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Gathering Storm


Actions at global, regional, national and community levels are needed to build greater heat resilience

Conservation issues first came to the fore in the global arena half a century ago, when the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972.Three decades ago in 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, was convened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Earth Summit produced many great achievements, especially the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which marked the beginning of global climate change governance.

However, humanity's response to climate change has not achieved the desired results. Not only are the efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change sluggish, but also climate change adaptation actions lag far behind what is needed.

Unprecedented high temperatures have been reported around the world, even in the Arctic region. This summer, temperatures in the United Kingdom exceeded 40 C since records began, prompting the government to issue the highest-level warning and declare a national climate emergency. And in China, an unusual heat wave persisted for more than 70 days, with temperatures in some parts of the western region soaring to 45 C, and even the lowest night-time temperatures hitting 34 C, which has never happened before in the country and the world.

It is obvious that humanity was not fully prepared for the extreme heat. Many countries were caught off guard by the scorching heat, which has taken a heavy toll on people's health. In many places, there is a lack of cooling and other facilities needed to cope with high temperatures, and heat-induced water shortages made it difficult for people to access drinking water. Due to power crunches caused by the intensive heat, lights in subways and shopping malls have had to be switched off to reduce the power load, and people could not use air conditioners. Agricultural production has also suffered because of droughts, raising concerns over food security in some countries and regions. All these highlight the vulnerability of our society to heat waves.

The United Nations Environment Programme began issuing the Adaptation Gap Report in 2014 to provide an assessment of the gap between the needs of humanity's adaption to climate change and the reality. The sixth version of the report issued last year, titled The Gathering Storm--Adapting to Climate Change in a Post-Pandemic World, pointed out the insufficiency in adaptation planning, financing, and implementation worldwide. The report said that implementation rates of climate adaptation actions may not keep up with the increasing levels of climate change, and the world needs to translate policies and plans into concrete and rapid execution and financial support. However, the UNEP fell short of highlighting the impacts of extreme heat waves and the need to build a heat-resilient society.

The world should attach greater importance to the impact of extreme heat events on human society. In the recently published Communications Earth & Environment journal, scientists from the United States predicted that deadly heat waves will hit most parts of the world three times more often in the coming decades. Research by the International Labour Organization suggests that by 2090, the GDP losses caused by high temperatures will increase by 20 percent worldwide, and exposure to extreme heat could make it deadly for even the healthiest of people to stay outdoors for a few hours. Since humanity's emissions reduction efforts are far from satisfactory, the planet's temperature will continue rising for at least the next 30 to 40 years, and it is most likely that the world will fail to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature rises to less than 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.

There is a long way to go for humanity to build a heat-resilient world. In an article published in the Oxford Open Climate Change journal in 2021, a total of 19 scholars from around the world made a systematic review on the research on the global climate change adaptation to extreme heat and concluded that a comprehensive understanding of the current state of heat adaptations has not been established.

Although 98 countries have documented heat adaptation actions, many of these adaptation strategies lack adequacy and effectiveness as underlined in the UNEP's Adaptation Gap Report. The article said that priority in heat adaptations varies by country and region, and the current global responses to intensifying extreme heat remain largely spontaneous and incremental. Given the severe impacts heat waves have on the world, humanity must enhance research and assessment of responses to high temperatures, and take actions at global, regional, national and community levels.

At the 27th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 27) to the UNFCC to be held in Egypt later this year, a special session should be arranged to discuss the global response to extreme heat waves. The UNEP should join hands with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to organize global scientists to review the possible impacts extreme heat could have on humanity in the future as well as the response strategies and measures to be taken. Meanwhile, governments at national and local levels should build heat-resilient communities according to the four-step proposal put forward by the IPCC.

It is time for the world to revive the spirit of the UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm as well as the Rio Earth Summit, and draw experiences and learn lessons from the environmental governance and climate response practices over the past half a century. Facing the extreme heat, the world should vigorously build heat-resilient societies and strive to create a more sustainable and healthy future.


The author is a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University and vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Development Strategy Studies. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.