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Climate change is making extreme heat around the world more common

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Extreme heat is gripping countries all around the world right now. In the U.K...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We've had the U.K. Met Office issuing its first-ever red warning for extreme heat.

CHANG: ...China...

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MOLLY GAMBHIR: Many regions are bracing for another heat wave, and this one will last through late August.

CHANG: ...And the U.S...

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SAM BROCK: Two out of every three Americans experiencing heat above 90 degrees.

CHANG: ...Temperatures in many places have lingered around 100 degrees or higher for days, even weeks, on end. This is life with climate change, and it will only get worse if greenhouse gas emissions don't decrease dramatically. To talk more about this, I'm joined now by three NPR reporters on the ground around the world - John Ruwitch in Shanghai, Willem Marx in London and Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team here in the U.S. Hello to all three of you.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hi.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hey there.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, Willem, I want to start with you because the U.K. recorded, like, its hottest day ever this week, right? Like, can you just describe for us - what is it like in London?

MARX: Well, fortunately, it's cooled down significantly since that high point. Temperatures really spiked here. It was very, very uncomfortable, but the impact here of that recent heat has been far more about just people's discomfort. We saw a pretty unprecedented number of wildfires blazing across the country, destroying, damaging homes and communities. And this particular heat wave really prompted a lot of conversations, both privately among friends but also in the public sphere among politicians, about improving what you might call Britain's climate resilience. A few days back, I was up at one of London's four airports, where the heat had caused a problem with the runway, diverting dozens of incoming flights, forcing departures to be delayed or cancelled. We've seen several highways in various parts of England close because the asphalt literally buckled under the sun.

CHANG: Yeah.

MARX: And, you know, most concern to commuters here, train services on major routes - a lot of them are cancelled. It turns out the metal rails on the U.K.'s railways - they're simply not designed to withstand temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. So many of them are bent out of shape, and experts told me that can cause very dangerous derailments.

CHANG: How about you, John? - because, I mean, unlike the U.K., vast parts of China have long been used to scorching heat during this summer. That's nothing new. But now the country's seeing record temperatures. You're in Shanghai. What is it like there right now?

RUWITCH: Yeah, it's been a record-breaking summer. To illustrate the point, Shanghai last week had several days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It's not just Shanghai, though. The government says as many as 900 million people around the country have been coping with high temperatures since June. It's forecast to last till August, so the government's warning people to limit their outside exposure. They're also taking some other steps. In the city of Nanjing, for instance, they opened up underground bomb shelters so people could go down there and get some relief. There's reports of rail workers in the south sliding giant blocks of ice along tracks so they don't warp. And spare a thought for the COVID testers. There's test sites everywhere, and some of these people don't have air conditioning. They're in white hazmat suits, N95 masks, face shields, and they've just got fans blowing on them and sometimes blocks of ice to try to keep cool.

CHANG: Oh, that sounds unbearable. Well, Rebecca, I want to turn to you because you report on climate and the effects of global warming. Can you just help us understand what is happening this summer in all these different parts of the world?

HERSHER: I mean, this is textbook climate change in action. So global warming makes heatwaves longer. It makes them more widespread because the whole world is heating up, and it makes them hotter. And a few degrees may not sound like a lot, but that is how records are broken. It also is tough on people's bodies, especially in places where people are not used to this heat, which is how heat illness happens when your body is not acclimatized to the heat. And it's one reason that heat waves are so deadly. So the thing to remember here is that this is just the beginning. It will only get worse in the future because the climate is still getting warmer. How bad will it get? That's the million-dollar question. Well, humans decide. If greenhouse gas emissions decrease quickly, it will help control future heat waves.

CHANG: Right. Humans decide. So let's talk about those decisions, starting with the U.S. right here. What is the U.S. doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions meaningfully?

HERSHER: Not enough, according to scientists. You know, the U.S. is the largest historical emitter, still the second-largest emitter today. And although U.S. emissions are falling, it's way too slow to avoid catastrophic global warming. So to do that, it would require slashing emissions from cars, from trucks, from power plants. But the path to making that happen has gotten a lot harder for the Biden administration. There's a recent Supreme Court decision that makes it more difficult for the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Congress has failed to pass legislation that would support electric vehicles and renewable energy. That means there are fewer options for the Biden administration. They say that they'll use executive orders to try to reduce emissions instead, but of course, executive orders don't have the force or the long-term stability that a law would.

CHANG: Right. Well, John, what about China's part in all this? - because it's also a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Like, what are leaders in China committed to doing at this point?

RUWITCH: Yeah. China is the No. 1 current emitter of greenhouse gases. The government's big promises so far are that the country's carbon emissions will peak by the end of the decade, and then by 2060 they will be carbon-neutral in China. Beijing seems to be taking climate change quite seriously. They're investing very heavily in renewable energy. The problem right now, though, is that the economy is still heavily reliant on coal for electricity. And heat waves just complicate the matter, right? Demand for electricity this summer is through the roof. Premier Li Keqiang, as recently as late June, called for coal production to be increased in China to prevent blackouts. So, you know, despite these carbon targets that Beijing set, they're still building coal-fired power plants. They're still, you know, hauling coal out of the ground. And the thing is, as Rebecca said and as scientists will tell you, these heat waves are becoming more frequent and lasting longer in China as well as elsewhere, so the government's pursuit of its green targets is potentially just going to get harder.

MARX: And interestingly, here in Europe, you're seeing something quite similar, Ailsa, because just in the U.K., for instance, we've got this leadership contest to be the next prime minister.

CHANG: Right.

MARX: And some of the candidates have been less than eager to continue with existing programs already in place to reduce emissions. That's really striking because just a few months ago, you'll remember, in Glasgow, it was the same government leading the global effort at COP26. That implies the current energy and inflation crisis is in part sparked by the Ukraine conflict, of course. It's now bringing what were once settled policies into question. And to some extent, that's being replicated elsewhere in Europe, where the European Union, for instance, unveiled plans last summer to move away from carbon-based energy.

Then, since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, many European nations have been backpedaling a bit. They've been burning more coal, planning more natural gas terminals, even looking to expand the continent's gas pipeline network. A lot of the governments doing this say they're purely temporary measures. They say they'll aim to get back on track to hit emissions reduction targets. But climate experts say these kinds of changes that are necessary - they simply cannot happen soon enough.

CHANG: So, Rebecca, I want to end this conversation with you because it's pretty obvious that extreme heat will be with us for, like, decades to come. So given that this is the new normal, what can be done to make heat less deadly for people?

HERSHER: Well, there's a lot that can be done. You know, basically, humans can build cities for the climate of the future. So cities are heat islands because they absorb the sun's heat, but you can build buildings that reflect the sun's heat. You can protect and expand greenspace. And this is really important. People who work outside need to be protected. They need access to shade and water, and on the hottest days, it needs to be financially viable for those people to stay home. It's just not safe. All of those things would make heat a lot less deadly. But it's important to say this is only going to get harder as temperatures go up, and temperatures will keep going up as long as greenhouse gas emissions don't fall dramatically.

CHANG: That was NPR science reporter Rebecca Hersher, NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch and reporter Willem Marx in London. Thank you to all three of you for sharing your reporting with us.

HERSHER: You're welcome.

MARX: Thank you.

RUWITCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.