Record high temperatures in Europe’s cities as heat waves increasingly scorch the planet. Devastating floods, some in poorer unprepared areas. Increased damage from hurricanes. Drought and famine in poorer parts of Africa as periods of drought intensify around the world. Wild weather around the world is becoming stronger and more frequent, leading to “unprecedented extreme events.”
Does it look like the last few years?
It. But it was also a warning and a prediction for the future made by leading United Nations climate scientists more than 10 years ago.
In a report that changed the world’s perception of the dangers of global warming, the 2012 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Extreme Events, Natural Disasters and Climate Change warned: “Climate change is causing changes in frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration of and timing of extreme weather and climate events that could lead to unprecedented weather and climate extremes.” It said there would be more heatwaves, more droughts, more heavy rainfall causing flooding, stronger and wetter tropical cyclones, and just more nasty disasters for people.
“The report was clairvoyant,” said report co-author Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University. “The report was exactly what a climate report is supposed to do: give us timely warnings about the future so we can adapt before the worst happens. And the world continued to do what it usually does. Some people and governments listened, others did not. I think the sad lesson is that the damage must be done very close to home or no one will pay attention to it now.”
In the United States alone, weather events with at least $1 billion in damages (adjusted for inflation) increased from an average of 8.4 per year in the ten years before the report was published to 14.3 per year after the report was published. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, weather damage in the United States amounted to more than a trillion dollars, since only in extreme cases a billion dollars. Unprecedented record heat hit Northern California in September and 104 degrees in England (40 degrees Celsius) earlier this summer.
The 20-page summary of the 594-page report highlights five case studies of climate risks associated with worsening extreme weather, which scientists believe will be a bigger problem, and how governments can deal with them. In each case, scientists were able to give a fresh example:
– Flash floods in “informal settlements”. Look at the flooding in poor areas of Durban, South Africa, this year, said report co-author and climate scientist Maarten van Aelst, director of the Red Cross and Crescent International Climate Center in the Netherlands. Or Eastern Kentucky, or Pakistan this year, or Germany and Belgium last year, the authors of the report say.
– Heat waves in European cities. “We have it in abundance. It was consistent,” said Susan Cutter, a disaster specialist at the University of South Carolina. “I think there have been longer heat waves in Europe every year.”
– Increased property loss from hurricanes in the United States and the Caribbean as storms become wetter and stronger, but not more frequent. Oppenheimer pointed to the past few years when Louisiana has been hit repeatedly by hurricanes: last year, when Hurricane Ida killed people in New York City due to heavy rains flooding basement apartments, and in 2017, when the hurricane’s record-breaking rain ” Harvey paralyzed Houston, and Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Hurricane Irma is between them.
Droughts causing famine in Africa. It’s happening again in the Horn of Africa and last year in Madagascar, van Aelst said.
“Small islands are flooding as a result of a combination of sea level rise, salt water intrusion and storms. It’s more complicated, but co-author Chris Eby, a climate and health specialist at the University of Washington, pointed to record-breaking tropical cyclone Winston that hit Vanuatu and Fiji in 2016.
“People are feeling it right now,” van Aelst said. “It’s not science telling them anymore. All these warnings have come true.”
In fact, the reality was likely even worse, with more extremes than the authors could have predicted when they finished writing the book in 2011 and published it a year later, co-authors Abi and Cutter say.
This is partly because when real life played out, disasters escalated and cascaded with sometimes unforeseen side effects such as heatwaves and droughts causing hydro plants to dry up, nuclear power plants couldn’t get cooling water, and even coal-fired power plants didn’t get fuel because the dried up rivers in Europe, scientists say.
“Presenting something scientifically or saying it exists in a scientific assessment is a radically different thing compared to living it,” said co-author Katherine Mach, a climate risk specialist at the University of Miami. She said it was like the COVID-19 pandemic. Health officials have long warned of viral pandemics, but when it came true, lockdowns, school closures, economic fallout, supply chain problems sometimes went beyond what dry scientific reports could present.
Prior to this report, the vast majority of climate studies, official reports and debates talked about long-term effects, slow but steady increases in average temperatures and rising sea levels. Extreme events were considered too rare to be studied for good statistics and scientific data, and were not seen as a big problem. Right now most of the attention in science, international negotiations and media coverage is focused on extreme climate change.
Deaths from natural disasters, both in the United States and around the world, tend to be on the decline, but scientists say this is due to better forecasts, warnings, preparedness and response. From 2002 to 2011, prior to the report, the United States averaged 641 weather deaths per year, and now the 10-year average has dropped to an average of 520, but 2021 was the deadliest year in a decade with 797 deaths. At the same time, the average heat-related death rate in the US rose slightly over 10 years from 118 to 135 per year.
“We’re adapting fast enough to mitigate the impact,” Cutter said. “We’re not cutting greenhouse gas emissions to actually eliminate the cause of warming.”
Stanford University climate scientist Chris Field, who led the draft report a decade ago, said scientists got the warnings right, but “we may have been too conservative” in the language used. In addition to the dry facts and figures presented, he would like to use language that would “grab people by the shoulders and shake them a little more and tell them this is a real risk.”
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