Summers used to be reason to celebrate with backyard barbecues, trips to the cottage and beach—and a chance to forget often-cruel winters. But in the wake of last winter’s devastating ice storms in Ontario and Quebec, the heat wave that may have precipitated recent forest fires in British Columbia and the northern Prairies suggest that summer may now provide as much grief as relief. And conditions in Canada pale alongside the weather elsewhere. Officials in Texas say the blistering heat—in some areas it was 37°C or more for nearly a month—has caused at least 120 deaths among elderly and poor people with no air-conditioning, and $2.7 billion in crop damages. In Europe, Romanian authorities say 20 people died in July from heat-wave-related causes, while on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 48 deaths were attributed to temperatures that reached 43°C.
Is summer becoming too hot to handle? Scientists cannot say with absolute assurance that the current heat wave is the result of global warming, but the signs are compelling. “It’s adding up,” says Henry Hengeveld, Environment Canada's science adviser on climate change. “How much more evidence do we need before we accept that the problem is real?” And U.S. Vice-President AI Gore expressed similar concern last week, saying: “It would be hard to ignore that something’s going on— and that something is global warming.”
Last month was the world’s hottest July on record, and 1998 will likely become the seventh of the last nine years in which average temperatures globally hit record levels. That supports the view of many climate scientists who say that higher temperatures are an inevitable result of burning fossil fuels. The increased temperatures could be disastrous for small island nations, if melt-
ing glaciers, among other things, cause sea levels to rise up to a metre within a century, as some scientists predict.
Still, world leaders aren't rushing to the rescue. Last December, industrialized nations at the World Conference on Climate Change in Kyoto, Japan, signed a treaty compelling them to cut greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2 per cent of 1990 outputs by 2010. Despite Gore’s sentiments, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify the deal unless developing nations agree to similar constraints. And there are some scientists who remain skeptical that global warming is happening at all.
But most experts say the rise in temperatures is accelerating: that enhances the prospect of more intense weather, ranging from flooding to prolonged heat and drought leading to food shortages. As a result, scientists’ forecasts of climate change no longer seem so remote as global warming becomes less a threat than a reality.
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