How should Sheffield react to the events in Germany and Canada?

As I write this it’s 30oC outside and I’m sweltering. Extreme heat is very debilitating, and for some can be fatal, especially if it continues for several days.

Heat can cause dehydration and heatstroke. Over the course of several days, extreme heat affects the internal organs and puts extra strain on the cardiovascular system. The kidney, liver, heart, brain, and lungs can be affected, which can result in renal failure, heart attack, stroke, among other potential causes of mortality.

During the heatwave please keep out of the sun, drink lots of water and check in on any vulnerable friends and neighbours. 

We can expect far more extreme heat in the future as the climate continues to overheat. Examples recently from Western Canada have been extremely frightening. The town of Lytton didn’t just break it’s hottest temperature record- it smashed it to pieces. Meteorologist Bob Henson tweeted “Prior to this week, Canada’s all-time high was 113oF.  Now it’s 121.3°F.  That’s a 21% increase in the all-time high!” It’s a bit like someone beating the Olympic high jump record of 2.39m, not just by 1cm but by 50cm, jumping 2.89m!

What followed in Lytton was of course the wildfire, which almost totally destroyed the town. 

Lots of people mistakenly believe climate change will be gradual. It won’t be. We can expect more sudden and massively disturbing changes to weather around the world. As feedback loops kick in, disasters will follow, making whole countries uninhabitable.  

Last week saw the hottest temperature ever recorded on this planet. 130oF (54oC) in the appropriately named Death Valley. Elsewhere in the States, Portland Oregon broke its longstanding high (107oF) three days running, with temperatures of 108, 112 and 116 oF. Quillayute in Washington broke its all time high by 11oF (old record 99oF, new record 110oF).

In Europe we have seen catastrophic floods, turning small rivers into torrents reaching the third floor of buildings. The latest death toll in Germany and Belgium is 180 as I write, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel exclaiming  “the German language doesn’t have words for the destruction that’s been wreaked”. Meanwhile horrendous floods in Uganda went unreported by the press.

Gone are the days when we have to say “you can’t attribute one weather event to climate change”. These events are so extreme and so obviously way out of statistical norms, it is perfectly clear that they have been caused by climate change- just as climate scientists have been predicting for many years. 

So how should we react to them in Sheffield? We have to be more prepared for extreme weather. We are well aware of the damage flooding can cause, but we need to do far more to help prevent future disasters. It was very pleasing to see news this week of the £183,000 plan to plant more trees across Sheffield. Trees are brilliant at both providing shade and cooling to cities in a heatwave and preventing flooding. We need far more of this! Also it was pleasing to see plans for active neighbourhoods in Crookes and Nether Edge, making it easier and safer to cycle into town, to encourage people to leave their cars at home. An important step forward, but this is needed all over the City.

Better flood defences may be needed in some places, but usually this moves the problem further downstream, as the residents of Fishlake can testify. So we need to be planting thousands of  trees upstream of the rivers to provide more natural flood defence. Why not  reintroduce beavers to make dams to hold back the waters?  

In the city we need to continue to turn grey to green. We need green roofs on city buildings and bus shelters to help absorb the torrential rain when it falls, and more permeable surfaces instead of concrete and tarmac so the water doesn’t run straight into the sewers and overwhelm them. Some work undoubtedly needs to be done to increase the capacity of our drains. In a recent downpour I was at the bottom of Granville Road and the water was jetting out of the manhole cover like a fountain. 

To protect from heatwaves we must ensure all homes and workplaces are well insulated. 

Even if we implement all the measures I am suggesting, there will be no defence if we experience something on the scale that Germany has just gone through. So we also need to up our game when it comes to a local emergency response plan. We need to involve citizens in this, so when a catastrophe occurs at least people are prepared to start to deal with it. 

I hope the awful events in Canada and Germany will convince Sheffielder’s that this is an emergency. Those preparing to go to Glasgow for COP26 must demand strong legally enforced measures to cut carbon immediately.

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