TOKYO (AP) – Temperatures are rising in Japan and summer is coming fast.
Cherry blossoms are blooming earlier than ever, pink chiffon that traditionally heralded spring for the nation by popping up just two weeks into March.
In Osaka, temperatures soared to 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) on March 22, a record for that time of year. Tottori, in the southwest, hit 25.8 C (78 F) the same day, the highest in 140 years, according to climatologist Maximiliano Herrera. Temperatures in Tottori usually hover around 12 C (54 F) in March.
With thermometers already rising and fossil fuel use fueling climate change continuing to creep across the globe, Japan is poised for another sweltering summer and is at increasing risk from flooding and landslides. The nation is scrambling to protect communities from warming and has pledged to slash emissions, but worsening weather remains a near-term threat.
“The risks from climate change are right in front of us,” said Yasuaki Hijioka, deputy director of the Center for Climate Change Adaptation at the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Tsukuba, northeast Tokyo.
“In principle you can try to escape from a flood. But the heat hits such a huge area that there’s almost no escape. Everyone is affected by it.”
Japan is already prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. The secure infrastructure has kept people safe for the most part. But climate change means communities are often caught off guard because systems were designed for past weather conditions.
“If you’re pushing the power grid designed for the 20th century into a new century of warming and extreme temperatures, then you’re going to have to consider whether your energy system and healthcare system are really designed for a warming planet,” said Kim Cobb , director of The Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.
More and more people are falling ill from heatstroke.
Last year, more than 200 temperature records were broken in cities across the nation, sending the power grid to near capacity and more than 71,000 people hospitalized for heat stroke during the months of May through September. The patients were mostly elderly, but a fair number of children and middle-aged adults were also admitted according to government figures. Eighty people died.
Warmer weather can also hold more moisture, adding floods and landslides to the summer forecast, something Japan has also seen with increasing frequency.
In 2019, bullet trains were partially submerged by flooding from Typhoon Hagibis. Homes and highways have been hit by landslides. The flooded tunnels trapped people and cars. The dams could not withstand the surprisingly heavy rains.
Hijioka’s research focuses on flood management, such as diverting water from swollen rivers upstream to rice paddies and ponds to be drained to avoid flooding.
To prevent deaths from heat stroke, a bill would designate certain buildings in communities, such as air-conditioned libraries, as shelters. This kind of nationwide law is new in Japan.
Despite the country’s advanced economy, some people cannot afford air conditioning, especially in areas unaccustomed to heat. Schools in northern Japan, such as in Nagano, have installed air conditioning due to the extreme heat of recent years.
“More people have died from heatstroke than from river flooding in Japan,” said Hijioka. “We need to see climate change as a natural disaster.”
Michio Kawamiya, director of the Research Center for Environmental Modeling and Application, and his team study Japan’s hotter temperatures and how they affect people.
Among their findings: Since 1953, cherry blossoms have opened an average of one day earlier every decade. Maple leaves changed color 2.8 days slower per decade. The risk of typhoons has increased and the amount of snow has decreased, although the threat of heavy snow remains.
Japan has made progress in reducing the amount of fossil fuels it emits, but is still the sixth-highest emitter in the world. After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the country halted nuclear production and, fatally for the climate, invested in new coal-fired plants and imported oil and gas to keep its grid running. Since then, nuclear power plants have been gradually restarted.
On the plus side, its excellent mass transit has kept gas-guzzling cars off the roads, reducing the country’s carbon footprint. Some Japanese have turned off the air conditioning to save energy, but that has health implications, as it comes just as the heat has reached dangerously high levels.
The country has already worked so hard to conserve energy by reducing demand that doing more has often been compared to “wringing water out of a completely dry rag,” Kawamiya said in an interview in his office in Yokohama, south- west of Tokyo.
However, critics say Japan could do more to increase the use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power. The government expects renewable energy to make up more than a third of the country’s energy supply by 2030 and to phase out the use of coal in the 2040s.
Japan is also part of the Group of Seven major economies that have pledged to be largely fossil fuel-free for electricity by 2035.
Since Fukushima, Japan has taken most of the nation’s 50 or so nuclear reactors offline, in response to public opinion turning against the technology. Nuclear energy is considered clean energy as it does not emit greenhouse gases, but produces radioactive waste.
About 10 reactors are up and running, 24 reactors are being decommissioned. What Japan will ultimately decide on nuclear power remains unclear.
Hijioka, who believes Japan is lagging behind in the transition to renewable energy, said he is frustrated with politicians who he says have dragged their feet in tackling climate change but are pushing for a return to nuclear power.
Despite its potential to reduce global warming emissions, some climate experts remain skeptical of the switch to nuclear power due to project costs and timing versus how quickly and cheaply an equivalent amount of renewable energy can come online . There are also concerns among the public.
“It’s totally irresponsible when we think about the next generation,” Hijioka said. “We might be old and we might die, so it might not matter. But what about our children?
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama
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