What the biggest global heatwave in history tells us about our progress against climate change

Across three continents, the harsh new realities of what we’ve done to our planet are clear like never before, as scientists confirmed this week that we’re experiencing the greatest global heatwave in modern history.

With the searing temperatures across America, Europe and Asia have come record-breaking wildfires, including the almost unimaginable fact that Canada has seen 25 million acres burn so far this year, and surging flood waters causing death and destruction from Vermont to Vietnam.

As always, it is the most vulnerable who suffer most from climate change. In our latest On The Ground dispatch, Report for America corps member Kate Fishman shows how one flood in a rural community in California upended the lives of its poorest residents and exposed how local governments and aid organizations struggle to respond to disasters that were unthinkable just a decade ago.

The collapsed culvert off of Highway 101 in Willits, CA, as seen on Jan. 21,2023. Floods cut access to a trailer park, stranding its residents and ultimately forcing them to leave. (Photo by Kate Fishman/GroundTruth)

The extreme weather patterns around the world provide a dramatic backdrop to the diplomatic stage as John Kerry, the U.S. Special Envoy on climate change, visited China for three days of talks just as China was experiencing its own record heat with temperatures above 125 degrees. Climate historians say it is the hottest and longest sustained heatwave there since the country began keeping records. There is near unanimous agreement among scientists that the cause is the greenhouse effect caused by China’s use of fossil fuels, especially its coal-burning plants which it is building at a rate of two per week.

As an elder statesman, Kerry’s crowning achievement in his former role as Secretary of State was the signing of the climate accord at COP21 in Paris, where he worked closely with Chinese leaders. One of President Trump’s first acts as president was to pull the U.S.of the Paris Agreement, and one of President Biden’s first moves was to recommit to its framework for global action. As the two largest economies in the world and the two greatest contributors to the heat-trapping emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuel, China and the U.S. are essential partners to slowing global warming.

Climate talks between the two countries were suspended last year after the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, an island over which China claims sovereignty. But now the U.S. is on a diplomatic offensive in China with top cabinet officials on a steady procession to Beijing. Kerry said more meetings would be held between the two countries in the run-up to the crucial COP28 talks in Dubai at the end of the year.

GroundTruth was present at the time of the signing of the agreement, reporting on the conference and on the human consequences of climate change. Perhaps not surprisingly, the insights we gathered back then are still relevant and prescient. It seems the stories in our series titled Living Proof still stand up.

Tourists sips cold water as they shelter from a hot sunny afternoon near the Rome’s Colosseum, Wednesday, July 5, 2023. (Photo by Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

If you want to understand how climate change can cause all of these extremes, look no further than the recent story by our corps member Vaishnavi Rathore for Scroll.in in India, where she traces the effects of the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas to the droughts and floods that affect farmers many miles away.

This complex environmental equation takes the form of food insecurity in Pakistan, where our corps member Muhammad Iftikhar Khan explored for Tribal News Network how the recent floods affected an agricultural province’s wheat production and how it represents a warning for the rest of the country and the region, and a threat to the world’s food supply.

Adding to this body of work is the environmental coverage that our Report for America and Report for the World corps members produce on a daily basis. From the local response to the plastic crisis in Nigeria, to how the Russian invasion is altering the ecological balance of an Ukrainian island.

We recognize that reporting on climate change is an urgent calling, and one that we plan to keep pursuing in every corner of the world where we can grow our programs that support local reporters to serve their communities.

As we continue to add environmental reporters to both our programs, we will need to have these local eyes on the problem in local communities if we are going to be able to document and understand the global issue and its global consequences.