“Unfortunately these people and their kids didn’t make it in time. Instinctively, seeing the end nearing, they embraced,” said the head of Greece’s Red Cross after the discovery of a group of people who had been burned alive near the village of Mati.
The deaths of dozens of people in the devastating wildfires affecting Greece saw the declaration of three days of national mourning. And the world, not just Greece, would do well to remember the dead.
For the process of global warming, which has seen the planet’s average temperature increase by about one degree Celsius over the last century, is set to continue. Climate change may not directly cause any individual wildfire, but in some parts of the world, it will make them more likely to happen and worse when they do.
In 2016, a scientific study part-funded by Nasa estimated that global warming had almost doubled of the area affected by forest fires in the American West over the previous 30 years, as higher air temperatures dried out vegetation, making it more likely to burn. And the areas affected by the fires would continue to expand “exponentially” until the forests were too fragmented for the fires to spread.
Professor Peter Stott, a Met Office fellow, described climate change as loading the dice in favour of heatwaves. “What we’ve seen this summer is repeated throws throwing up a six in different parts of the world,” he said. “If you get a six over and over again you start to think ‘This is not normal, somebody has given me a loaded dice’.”
Another effect of climate change is to increase rainfall as warmer air is capable of holding more moisture. So, as some parts of the world increasingly dry out, others may be hit by increasingly severe flooding.
For anyone unconvinced by the retreat of glaciers, the melting of Arctic sea ice, the opening of the once-impassible Northwest Passage, the rising seas, the movement of animals and plants, and the early arrival of spring, the deaths of dozens of people may provide a more stark example of the scientific fact that the world is getting warmer.
Another scientific fact, established in the 1800s and accepted even by Lord Lawson ‘sceptic’ think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, is that carbon dioxide has a warming effect. Increasing the amount in the atmosphere, as we have done and continue to do, inevitably means the temperatures and, as a consequence, the death toll from wildfires will rise.