Summers marked by more extreme heat, drought and bushfires are the new reality in Britain as the climate crisis grips the planet, experts have warned.
This summer, which has seen drought declared across parts of England, wildfires raging and temperatures above 40C, is a taste of what is to come according to scientists and policy experts.
Heat waves and critically low water levels are expected to become more frequent and more intense unless humanity stops emitting greenhouse gases.
“This 30 years from now may seem like a relatively mild period compared to what we are likely to experience in 2050,” says Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. “People need to understand that this is only going to get worse.”
Even if the world stopped pumping out all greenhouse gases tomorrow, scientists warn that the extreme conditions experienced by people around the world would not improve unless a lot of carbon was removed from the atmosphere.
“We’re locked in,” says Hannah Cloke, professor of hydrology at the University of Reading. “It doesn’t get better; we are at the point now where we have warmed the planet.
“There’s nothing we can do about it at this point – our choice is how bad it gets,” she adds. “This is the reality now.”
Heat waves are becoming more intense and frequent across the globe due to climate change – extreme weather caused by the warming of the planet, which is a result of human activity.
This made the extreme heat experienced in Britain last month at least 10 times more likely, according to researchers. Perhaps more worrying is that scientists say that temperatures in Western Europe are rising faster than climate models predict.
While it is too early to say whether, or to what extent, this year’s drought was affected by the climate crisis, scientists say global warming means droughts in the UK will happen more often as temperatures rise.
Agricultural drought, which tends to occur within a year and is caused by a lack of rain and higher evaporation from spring onwards, will increase as summers become hotter and drier as a result of climate breakdown, according to Nigel Arnell, professor of climate system science at the University of Reading.
Arnell explains that droughts that affect rivers and groundwater – and thus public water supplies – are also expected to become more frequent as a result of warmer springs and autumns, which means that the soil is drier for longer, so when it rains there is less chance of the water infiltrating into the groundwater or generates stream flows.
Although climate scientists predict that our winters will be wetter and warmer on average, more rain will not necessarily compensate for the drier and warmer springs and autumns, he adds.
Geographical variation is also important. In south-east England, groundwater sources are generally replenished by infiltration in winter, but in other areas rivers and reservoirs may also be replenished at other times of the year.
Hotter and drier summers also set the stage for more wildfires, and firefighters said they believed they would have more time to prepare for climate change.
While climate collapse doesn’t mean every year will be like 2022, extreme heat and water restrictions, which set the conditions for the spread of wildfires, will only become more common.
“Nothing about this will be stable,” says Ward. “We have created an unstable world, and that is what we have to get used to.
“This is the consequence of us being too slow to reduce emissions, and now we are paying the price, and the price will be paid through greater damage, greater disruption, more damage to lives and livelihoods.”
Scientists say that to avoid the catastrophic consequences of global warming, the world must reach net zero carbon emissions – the point where the amount of man-made greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere equals the amount taken out.
It is done by cutting carbon emissions to as close to zero as possible, and then using carbon capture and storage to balance out the remaining emissions that humanity cannot stop, either through natural stores such as trees or with man-made technology.
To reverse the damage already done, a lot of carbon must be taken out of the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, to adapt to this new reality, scientists and policy experts say Britain needs to make better use of the water we have, by building new reservoirs, making better connections between reservoirs, changing the way we extract water and getting to grips with leaks .
The country must also curb demand by not using potable water in hoses and toilets, recycle water, require water efficiency standards on new appliances, ensure that houses are metered, and perhaps change the way water is tariffed.
Agriculture will also have to adapt, by planting new crops that are more resistant to hot weather and drought conditions. The UK could also restore wetlands to ensure water is retained in the soil in the summer, says Cloke.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” says Ward. “If we drag our feet to get to net zero, it’s going to get worse — a lot worse.”