The year 2023 has shattered climate records, accompanied by extreme weather that has left a trail of devastation and despair, according to the World Meteorological Organisation at COP 28.
Some of the most significant extreme heat events were in southern Europe and North Africa, especially in the second half of July. Temperatures in Italy reached 48.2°C, and record-high temperatures were reported in Tunis (Tunisia) at 49.0°C, Agadir (Morocco) at 50.4°C, and Algiers (Algeria) at 49.2°C.
The heatwaves and wildfires that swept southern Europe and the USA last summer have been traumatic and deadly. Six hundred excess deaths were reported in the Pacific Northwest in the USA alone. According to the Sixth Assessment Report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which synthesises the latest scientific evidence on climate change, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming, averaged over the next 20 years.
Heat-related deaths are on the rise globally. In 2019, a study in the international weekly general medical journal The Lancet attributed 356,000 deaths to extreme heat. Meanwhile, in a paper published in Nature Medicine, researchers in Spain and France calculated that more Europeans died because of heat in 2022 than any year in recorded history. During that year’s summer, the hottest on record for the continent (at least until the readings from 2023 are thoroughly analysed), more than 61,672 deaths were blamed on the heat. Research also found that in Europe it killed 114 people for every million population.
The study found that, in every week of summer 2022, average temperatures in Europe “uninterruptedly” exceeded the baseline values of the previous three decades. The most intense heat hit from 18 to 24 July, killing 11,637 people.
By comparison, there were around 40,000 heat-related deaths in Europe in 2018 and 2019, and 33,000 in 2020.
The death toll of this year’s heatwaves is unknown but likely to be much worse, with scientists confirming what much of the planet already felt coming: that 2023 will officially be the hottest year on record.
At the same time, the analysis from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service has found that this year’s global temperature will be more than 1.4 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels — close to the 1.5 degree threshold in the Paris climate agreement and, beyond which, scientists say humans and ecosystems will struggle to adapt..
Officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, USA, have reported that 469 people there have died of heat-associated illness this year, with more than 150 deaths still under investigation, making 2023 the deadliest year for heat deaths since the county began tracking them in 2006.
A threat to the right to life
Extreme heat events caused by climate change are undoubtedly the most significant risk to the right to life. This has significant implications for those providing vital social services to lessen inequality.
As the Earth continues to warm, the rising temperatures are contributing to a number of health conditions that are in turn driving up mortality. And, for the first time, scientists have figured out a more detailed way to estimate how many deaths can be attributed to heat.
An extreme heat event occurs when temperatures sit at roughly five °C above average for three days or more – particularly when coupled with high humidity levels. These conditions pose serious health risks for older people, outdoor workers, people with chronic conditions, pregnant women, children, people living in poorly insulated housing or remote communities, people with reduced mobility, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, refugees, and people experiencing energy poverty and social isolation.
Meanwhile, in TIME magazine, its senior health correspondent, Alice Park, reported that while health experts have known that rising temperatures can contribute to an increase in potentially fatal conditions such as heat stroke and an increase in heart-related events, such as heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, and even heart failure, few studies have quantified how much heat can contribute to higher mortality.
She said that, using carefully calibrated data on temperatures recorded during the peak of the European heatwave in 35 countries from the end of May to the beginning of September last summer and correlating that information with more than 45 million similarly temporally-calibrated deaths across Europe, scientists found a strong association between increased temperatures and higher mortality.
They adjusted for the fact that deaths would lag by a few days behind periods of high temperatures, as the health effects of heat may take a few days to manifest, as well as for the expected mortality in the absence of excessive heat. After creating models that tracked short-term fluctuations in temperature and mortality, they found that mortality increased on warmer days and shortly after that.