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A new study looks at the role climate change is playing in current heat waves

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

North America, Europe and Asia have all been hit by sweltering temperatures this month.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Triple digits in some cases and life-threatening heat waves, which all raise the same question as they always do. Is this climate change?

FADEL: NPR's Nathan Rott is covering a new study out today that aims to address that question. Hi, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so what does the study say?

ROTT: Well, it says that the recent heat waves in America and southern Europe, which have broken records, as you said, and put tens of millions of people under heat advisories and warnings would be, quote, "virtually impossible," end quote, without human-caused climate change and that recent heat waves in China were made 50 times more likely because of it.

FADEL: OK. So a definitive yes, this is climate change.

ROTT: Yeah, a resounding yes. I mean, this research was conducted by a team of international scientists working in a collaborative group called World Weather Attribution. We should say this study has not been peer-reviewed yet because it's what scientists call a rapid attribution study, which is kind of a growing field in climate science. It aims to show the role climate change is playing in an extreme weather event as it's happening or soon after, while it's still on the public mind and being talked about on news programs. And the researchers found that climate change has not only made these kinds of extreme heat waves more common, but it's also making them hotter. They added El Nino, a natural weather phenomenon, is likely contributing to some of the heat. But the main driver, they say, is fossil fuels. Here's Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London who was involved with the research when she was speaking at a press event yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRIEDERIKE OTTO: It's a very boring study, yes. From a scientific point of view, there is nothing new because we have known this for a long time, and we see exactly what we expected to see.

FADEL: Wow. She sounds annoyed, frustrated.

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, if you talk to climate scientists, Leila, like I know you do sometimes, you will hear that a lot.

FADEL: Yeah.

ROTT: Because this isn't new, right? I got pretty much the exact same reaction from other climate scientists and researchers I talked to yesterday who were not involved in this study but had reviewed its findings. Here's Bernadette Woods Placky, the chief meteorologist at Climate Central, a nonprofit climate science group.

BERNADETTE WOODS PLACKY: Overall, it is not surprising that there's a climate connection with the extreme heat that we're seeing around the world right now. We know what adding more greenhouse gases to our atmosphere does, and we continue to add more of them through the burning of fossil fuels. So the more heat that we put into our atmosphere, it will translate into bigger heat events.

ROTT: Which is a really important thing to keep in mind, Leila, because a lot of the heat records that we're seeing broken right now in Europe, Asia, America, they are probably going to be broken again in the years to come.

FADEL: I mean, that's a scary thought 'cause it's already so hot. What should people do?

ROTT: Yeah. Well, the obvious big-picture solution is to stop warming the planet, right?

FADEL: Right.

ROTT: The international community has pledged to limit global warming increases to about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit compared to what they were in pre-industrial times. A lot of climate scientists think that goal is already out of reach. The planet has already warmed nearly two degrees, but the science is overwhelmingly clear that the fewer fossil fuel emissions we put in the atmosphere means a more hospitable planet for humans and animals alike. The other thing that we can do is to look out for each other during a heat wave. Public health officials have been urging people to check in on their neighbors, especially elderly or immunocompromised people, as these hot temperatures continue.

FADEL: Nathan Rott is part of NPR's climate desk. Thanks for your reporting.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.