is burning more coal. This is a giant step backwards in terms of global warming and CO2 release. They should be reopening their nuclear power plants. Again, we can play the prediction game. Nuclear opponents have framed the choice as that between renewables and nuclear power. But nuclear proponents (including the IPCC, and what I consider to be energy realists) predicted that the real choice is between nuclear and fossil fuel, especially coal. Well – Germany is a solid piece of evidence that the nuclear vs coal claim is true.

Russia reminds us that there are more reasons than just climate change to become independent of foreign fossil fuels, the supply of which is largely controlled by dictators. If you want to be safe from surging gas prices, by an electric vehicle. There is nothing the US can do, for example, to significantly mitigate their high gas prices. Gas is a global commodity, and OPEC has way more control over prices than the US, which actually has negligible control.

If Europe wants to be independent of Russian (and Middle Eastern) gas and oil, they need to build a transportation and energy infrastructure that is not dependent on fossil fuels. IPCC’s models show that this must include nuclear power. At least for the next 20-30 years we are going to need some massive baseload, low carbon energy, and that’s nuclear. Sure, we can maximize hydroelectric and geothermal where geologically feasible, but that will not be enough to close all the coal-fired plants.

My hope is that the one-two punch of a European heat wave and Europe having to burn more coal will be a wake-up call. Right now we are just over 1 C global warming. We have a small chance of keeping warming below 1.5 C but we are not headed in that direction right now. We are not even on track to keep warming below 2.5 C. In order to meet these targets this is the decade that we have to turn the corner. The fact that Europe is burning more coal is just insane. We need to invest fast in next generation nuclear, and keep existing plants open as long as possible, in addition to upgrading the grid, installing grid storage, and accelerating electric technology and renewable energy sources. We need to do everything, or we have no chance of meeting even the most modest goals.

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