Most people in Europe assume that climate change won’t affect them. That it’s only people who live on tropical Islands or arid countries that need to worry. But that’s not true. Especially for Italy and Greece, which are two of the countries most at risk in the continent and to a lesser extent France.
Even with only 2C of warming which is the supposed “safe” level that countries have agreed to limit warming to these countries will experience significant changes. The heatwave of 2003 will become the new norm with 50% of summers as warm or warmer than that which killed 70,000 people across Europe over a decade ago. By then a heatwave will consist of temperatures now currently experienced in North Africa. In 2003 the heat had devastating consequences forests burned and crops withered in the fields causing farmer to lose $12 billion worth of crops. Many rivers including the Po in Italy and Loire in France shrunk to historic lows limiting the supply of water for irrigation and hydroelectricity, whilst some alpine glaciers lost 10% of their mass. Imagine the consequences if this occurred every other year. Southern parts of Europe will become uncomfortably hot in the summer as blistering temperatures sweep across the Mediterranean from the Sahara.
If temperatures hit 3.5C which they are on target to this century under the pledges agreed by the COP in Paris then 2003 would seem like a cool summer. The Sahara desert would jump the Mediterranean sea and start spreading through southern Europe especially in Spain but also Greece, Italy and even the far south of France. Millions would be forced from their homes and join the flood of people from Africa and Middle East seeking the refuge of more temperate climes.
In short climate change would prove disastrous for this region of Europe.
The projected impacts of climate change are largely related to intense heatwaves (especially in summer), increased occurrence of extreme weather events such as droughts and severe rainfall and reduced annual precipitation and river flow. These countries are already beginning to feel these effects. In the eastern Mediterranean the intensity, length and number of heatwaves have increased by a factor of six to eight since the 1960s. Average temperatures have increased by 1C or more. In Italy precipitation has decreased by as much as 20% especially in central and southern areas.
As the planet warms things will only get worse with precipitation projected to fall by between 20 & 30% in southern areas of the three countries. As it gets hotter and drier forests fires will increase especially in Greece which already has the most forest fires in Europe. As much as a third of the forests in central and southern Italy are threatened by the changing climate. Crop yields will decline especially for wheat and fruit and vegetable production and any cultivation which relies on irrigation. Yields of some grapes could fall by as much as 80% within a matter of decades. However the range for crops such as citrus and olives will move north.
If we fail to act then the land will dry up and turn to desert. As much as 30% of Italy is at risk from desertification whilst a similar area in Greece is already experiencing desertification and the country will experience serious problems in the future.
In other areas flooding will become a problem. Extreme rainfall events have already increased by 25% over the past 50 years. With every one degree increase in temperature the atmosphere can hold 7% more moisture so catastrophic rainfall events will become more common and more severe.
All three countries have extensive coastlines which will be threatened by sea level rise. In Italy around 4,500km2 of coastline is at risk of inundation by the end of the century especially the area around Venice. Whilst in France nearly half a million people will suffer from flooding. However although Greece has the longest coastline in Europe much of it is rocky so much less is at risk.
The region which is likely to experience the biggest changes is the Alps. Already average temperatures have increased by between 1.5 to 2C almost double that of low lying areas. Winter snow depth has decreased by as much as 50% in some areas. Temperatures are anticipated to continue to increase at a higher rate than the rest of the continent which will have a massive impact on snow and glaciers. Summer air temperatures only need to increase by 3C by 2100 for glaciers to lose 80% of their ice, and they will be completely ice free at 5C warmer.
Whilst avoiding the catastrophic impacts of climate change that some very vulnerable countries will soon be experiencing Europeans can no way be complacent that their countries will get off lightly in a warmer world. Indeed without urgent action to limit carbon emissions the consequences will be severe and the window of opportunity to avoid such an outcome is closing rapidly.