Climate crisis: No one will be spared
Some recent news and headlines: Extreme flooding in Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh in India, and Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. Hundreds dead in floods in Henan (China). Heat wave in British Columbia (Canada) kills dozens. How do we make sense of all this?
Climate scientists are wary of overstating risks, what is known as type 1 errors (false positives). But there is a real danger of type 2 errors (false negatives). As climate risks rise, type 2 errors can give policymakers a false sense of comfort that things are not so bad. After all, climate models have actually underestimated the scale of impact even at relatively lower levels of warming. Warm weather that could result in Arctic permafrost thawing is happening 70 years ahead of climate model projections.
This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the report of its Working Group I (on the physical science of the climate crisis), laying many doubts to rest. Global surface temperatures are 1.09°C higher in 2011-2020 than in 1850-1900. The world will breach 1.5°C of warming within the next two decades with extreme events rapidly rising.
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Weather attribution studies investigate whether specific extreme weather events are merely freak deviations from the normal range or whether they are made more likely (and worse) due to human-induced climate crisis. Take Verkhoyansk in eastern Siberia, known as the Pole of Cold for having recorded the lowest temperature north of the Arctic Circle (-67.8°C in 1892). This year, it registered the highest temperature ever within the Arctic Circle of 38°C. Studies now conclude that the severe heat wave in Siberia in 2020 would have been near-impossible without the human-caused climate crisis. The same applies to the heat wave in north-western United States and parts of western Canada this summer.
We must, first, understand that extremes today could well become the norm tomorrow. Climate risks are non-linear and the past is not a good predictor of the future. Heavy precipitation events that happened once in 10 years in the pre-industrial era now likely occur 1.3 times each decade (rising to 2.8 times with 4°C of warming). South Asia and several parts of Africa will also face severe droughts with 1.5-2°C of warming.
Moreover, our worries do not stop at our borders. It is tempting to dismiss disasters happening elsewhere as not being of immediate concern. But we must spot the warning signs because warming anywhere will impact our future everywhere.
In the last 30 years, the Arctic region has warmed at 0.81°C per decade, more than thrice as fast as the global average of 0.23°C per decade. Melting ice is now the most important cause for sea-level rise — and revised estimates predict an over one metre rise in global sea levels by 2100. This is not the Arctic’s problem alone, but will severely impact coastal and low-lying areas all over the world.
To compound the problem, blue sea water absorbs more heat than white sea ice. Melting sea ice, therefore, creates a feedback loop: More heat is trapped in sea water, which triggers more thawing. Arctic ice melt has slowed the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a major ocean current that circulates warm water from the south to the north. The slowing is worse than in 1,600 years, and could disrupt rains from South America to West Africa to India.
Melting permafrost is another concern. Arctic permafrost holds nearly twice as much carbon as the atmosphere. On current trends, up to 89% of near-surface permafrost could disappear by 2100. This would release tens to hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane, adding to warming.
In the Northern Hemisphere, reduced temperature differences between the Equator and the Pole results in a southern oscillation of the Jet Stream (and as it meanders, it sometimes stalls). This creates more weather extremes, increasing droughts and floods in locations further south. Arctic heating and changing weather patterns could impact the severity of heat waves in South Asia.
It would be foolhardy to dismiss these concerns as that of environmentalists alone. There are serious economic ramifications for India where nearly 75% of the labour force (380 million people) is exposed to heat stress. In 2030, India could lose 5.8% of working hours (a productivity loss equivalent to 34 million full-time jobs), according to the International Labour Organization. CEEW analysts find that there has been a six-fold increase in extreme flood events in Maharashtra since 1970. As India’s economic powerhouse, such vulnerability majorly threatens physical assets and financial investments.
The climate system is under unprecedented stress in human history. Rich people think they can escape. Poor people hope they can adapt. But the climate crisis will lead to untold misery, hundreds of billions of dollars of losses in infrastructure, widening inequalities and social instability. Regardless of where the extreme events occur, we will all be impacted adversely.
In a year filled with tragedy due to the pandemic, it might be too much to expect that people will care about weather extremes near the Poles. But the biggest lesson for us is that the distant is here and the future is now; the time to act was yesterday.
Arunabha Ghosh is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water and a member of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, an independent international scientific body
The views expressed are personal