by Nicholas D’Alonzo
During the northern summer we have been seeing shocking images on T.V. Droughts, heatwaves and floods, leading to the loss of lives and livelihoods. For those who care about the earth and about others, it has been distressing.
Climate scientists have often been reluctant to link any one extreme weather event to climate change. This is because weather is chaotic and occasionally a confluence of circumstances can cause an extreme weather event, the so called 1 in 100-year events.
However, as computing power and models have improved some scientists have been using models to determine how much more likely climate change is making these events. This is called attribution science. The World Weather Attribution (WWA) is a collaboration of scientists around the world that does real-time analyses of extreme events right after they occur to figure out how much climate change has impacted them.1.
It has been overwhelming in many ways to be able to keep track of all the extreme weather that people are experiencing with a new crisis each week. So, let’s do a quick tour of the world of natural disasters in the last 90 days.
The big headlines for this summer were the many heat waves happening in Europe. England experienced its first ever 40oC day, the MET had not expected this to happen until 2050. 2. The WWA did an investigation and found that this would be almost impossible without the effects of human caused climate change.3. They found that without a global temperature increase of 1.2oC it was virtually impossible for that to occur even in a thousand years.
Climate change has made the event 10 times more likely and 2oC warmer than otherwise. Moving to the continental Europe. The combination of heat and drought has brought many parts of Europe to crisis point. There have been dramatic pictures of once mighty rivers brought to a trickle, revealing long sunk war ships. 4.
Germany’s Rhine and Eastern Europe’s Danube have become too shallow for river travel strangling trade, food and energy transportation. 4.5. Italy’s river Po is drying, making it difficult to cultivate the region’s famous arborio risotto rice.4.5. The lack of water is also making it difficult to generate power. France’s nuclear power fleet is running at lower capacity as the temperature of rivers has become dangerously hot and hydro power is struggling across the continent.4.5.
As Australia was experiencing extreme rains on the other side of the Pacific the western United States have been experiencing a mega drought, the worst drought in 1000 years. 6.7. The lack of water is putting extreme pressure on the American Southwest’s reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead on the Colorado river.7. These reservoirs produce power and water for 40 million people and irrigation for 15% of the USA crop production. They are now at such low levels, below 30% full, that sunken boats and dead bodies are being found. 7.
If water levels continue to fall it will prevent the generation of any power at all. All the stakeholders of the Colorado basin, including the first nation tribes in the area, are coming together to discuss how they can better use the water they still have, let’s hope they can be successful in coming to an agreement.7. This North American summer was above average across the continental US with some states recording record breaking above 38oC temperatures for days on end. 8. A heat wave developed in Texas and other south-central states once again putting pressure on the electricity grid. 9.
I have put a lot of emphasis on the infrastructural issues but the biggest impact of longer periods of time with high temperatures is that on people. Most of Europe and Northern States of the USA are not used to such heat and houses are often not fitted with air conditioning and are often stuffy with little air flow. Europe recorded thousands of excess deaths during the July heat waves but it can be difficult to link the heatwaves directly to deaths. 10.
As infrastructure buckles in the heat, low income people will suffer the most. Public transport train lines buckled under the heat 11. and lower income neighbourhoods have less shade and less parks and places to escape from the heat.10. Restrictions on water use and power cost increases are harder for people that can’t pay. Which brings us to the impact of extreme weather on developing countries who are less able to adapt and are less at fault for climate change.
China is currently the country that produces the most CO2 pollution, however this has been a relatively recent change. A lot of this is for products that are exported to developed countries and it is lower on the per capita emissions of many countries including Australia.
This Summer central China has been experiencing an event that has never before been recorded, 70 days of temperatures above 35oC. The combination of length, heat and a large geographical area makes this event truly extraordinary. 12.
Southwestern China is extremely reliant on hydropower and the drought associated with the heat wave has forced factories to close and power to be rationed. China’s largest river the Yangtze and largest natural lake Pohang have been drying up, damaging crops in usually fertile farmland. 12. It is a warning to those that control China that you cannot simply sacrifice the environment for economic growth as the effects of climate change damages vital resources like water, power and of course the capacity to work in extreme heat.
China’s economic growth is not always evenly distributed between its mega cities and its rural farm land, leaving some places far less capable of adapting to the climatic changes.
The horn of Africa including Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya has experienced a record 4 years of drought that has put 22 million people at the edge of starvation. 13. With all the other events, including plague and war, this famine has slipped from the news cycle.
With the cost of food and fuel skyrocketing many countries have turned inwards to their own concerns and the world food program is struggling to provide food for the people impacted by this drought. This is also at a time when Ethiopia is engaged in a civil war making things even more difficult in the region. African countries are amongst the least responsible for the climate crisis but are likely to be the hardest hit by these climatic changes.
With all this drought the question becomes where are the rains and where did all that water go? Water doesn’t just disappear and Pakistan has been its victim this month when an extraordinary amount of rain fell during their usual monsoon season. The southern Sindh province received 464% of its average rainfall. 14. The force of the water inundated villages leaving millions homeless and formed new lakes and merged others.14.
Just as drought can affect farmland so too can flood destroying rice and cotton fields in the most productive regions of Pakistan. The floods in Pakistan cannot really be described as anything other than catastrophic, and it is happening to a country that is already broke and in the midst of a political collapse. The economic costs of this crisis are likely to be more than 30 billion and the humanitarian cost uncountable.14. It isn’t just the lack of food and shelter but also the standing water can cause a malaria epidemic.
It is, sadly, easy for some people to ignore extreme weather events occurring in far off countries, particularly those with political issues; but this summer the extreme weather came to developed countries that usually consider themselves safe.
I can only hope that this is a wake-up call for many in developed countries that no one is safe from climate change and that it is only going to get worse. The positives are that these long droughts really force people to properly think about how precious our water is and how to manage it better between stakeholders.
In places like China that desperately want to catch up to developed countries by burning as much fossil fuels as possible to get there, I hope they reconsider taking the same path as other countries and think about how climate change affects their own citizens. Australia also needs to do its part to help reach net zero emissions fast.
For developing countries that are already struggling and are frustrated by the lack of progress on climate action from those more responsible, the Word Economic forum proposes an achievable coal retirement mechanism.
Climate change is making extreme weather more common, more extreme and occurring over larger areas and those least capable of adapting will be the hardest hit. This isn’t about one country or another, it requires global co-operation between everyone to make the necessary changes.