Scientists being proved right, no matter what the neighbors say
In the sweltering heat that has dominated Northern Europe for weeks, I have often found myself sitting in gardens with neighbors, all of us trying to escape our boiling houses, which are designed to trap heat during the region’s well-known cold weather. Despite those hot evenings, the majority still believe that heat waves and the accompanying droughts are a once-in-a-while problem that should not pile more worry on us individuals who are too small to make a difference.
Others have thankfully admitted that the implications of our extreme weather could be even more costly to our health, economy, supply chains and food security in the long term. But let us not be too alarmed, the neighbors said; let us keep calm, not spoil the evening and carry on sipping our cool drinks while modern technology will surely find a solution to remove the greenhouse gases humans have produced from the atmosphere, just as research science managed to find a solution to COVID-19.
Any mention of us mortals needing to adapt and that our governments must urgently lead the way to guide the transition, maybe in a disruptive way in places, was met with shrugged shoulders and accusations of promoting a panic that risked spoiling our evening.
In typically rainy Britain, droughts have been declared in southern and central parts of the country following the driest July on record and record-breaking temperatures. The dry and cracked reservoirs of Spain tell a similar story to the withering arteries of the Danube, the Rhine and the Po. All this is damaging farming, forcing water restrictions, causing more wildfires and threatening species everywhere, pushing experts to deduce that this might be the worst drought to hit Europe in 500 years.
Europe is not alone, as drought conditions have also been recorded in East Africa, the Western US and Northern Mexico.
Every evening, we have been sitting waiting for the rain to fall; a wish I would never have imagined having to make ever since London became my home a few decades ago.
But even the rainwater is reaching us loaded with human-made so-called forever chemicals, even in places as far apart as Antarctica and the Tibetan Plateau. The levels of forever chemicals in the atmosphere have become so high that rainwater is now “unsafe to drink,” according to research published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal this week. The study claims that hazardous products known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), some of which are linked to cancer in humans, have spread through water courses, oceans, soils and the atmosphere worldwide.
Changes like these mean that such chemicals in rainwater “are now ubiquitously above guideline levels,” according to the researchers from Stockholm University and ETH Zurich. Lead author Ian Cousins, from the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University, said that, “although in the industrial world we don’t often drink rainwater, many people expect it to be safe to drink and it supplies many of our drinking water sources.”
Though these substances were banned from industrial use two decades ago, traces of them have been highly persistent and get cycled into the atmosphere as they are transported from seawater to marine air by sea spray.
The consensus among scientists has, for years, pointed out that human-induced climate change is exacerbating conditions at all levels of our ecosystem, as hotter temperatures speed up evaporation and thirsty plants take in more moisture. Meanwhile, reduced snowfall in winter limits the freshwater supplies available for irrigation in the summer. Add in the fall of polluted rainwater and the future looks even grimmer.
Even if the world entirely stopped pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere tomorrow, scientists claim that the extreme weather conditions being experienced by people everywhere will not improve unless a large amount of carbon dioxide is removed. They claim that droughts that affect rivers and groundwater — and by default our public water supplies — are expected to be more frequent as a result of warmer spring and summer seasons, which will leave the soil drier for longer. So, when it rains, the water will have less chance of filtering through and replenishing underground water supplies or generating stream flows.
People, institutions and governments must not keep dragging their feet and failing to get to net-zero emissions.
Scientists have also predicted for a long time that our winters will be wetter and warmer, but downpours will not necessarily compensate for the moisture and water lost to quick evaporation. Hence, they have been calling for us to adapt to such new realities.
Scientists and policy experts should work to limit consumption and preserve water, including adapting agriculture to the new realities. Countries like the UK, for example, must start modifying crops to ensure they are more resilient to higher temperatures and lower rainfall.
While I continued to argue that people, institutions and governments must not keep dragging their feet and failing to get to net-zero emissions, my neighbors decided to stay positive, sipping their drinks and simply looking forward to a technological breakthrough that will suck greenhouse gases out of the planet’s atmosphere in a way that cancels out the damage already done. They seemed to forget that our ecosystem will take decades, if not longer, to reverse the harm done and rebalance itself.
I tend to believe the scientists who have been saying that it is going to get much worse unless we act individually and as groups to relieve the pressure we have been exerting on our planet and its resources in order for things to — maybe — start turning around.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.