Temperatures spiked to 115 degrees (46 Celsius) in areas of the Iberian Peninsula, triggering dozens of wildfires. Over the past week, there probably have been more than a thousand heat-linked deaths in Spain and Portugal. Hospitals are straining under this additional burden as they also cope with a renewed surge in coronavirus cases. Hydrologists are warning of the deeper effects of widespread drought, shrinking water tables and battered harvests.
Center-left politicians linked the extreme heat to the march of climate change. Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said his nation had “no time to lose” and urged faster investment in renewable energy. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez toured the drought and wildfire-ravaged Extremadura region on Monday. “Evidently, climate change kills,” he said. “It kills people, kills our ecosystem, the biodiversity.”
As The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang reported: “The chances of seeing 40°C [104 degrees] days in the UK could be as much as 10 times more likely in the current climate than under a natural climate unaffected by human influence,” said Nikos Christidis, a climate attribution scientist at the UK Met Office. “The likelihood of exceeding 40°C anywhere in the UK in a given year has also been rapidly increasing, and, even with current pledges on emissions reductions, such extremes could be taking place every 15 years in the climate of 2100.”
The extreme temperature has not been seen “since modern record keeping began a century and a half ago,” my colleague William Booth writes of Britain. “Hitting 40C, for British climate scientists, is a kind of a unicorn event that had appeared in their models but until recently seemed almost unbelievable and unattainable this soon.”
After 363 years tracking summer heat, UK could see an all-time high
Yet even as European scientists and policymakers recognize the need to adjust in the face of looming planetary peril, more immediate pressures are pulling governments in the opposite direction. The Russian invasion of Ukraine — which triggered chaos in global energy markets and stiff Western sanctions on Russian fossil fuels — has led to a spike in the cost of electricity across the continent, with some countries getting exposed for their overreliance on Russian natural gas and oil to power their harvest.
The onset of brutally hot temperatures has triggered new demands in a part of the world where air conditioning is not as ubiquitous as the United States. “This huge increase in the demand for natural gas for electricity production has been mainly due to the high temperatures recorded as a result of the heatwave,” Spanish utility company Enagas said in a statement last week.
Questions loom over Europe’s gas supply, with countries frantically trying to fill storage facilities ahead of winter. The “next few months will be critical,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said Monday. “If Russia decides to completely cut off gas supplies before Europe can get its storage levels up to 90 percent, the situation will be even more grave and challenging.”
Attention falls this week on Thursday, when the Nord Stream 1 pipeline linking Russian gas to Europe is set to resume operations after a scheduled 10-day hiatus for maintenance. Germany, in particular, is paralyzed over what may or may not happen, depending on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin and state energy giant Gazprom turn off the spigot — a move that would cost the Kremlin, too, but nevertheless throttle some of Europe’s major .
“Anything can happen,” German economy minister Robert Habeck said in a radio interview. “It could be that the gas flows again, even more than before. It could be that nothing will come at all.”
What extreme heat does to the human body
Some Western commentators think Putin’s bluff must be called and that the confrontation with the Kremlin must be escalated. “A long, cold, calamity-filled European winter of power shortages and turmoil looms,” wrote the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, bemoaning NATO’s “delusion” that the conflict in Ukraine could be confined to that nation. “And like a coin-fed gas meter, the price of western leaders’ timidity and shortsightedness ticks upwards by the hour.”
Beyond the war, European leaders are pushing for an energy future free of dependency on Russia — but may face significant shortfalls in the near term. The prospect of Russian gas supplies falling off a cliff has already moved Europe in problematic directions. Habeck one of Europe’s most influential Green politicians, has taken measures that directly clash with the emission-curbing commitments made by European Union member states. And he’s hardly alone.
“Germany’s options are few, imperfect and unpleasant,” observed Constanze Stelzenmuller in the Financial Times. “Habeck is bringing dirty coal plants back online, and telling people to take shorter showers. He is streamlining procurement and loosening environmental restrictions to build fixed liquefied natural gas terminals; Meanwhile, he is renting floating terminals. And he has wooed authoritarian Gulf leaders in search of alternative LNG supplies.”
Europe is arguably leading the world in its transition to renewable energy. But most EU countries remain dependent on natural gas to help tide over their harvest. “The war in Ukraine has highlighted the degree to which [Europe’s climate] ambitions relied on gas piped from Russia to keep the lights on and factories humming while awaiting a payoff from hundreds of billions of euros in planned investment in renewables, electric cars, and technologies to cut emissions from heavy industry,” noted Bloomberg News.
These maps show how excessively hot it is in Europe and the US
Now, analysts see a considerable emissions spike in the offing. Numerous European countries have stepped up the use of coal, while also encouraging new investments in long-term fossil fuel extraction and storage. “It looks to me like an attempt by the oil and gas industry to end-run the Paris agreement,” said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, an advisory group in Berlin, referring to the landmark 2015 international treaty on climate change in an interview with the New York Times. “And I’m very worried they might succeed.”
On the flip side, experts also see European governments doubling down on investments in renewables, including major expansions in the EU’s solar capacity. Per an analysis by think tanks Ember and the Center for Research and Clean Air, current trends could see 63 percent of EU electricity produced from renewables by 2030, up from a projected 55 percent under policies proposed as late as 2019.
“It’s always risky to allow higher emissions, but if that’s coupled with razor-sharp focus on wind and solar deployment, probably that means a faster energy transition,” Charles Moore, head of Ember’s Europe program, said to Bloomberg. “It would be a risky strategy if you had any other options, but you don’t.”