Extreme weather events are the planet warning us that time is very short
While still in the middle of the Covid pandemic, the world faces the still greater threat of climate change. For years, scientists have been warning of this with increasing urgency. Yet a rise of one or two degrees centigrade did not sound so important.
Politicians were also naturally reluctant to commit to large expenditures and possible tax increases to prepare against seemingly distant threats. Some world leaders and their followers played down or denied both climate change and the pandemic. Yet the evidence is now overwhelming.
The most immediately dramatic evidence has been extreme weather events across the globe -- fires, floods, and record temperatures.
The beginning of 2020 saw Australia’s worst-ever bushfire season. Their hottest year on record made soil and forests exceptionally dry. Fires burned through 10 million hectares. They razed entire communities and destroyed thousands of homes, 28 people died, and smoke haze affected millions. Some animal species and ecosystems shall never recover.
The US West Coast, from Canada to Mexico, was hit by the most extreme heat wave on record, peaking in California at 54.5C. Forest fires, many of which started from storm lightning, were so severe that water evaporated before it reached the target to douse the flames. Similar fires are still raging in Eastern Siberia, over an area said to cover three times that of Wales.
The Middle East has few forests to burn but suffers from unusually high temperatures and drought. Power systems cannot cope with the increasing demand. Lack of water continues to hit agriculture and spreads disease.
Air pollution on the other hand kills silently. The amount of Co2 particles in the atmosphere is now429 parts per million. Before the industrial revolution, it was 280 parts and the fully safe limit is 300 particles per million. But Co2 has increased exponentially, causing havoc all over the world.
Too much water is also a problem. Recent storms have been devastating Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Three months of rain fell in a few hours, converting streams into torrents and sweeping aside houses.
The death toll is near 200, with many hundreds still missing. Germany’s leaders are united in saying that such an unprecedented catastrophe can only be explained by climate change.
Over the last year, heavy floods and landslides have forced 12 million people from their homes in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Just two years ago, exceptionally heavy monsoon rains, the worst for nearly 30 years, inundated a third of Bangladesh.
There is a growing concern that fires, floods, landslides, droughts, melting glaciers, etc are happening faster than scientific models had predicted. Yet there are other imminent massive changes that are even more serious.
A research study has identified changes in sea temperatures and the rapidly warming Arctic as the probable cause of slowing weather systems and linked to increased heat waves and flooding round the globe.
The jet stream across the Atlantic may have permanently changed its course. Higher temperatures mean that the atmosphere can hold more moisture, leading to more extreme rainfall.
The rapid thawing of the Arctic opens up a valuable shipping route between China and Europe, plus new mining and agriculture potential. Yet the volume of water being released, including from the kilometre deep ice of Greenland, is enough to start to flood world coastal cities as well as threatening salination and flooding of low-lying countries such as Bangladesh.
Governments are already coping with Covid and are not doing enough to slow down, let alone reverse, climate change. Yet failure to change quickly is likely to be even more costly, even in financial terms.
For the UK, achieving net zero emissions by 2050 could increase public debt by 20% of GDP. But failure could increase it by far, far more.
It is increasingly unlikely that the aim of keeping the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees will be met. Rich countries need to speed up moving on from fossil fuels while simultaneously supporting poorer nations.
Yet at last week’s G20 meeting, Russia, China, Australia, and India defended the continued use of coal for power generation. Besides renewable energy, new technologies are increasingly urgent for carbon capture, hydrogen fuel, and new techniques of making steel and cement.
While the impacts of climate change affect every person in every country on every continent, they don’t do so equally. People already burdened by poverty and oppression often suffer the harshest consequences, while having the least ability to cope. Their struggle to earn a living, feed their families, and create stable homes is made more difficult every day the climate crisis continues.
Oxfam states that extreme weather disasters are an issue of justice. Those living in poverty are the hardest hit by climate change despite being the least responsible for the crisis.
Over a hundred developing countries have signed a joint letter demanding that rich countries implement the pledges adopted by 196 countries at the 2015 Paris conference, including credible plans to meet emission targets and provide $100bn a year to help poorer countries adapt their own economies.
This November’s COP 26 Summit in Glasgow will show how far, or how little, the world can combine to save itself.
Selina Mohsin is a former ambassador.