Extreme heat waves and wildfires point to worsening climate crisis

While the local or proximate causes of these extreme events may vary, their increased intensity and unpredictability is a product of climate change

July 28, 2022 by Aditya Sarin
Wildfire and heatwaves
Wildfire in the Gironde region of southwestern France. (Photo: via Reuters)

On July 26, Reuters reported that “extreme” wildfires – those that have burned more than 1,000 acres – had occurred in France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and Morocco.

In France, as of July 25, upwards of 50,000 acres had been burned and more than 34,000 people had been evacuated. The Mount Penteli wildfire alone in Greece has left more than 20,000 acres burned and required the evacuation of nearly 100,000, and comes after many other smaller blazes in other parts of the country. Across Italy, Spain and Portugal, more than 30,000 acres have been burned and thousands have been evacuated over the last two weeks. 

Slovenia and Croatia have reported record-breaking fires as well, and in Morocco, numerous small wildfires have necessitated the evacuation of more than 1,100 families as thousands of acres of forest land have gone up in smoke. These are not isolated phenomena. The UK and Turkey have seen fires, deaths and evacuations, as have Israel, South Korea, Canada, the United States, Brazil and Argentina. 

The effects of these fires will be both immediate and long-term. Deaths have been relatively few so far, but thousands have been displaced and had their homes destroyed. Animal populations, harder to relocate, will also suffer.

In the longer run, the increased particulate matter in the air from the smoke released by these conflagrations is likely to lead to health complications for thousands: increased risks of heart and lung problems, as well as birth and developmental defects have all been long correlated with wildfires and increased atmospheric smoke. Large amounts of arable land have also been set ablaze, which will only serve to exacerbate the brewing global food crisis.

Another problem that these blazes will only serve to compound is that of global warming, as they release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The organic matter that serves as the fuel for these fires is an environmental store of carbon, released into the air as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other products of combustion. These gases will only serve to trap more heat in the atmosphere, making future fires that much likelier. 

While the local – or proximate – causes of these fires may vary, their increased intensity and unpredictability is a product of climate change. Individual fires might have been started, some suggest, by causes as varied as arson, lightning strikes, or even birds being electrocuted by electric lines, but, as global temperatures tend ever higher, they become both more likely and more devastating.

Both Europe and North Africa have been, for the last several weeks, in the grip of an unprecedented heatwave, with temperatures as high as 40°C recorded in the UK and peaking at 47°C in parts of Portugal and Spain. In a conversation with Peoples Dispatch on July 21, D Raghunandan of the Delhi Science Forum and the All India People’s Science Network noted that the heatwave cannot itself be simply seen as anomalous but as the consequence of human-induced climate change. Moreover, climate change itself does not just refer to temperature, but to changing global climatic and weather patterns. This particular heatwave, for example, he said, is a function of both currents of hot, dry air blowing towards Europe as well as decreased soil moisture in the same regions. These themselves can further only be explained by the effects of humans on the environment; no other model that we currently have demonstrates adequately, in the absence of human action, why temperatures are rising and what earlier were once-in-a-decade weather events now recur year after year.

This heatwave, which has already led to thousands of deaths across Europe, has also created the ideal conditions for wildfires to thrive. Fires are more likely to start at higher temperatures, and the lack of moisture in the air and soil means that they are less likely to extinguish themselves quickly. Instead, they spread, endangering thousands. 

Many on the left have demanded changes to this status quo, and we need to remain mindful of the ways in which complex forces interact to lead to such problems. Mitigation strategies – more fire breaks, more fire fighters – are simply not enough to deal with the scale of the problem; what we need to do is examine our approach to our environment as well as the control that capital continues to exert on ‘solutions’ to this crisis.