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On August 16, Death Valley, a national park in California and Nevada, recorded a preliminary high temperature of 54.4 degrees Celsius. If verified, it could be the hottest temperature recorded in the world since 1913. 

Hottest Temperature Ever Recorded on Earth

The National Weather Service (NWS) reported the news, adding that the previous temperature record of 56.6 degrees Celsius was reported over 100 years ago, also in Death Valley. The agency is warning people who live in eastern California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah to limit their time outside to between 5am and 8am.

It comes amid a heatwave on the US’s west coast, where temperatures are forecast to rise even further this week.

Why is the Death Valley so hot?

This heat is the result of a high pressure system that has settled over much of the West Coast in the US. During this time of year, the West and southwestern US usually experience the North American monsoon, the agency says. However, the monsoon hasn’t developed as it typically does so Death Valley is getting hotter under high pressure. 

The scorching conditions have led to two days of blackouts in California, after a power plant malfunctioned on Saturday.

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According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), July was the hottest July on record for seven states along the East Coast. 

This extreme weather event is a frightening reminder that the climate crisis is not some far-off concept that most people won’t see in their lifetimes. It is happening now and it will continue to impact people all around the world in various ways- some will experience intense heat that will affect their ability to move around comfortably, while others will be forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of flooding or other extreme weather events. As always, this should be a stark warning to the world that we need to move towards a greener future- our lives quite literally depend on it.

A study shows that within 50 years, a billion people will either be displaced or forced to live in insufferable heat for every 1°C rise in global temperature, illustrating that the human cost of the climate crisis will be far worse than previously believed. 

The paper, which examines how the climate crisis will affect human habitats, warns that under worst-case scenarios of increasing emissions, areas where a third of the global population currently live will be as hot as the hottest parts of the Sahara desert within 50 years.

Even in the most optimistic outlook, a rise in global temperature will cause 1.2 billion people to fall outside the comfortable ‘climate niche’ where humans have lived for at least 6 000 years.

Tim Lenton, one of the researchers in the study, says, “The numbers are flabbergasting. I literally did a double take when I first saw them. I’ve previously studied climate tipping points, which are usually considered apocalyptic. But this hit home harder. This puts the threat in very human terms.”

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The majority of humans have always lived in regions where the average annual temperatures are around 6°C to 28°C, ideal for human health and food production. However, this range is shifting and shrinking as a result of anthropogenic climate change, which is dropping more and more people into what the paper describes as ‘near unliveable’ extremes.

The researchers say that they are shocked at how sensitive humanity is, because we are concentrated on land- which is warming faster than the oceans- and because most future population growth will be in already hot regions of Asia and Africa. Because of these demographic factors, the average human will experience a temperature increase of 7.5°C when global temperatures reach 3°C warming.

At this temperature, about a third of the world’s population would live in average temperatures of 29°C, conditions that are rare outside of the most scorched part of the Sahara, but with global heating of 3°C, this is expected to be the norm for 1.2 billion people in India, 485 million people in Nigeria and more than 100 million in each of Pakistan, Indonesia and Sudan. This would create hundreds of millions more climate refugees and pose challenges to food production systems. In fact, David Wallas- Wells, the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” says that even at 2.5°C warming, the world would enter a global food deficit- needing more calories than the planet can produce, mostly thanks to drought.

Professor Marten Scheffer, one of the lead authors of the study, says, ““We did not expect humans to be so sensitive. We think of ourselves as very adaptable because we use clothes, heating and air conditioning. But, in fact, the vast majority of people live- and have always lived- inside a climate niche that is now moving as never before. There will be more change in the next 50 years than in the past 6 000 years.”

The authors hope that their findings spur policymakers to accelerate emission cuts and work together to cope with migration.

In late 2018, the UN World Meteorological Organization warned that global temperatures are on course for a 3-5°C rise this century, far overshooting the Paris Agreement target of limiting this increase to 2°C or less by 2100.

According to estimates from over 70 peer-reviewed studies, Carbon Brief paints a grim picture of the world under 2°C, 3°C and 4°C temperature rise this century:

At two degrees, the melting of ice sheets will pass a tipping point of collapse, triggering flooding in dozens of the world’s major cities and resulting in a global sea-level rise of 56cm. It is estimated that that global GDP will be cut by 13%. 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity and heat waves in the northern latitudes will kill thousands each summer; this will be worse along the equator. In India, there would be 32 times as many extreme heat waves, each lasting five times as long and exposing 93 times more people. This is our best-case scenario.

At three degrees, southern Europe will be in permanent drought. The average drought in Central America would last 19 months, in the Caribbean, 21 and in northern Africa, 60 months- five years. Those areas burned annually by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple in the US. Cities from Miami Beach to Jakarta will be submerged by sea-level rise and damages from river flooding will grow 30-fold in Bangladesh, 20-fold in India and up to 60-fold in the UK. This level of warming is better than we’d do if all of the nations of the world honoured their Paris commitments- which only a handful are.

At four degrees, there would be eight million cases of dengue fever each year in Latin America alone. Global grain yields would fall by as much as 50%, producing annual or close-to-annual food crises. The global economy would fall more than 30% than without climate change, and we would see at least half again as much conflict and warfare as we do today.

While great strides have been made in terms of the plummeting costs of renewable energy and the increasing global divestment from coal, carbon emissions are still growing. It is important to decrease emissions to level and then bend the curve.

One way of doing this is through a carbon tax. However, a tax needs to be far higher than any of those currently in use or being considered; The IPCC has proposed raising the cost of a tonne of carbon possibly as high as US$5 000 by 2030; they suggest this may have to increase by US$27 000 by 2100. Today, the average price of carbon across 42 major economies is US$8 per tonne.

These numbers would shock even those most optimistic; if estimates are correct, then by the end of the century, a rise in global temperature will displace up to 5 billion people, nearly two-thirds of the current global population.

Featured image by: Oxfam East Africa

Discourse around the climate crisis tends to focus on the weather-related effects, such as rising sea-levels and intense hydrological incidents such as flooding and droughts, as well as the direct impact on human lives, like famines, forced migration and geopolitical shifts. Less has been said about the impact the climate crisis could have on human conflict and the implications it could present for the future.

Cornell University professor Gary Evans explored this proposition and found a link between the climate crisis and large-scale social behaviour. He identified rising temperatures, increased frequency and severity of droughts, flooding and storms, and air pollution as the main drivers of climate change-related societal disruption. 

Evans categorised these impacts into three groups, namely heat, weather disasters and air pollution. This is how the fate of climate and society has intertwined: 

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An example conceptual model of climate change and its inter-relations with conflict and subsequent migration

Which current conflict is a direct result of climate change?

  1. Temperature, Mental Health And Quality of Life
    Starting from 1993, an 11-year long analysis of all deaths in the United Kingdom concluded that when temperatures exceeded 18°C, there was a 3.8% increase in the relative risk of suicide for each 1°C increase. Indeed, when ambient temperatures rise well above mean levels, mental health admissions to hospitals increase. However, while temperature is associated with mental health and quality of life, the direct association of rising temperatures with mental health is stymied by the complexity of suicide cases.

    A panel study examining 67 countries concluded that the warmer the coldest month of the year, the happier the country and the warmer the hottest month of the year, the less happy the country. The study included variables such as economic indicators, sociocultural factors and life expectancy to rule out alternative explanations for the differences in happiness.

    Furthermore, the study used projected changes in temperature to predict happiness levels over 30 and 60 years and found that as temperatures increase, countries at higher latitudes may become happier, while tropical and subtropical countries may become unhappier.

  2. Social Interaction, Crime and Conflict
    As the climate crisis intensifies, an increase in crime could be seen, particularly at lower latitudes. A study found that given existing US data on assaults, murders and annual temperatures in a set of 50 US cities over a 48- year period, an average annual increase of 2°F in the US would result in a staggering 24,000 additional murders/assaults each year.

    Studies looking at fluctuations in temperature in the same populations over time show increased intergroup conflict, especially in low income, agriculturally-dependant regions. For example, increased temperatures result in reduced rainfall, damaging crop yields and leading to economic distress and resource scarcity. Additionally, economic pressure caused by insufficient infrastructure and unemployment may exacerbate climate-related migration.

    The climate crisis may strengthen authoritarian trends globally, as discussed in a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. Increased authoritarianism is directly linked to an increased perceived threat level; that is, situations that are troubling or distressing to an individual, which may result in populations becoming more polarised and discriminatory towards minorities and those at the margin of society.

    Eritrea is one such example. 5,000 refugees flee from its borders every month. Not incidentally, it’s one of Africa’s most food-insecure nations and and a one-party state with one of the worst human-rights records in the world.

  3. Armed Conflicts
    Armed conflicts over a 30-year period were coincident nearly 10% of the time with major heat waves or droughts and in countries with a high degree of ethnic fragmentation, the incidence was 23%. According to an article published in PNAS, this has far-reaching implications as countries vulnerable to climate change are set to suffer disproportionately from rising temperatures. The most fragile states often couple an economy of basic subsistence with deep ethnic divides. Middle Eastern countries with quarreling ethnic groups, for example Syria and Afghanistan, both experienced prolonged droughts that ravaged agricultural output at crucial moments in their recent history.

    The Pentagon also found a causal link between the climate crisis and human conflicts (for example, the ongoing Syrian conflict), but only when other conditions and factors such as drought severity and the pre-existing likelihood of conflict were present at a high enough level to ignite armed conflict.

Overall, Evans’s review indicates that behavioural changes stemming from rising temperatures will have mostly negative consequences and that without effective intervention, humans will become more violent and mental health will suffer.

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