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6 July 2022

In a drying world can humans learn to adapt?

From Alaska to Texas and Delhi to Nottinghamshire, heatwaves and drought caused by climate change are transforming the way we live.

By Philippa Nuttall

The world is experiencing heatwaves so intense that even the extreme north is turning tropical. Verkhoyansk, a Russian town in the Arctic Circle, reached 38°C during the weekend of 18-19 June. In May temperatures were 10°C above average in many parts of Siberia. Further south, during the European heatwave from 15 to 21 June, Swiss glaciers shed more than 300 million tons through snow and ice melt, losing enough water to fill an Olympic swimming pool every five seconds. As the ice melts, the land blazes. In Alaska, which has suffered more than 300 wildfires in recent weeks, nearly half a million hectares of land have burnt. Even in the UK, temperatures are predicted to reach highs of 41°C this week, warmer than Athens and Ibiza.

Such heatwaves are increasingly common. Jacobabad, a landlocked city in Pakistan’s Sindh province, 550 kilometres north of Karachi, is one of the most extreme examples. In March, temperatures peaked at 51°C, and remained above 37°C for 51 consecutive days. In June, some parts of France experienced temperatures as high as 14°C above normal.

Across the Atlantic, 100 million Americans were urged to stay indoors in June as temperatures from California to Texas soared above 40°C. South-western states are in the grip of the worst drought for more than 1,000 years. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest American reservoirs, have been in drought conditions for more than 20 years and are now at their lowest levels ever recorded. The reservoirs, which are part of a system that provides water to more than 40 million people, are around a quarter full.

Extreme weather kills. More than 5 million people die each year because of excessively hot or cold conditions, and the number dying from heatwaves is increasing, according to a recent study published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal. Today, 354 major cities experience average summer temperatures above 35°C; by 2050 this could be true for nearly 1,000 cities. Meanwhile, annual economic losses due to drought in the UK and EU alone could rise to more than €65bn by the end of the century, up from around €9bn today. Hundreds of millions of people, mostly in low-income countries, will be forced to migrate due to water shortages.

Scientists are clear that climate change is behind this warming, and that drought and heatwaves will become more prolonged and intense if it continues unchecked. Failure to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 could lead to global temperatures increasing by 3°C, or more, by the end of the century. “The window to prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis is closing fast,” said António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, on 14 June. We are still moving far too slowly.

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[See also: Dead birds falling from the sky is a bad omen for humanity]

Meghan Sapp, a California-born agriculture journalist turned farmer who lives in Navarra, northern Spain, has spent much of her professional career reporting on food and farming from low-income countries. Today her small holding is struggling against drought conditions she once more readily associated with regions of Africa. Sapp and her husband bought their 3.5 hectare farm seven years ago. She describes it as a “Noah’s ark” farm with “a bit of everything” – chickens, horses, turkeys, goats, vegetables and grasslands.

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The couple practise “regenerative agriculture” and use innovative techniques to keep moisture in the soil and thus reduce the need for excessive irrigation. But what happens when the rains don’t come? This year the dry conditions forced them to irrigate their market garden in the second week of May rather than at the end of June, as they have done previously. “This week we’ve had one litre of rainfall instead of the 30 litres forecast,” Sapp told me.

More irrigation comes at a cost – financially, for farmers, who have to pay for greater volumes of water, but also for the environment, as it increases the likelihood of serious long-term water shortages. Irrigation already consumes around 70 per cent of the water we draw from rivers, lakes and aquifers, as George Monbiot explains in his most recent book, Regenesis. Irrigation contributes to the shrinking of rivers and lakes, and to the water table dropping in dry areas.

Crises caused by a lack of rain are compounded by rising temperatures. Navarra is traditionally one of Spain’s cooler areas, with temperatures reaching the mid-twenties on average in summer. But like the rest of Spain, it is getting hotter. The new normal there is 15 to 20 days of temperatures between 30°C and 35°C. Already this year temperatures have exceeded 35°C on 21 days. “Everything looks toasted,” says Sapp, joking that the only beneficiaries are the horses. “They were getting a bit fat, but they’ve slimmed down from eating standing hay [rather than grass].” The region is poorly prepared to help people and animals cope with the warmer, drier climate – air conditioning, for instance, is largely absent from homes. Sapp’s chickens are particularly ill-equipped: “They can’t stand the heat, they just drop dead,” she says.

William Pringle’s family has been working the 120 hectares of land on Hardwick Grange Farm in Clumber, Nottinghamshire, for 85 years. They once grew cereals and oilseed rape and for the past ten years have grown maize. But falling germination rates and rising irrigation costs have pushed Pringle, 70, to abandon the crop. “The farm was finding it hard to stay financially viable,” he says. Instead, under a government-supported environmental stewardship agreement, Pringle is making his farm a more ecologically friendly, “climate-resilient habitat”, as he puts it, by planting deep-rooted grasslands and more trees to create shade in the summer, holding water in the soil. Some of the grasslands are grazed on by cattle, and other areas are left aside to create habitats for nesting birds.

In the coming years, many more farms in the UK, and elsewhere in the world, will be forced to undergo some form of transition. All of the ten warmest years on record in the UK have occurred since 2002, and the decade from 2011 to 2020 was 1.1°C above the 1961-90 average. At the same time, six of the ten wettest years have happened since 1998.

Four crops – wheat, rice, maize and soybean – account for almost 60 per cent of the calories produced by farmers around the world. Just four countries (the US, Argentina, Brazil and France) harvest 76 per cent of the maize exported to other nations. Five countries (Thailand, Vietnam, India, the US and Pakistan) sell 77 per cent of the world’s rice, and five (the US, France, Canada, Russia and Australia) supply 65 per cent of the wheat. Meanwhile, only three nations – Brazil, the US and Argentina – grow 86 per cent of the world’s soybeans.

Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression has exposed the world’s reliance on Russia and Ukraine for wheat. Russia is the third largest producer of wheat, behind China and India, and its leading exporter, accounting for 18 per cent of global shipments in 2021. Ukraine, meanwhile, is the seventh biggest producer and was the sixth biggest exporter last year, with 10 per cent of the global market share.

[See also: Esther Duflo: “Climate change is a problem from hell politically”]

At present, Ukrainian grain is stuck at its Black Sea ports, and the Russian blockade is one reason why the cost of wheat and other cereals is rising. Prices for commonly traded food commodities – cereals, oils, meat, dairy and sugar – were nearly 23 per cent higher in May than the same month in 2021. Food prices were the biggest driver of inflation in the UK in May, pushing consumer prices up by 9.1 per cent in the 12 months to May 2022.

Some of the world’s poorest countries are at greatest risk because of their over-reliance on imports from Russia and Ukraine. In 2021 Eritrea sourced about half of its wheat imports from Russia and the other half from Ukraine. Meanwhile, Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh and Iran each source, on average, at least 60 per cent of their wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia.

When I spoke to George Monbiot in May, he told me that “a very small number of countries and companies mopping up a very large part of global food trade, particularly in grains and meats” is “a huge problem”. Other exporters’ potential to compensate for reduced shipments from Ukraine and Russia is limited, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

India, after five consecutive years of record wheat crops, could once have filled part of the shortfall at a minimum; it produces at least 14 per cent of the world’s wheat, but accounts for only 1 per cent of global exports. However, like Pakistan, India suffered extreme heat this spring and recorded its hottest March on record. Many states, particularly in the north-west, endured a punishing heatwave lasting several weeks, and temperatures hit more than 40°C in many cities, and nearly 50°C in Delhi. The full impact of these extreme temperatures on India’s wheat crop remains unclear, but some forecasts suggest that up to 50 per cent was destroyed by the drought and heat. India is not taking any chances. On 14 May Delhi announced an export ban on the grain.

France is Europe’s biggest wheat producer, but agronomists warn that widespread drought could severely damage this year’s harvest. A map published by the French environment ministry in May shows that nearly the whole country is experiencing drought or will do later in the summer. By April some regions had only received half the expected rainfall since the beginning of the year. These included cereal-growing regions such as Poitou-Charentes in the west.

Rainfall is not, however, decreasing everywhere. South Africa, the Mediterranean and parts of South America may be experiencing less rainfall overall, but elsewhere – including in the UK – annual rainfall remains stable, even if the patterns are altering. Research published in May by the UK Met Office reveals increasing seasonal rainfall north of the Mediterranean basin and decreasing rain in southernmost Europe since the beginning of the 20th century.

The best word to describe what is hap-pening is “extremes”, says Peter Stott, a Met Office researcher and the author of Hot Air, an account of scientists’ long battle with climate change deniers. He describes a future of wetter winters, more powerful downpours and “an increasing risk of drought in the summer, even in places where it is wetter in the winter, because hotter days will increase evaporation”.

Acutely dry areas such as subcontinental East Africa – where barely any rain has fallen for the past four years, and millions of people face severe food and water shortages – catch attention. But Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, insists the trends in the UK and Europe are, in some ways, the most concerning. East Africa is a semi-arid region and so the temperature rise makes less difference than it does in the UK.

The European heatwave in June was noteworthy not just because of the temperature records that were broken, but because it occurred so early in the year. The high temperatures, coupled with a relatively dry winter, mean drought conditions are not confined to the south of Europe. In Europe there is a “strong drying trend in the Mediterranean and a wetting trend in northern Europe”, but where the border lies is “a difficult question to answer”, says Otto. “The east of Germany seems to be drying, and so the drying might be relatively far north.”

The 2003 heatwave in Europe was the continent’s biggest natural disaster on record, killing more than 30,000 people. Similarly, the 2019 European heatwaves were that year’s deadliest disaster worldwide. People with pre-existing health problems living in poor housing are already “paying with their lives”, says Otto. “Adaptation to climate change shouldn’t be focused on one-shot solutions like building barriers to flood water,” but on “reducing vulnerability and addressing inequality.”

In countries such as the UK with traditionally cooler climes, encouraging the public – and politicians – to accept that warmer, drier summers might be bad news is not easy, however. “People recognise the climate is changing, but most are more focused on the risks of too much water – floods and storms – than the risks of not having enough,” says Adam Corner, an independent climate change communication specialist. Respondents to a recent survey in Scotland listed drought near the bottom of their climate concerns: “Most [British] people associate hot, dry weather with happy times.”

Climate science is complicated. Broad trends can be identified but the impacts will differ even in apparently similar countries – and deforestation, urbanisation and farming practices will all play their part. But the world on average has warmed by 1.2°C since pre-industrial times. Even if all countries took rapid coordinated action against the widespread use of fossil fuels, a certain amount of warming is guaranteed because of the greenhouse gas emissions already in the atmosphere. The world’s climate is getting hotter, and humanity must adapt.

The appointment of Denis Howell as minister for drought during the British heatwave of 1976 was greeted with much mirth and derision. Eager to persuade the nation to use less water, the Labour prime minister James Callaghan reportedly ordered Howell to do a rain dance, while Howell said his solution to saving water was to share the bath with his wife. A much more serious response to the drought and heatwaves of the 21st century will be required in our drying world.

[See also: Are extreme heatwaves the new normal?]

This article war originally published on 6th July 2022. It has been updated with the latest information.

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson