Record high temperatures in urban Europe as heatwaves warm the planet more frequently. Devastating floods, some in poorer unprepared areas. Increasing destruction from hurricanes. Drought and famine in poorer parts of Africa while droughts worsen around the world. Wild weather is becoming stronger and more common around the world, leading to “unprecedented extremes.”
Sounds like last summers?
It is. But it was also the warning and prognosis for the future issued by top United Nations climate scientists more than 10 years ago.
In a report that changed the way the world thinks about the harms of global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in its 2012 Special Report on Extreme Events, Disasters and Climate Change: “Changing climate leads to changes in the Frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of extreme weather and climate events and may lead to unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.” wetter tropical cyclones and just worse disasters for people.
“The report was psychic,” said the report’s co-author Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University. “The report did exactly what a climate report should do: warn us about the future in good time so we can adapt before the worst happens. And the world continued to do what it normally does. Some people and governments listened, some didn’t. I think the sad lesson is that the damage has to happen very close to home or nobody pays any attention to it now.”
In the United States alone, the number of weather-related disasters that caused at least $1 billion in damage — adjusted for inflation — increased from an average of 8.4 per year in the decade before the report was published to 14.3 per year after the report was published, with more than one Trillions of dollars in U.S. weather damage since in just the billion-dollar extremes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Unprecedented record heat hit northern California in September and 104 degrees in England (40 degrees Celsius) earlier this summer.
The 20-page executive summary of the 594-page report highlighted five case studies on climate risks from worsening extreme weather conditions that scientists said are becoming a bigger problem, and how governments could address them. Scientists were able to name a current 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 Aalst, director of the International Red Cross and Crescent Climate Center in the Netherlands. Or eastern Kentucky, or Pakistan this year, or Germany and Belgium last year, the report’s authors said.
— Heat waves in urban Europe. “We have that in abundance. That was consistent,” said Susan Cutter, a disaster scientist at the University of South Carolina. “I think every year in Europe there were longer periods of heat.”
— Increasing property damage from hurricanes in the United States and the Caribbean as storms become wetter and stronger, but not more frequent. Oppenheimer pointed to recent years when Louisiana has seen repeated hurricanes, last year when Hurricane Ida killed people in New York because heavy rains flooded basement apartments, and 2017 when record rains from Hurricane Harvey crippled Houston and Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in between Hurricane Irma.
— Droughts cause famine in Africa. That’s happening again in the Horn of Africa and last year in Madagascar, van Aalst said.
— Small islands that are submerged by a combination of sea level rise, salt water intrusion and storms. That’s harder, but co-author Kris Ebi, a climate and public health scientist at the University of Washington, pointed out that Tropical Cyclone Winston struck Vanuatu and Fiji in 2016.
“People are feeling it at the moment,” said van Aalst. “It’s no longer the science that tells them. All of these warnings have come true.”
In fact, the reality was probably worse, with more and stronger extremes than the authors would have predicted when they finished writing it in 2011 and published it a year later, co-authors Ebi and Cutter said.
This is partly because real-life disasters were compounded and compounded with sometimes unforeseen side effects, such as heatwaves and droughts that caused hydroelectric power plants to run dry, nuclear power plants to have no cooling water, and even coal-fired power plants to have no fuel supplies because of dried up rivers in Europe , scientists said.
“Imagining something scientifically, or saying it exists in a scientific assessment, is radically different than living it,” said co-author Katharine Mach, a climate risk scientist at the University of Miami. She said it’s similar to the COVID-19 pandemic. Health officials had long warned of viral pandemics, but when it came true, the lockdowns, school closures, economic fallout and supply chain problems sometimes exceeded what dry scientific reports could imagine.
Prior to this report, the overwhelming majority of climate studies, official reports and debates spoke about long-term consequences, the slow but steady increase in average temperatures and rising sea levels. Extreme events were considered too rare to study for good statistics and science and were not seen as a major problem. Today, much of the focus in science, international negotiations, and media coverage is on extremes of climate change.
Deaths from weather disasters tend to be lower in both the United States and around the world, but scientists say this is due to better forecasting, warning, preparedness and response. From 2002 to 2011, prior to the report, the United States averaged 641 weather-related 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 weather-related deaths. At the same time, the US 10-year average for heat deaths rose slightly from 118 to 135 per year.
“We’re adjusting fast enough to reduce the impact,” Cutter said. “We’re not reducing greenhouse gas emissions to actually address the root cause of warming.”
Stanford University climate scientist Chris Field, who led the reporting project 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 wished he had used language that would “grab people by the shoulders and shake them a little more and say these are real risks.”
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