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It's Hot - Really Hot! Is It Climate Change?

By Lisa Benjamin and Adelle Thomas

TEMPERATURES this summer are soaring across the globe. A heat wave, aptly named Lucifer, has brought scorching temperatures of over 100°F to southern Europe.

Wildfires have been sparked in Portugal, France and Greece, resulting in several deaths. Industries such as tourism, agriculture, as well as public transport services, have all been negatively affected. Emergency alert warnings of the high temperatures have been issued in several European countries. In the Pacific Northwest of the United States, unusually high temperatures peaked at over 100°F, with temperatures being recorded in cities such as Seattle and Portland of 104°F and 107°F respectfully. Earlier this year in April, a severe heat wave hit Pakistan, causing temperatures to soar over 120°F. Here at home, it has been an unseasonably hot summer, with temperatures regularly reaching over 90°F. Higher than average air and sea surface temperatures do not bode well for the upcoming hurricane season.

Are these high temperatures due to a changing climate? Climate and weather are two different, but related, concepts. Climate looks at average or long-term weather patterns. Weather looks at short-term changes in temperatures, rainfall, etc. The difference can be remembered with the short phrase, 'Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.' Climate science therefore looks at changing patterns in the Earth's climate over the long term- over decades and even hundreds of years. Climate science and modelling future scenarios of a changing climate is very complex, including many variables. As a result, climate scientists are reluctant to attribute one single weather event to climate change. Instead, they may say that these soaring temperatures are in line with the impacts we can expect to see due to a changing climate.

What scientists are certain of is that average global temperatures have been increasing and that it is clear that humans have contributed to this warming. The last 30 years have been the warmest three decades in over a millennium. Since the 1880s, the globally averaged land and ocean temperature has increased by 0.85⁰C which has had significant impacts on many natural and human systems including melting of snow and ice, changes to ecosystems, increased intensity of tropical storms, decreased crop yields and sea level rise. As the global temperature average continues to rise, these impacts, and many others, are expected to increase.

Increased temperatures and impacts are particularly disturbing for small island states such as the Bahamas. If temperatures continue to increase, sea level rise can threaten the very existence of many low-elevation islands. Because of this, small island states have been advocating in international climate negotiations to keep the global average warming to a maximum of 1.5⁰C. Although there will still be impacts from climate change with this level of warming, there will be more adaptation options and increased ability of small islands to survive. However, with 0.85⁰C of warming already being experienced, there must be urgent and significant action to limit warming to 1.5⁰C. While small islands are one of the groups most at risk to climate change impacts, they are among the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases, the drivers of warming. Thus, it is imperative that industrialized countries and high emitters such as the USA, China and Russia curb their emissions to limit warming and resultant impacts.

More information about climate change can be found on the Climate Change Initiative's website: www.climatechangebahamas.org.

- Lisa Benjamin and Adelle Thomas are assistant professors at The University of The Bahamas, and co-founders of the Climate Change Initiative

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