Changing climate

Weather Turns Extreme
Martin Khor

The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London on 27 July was widely acclaimed for its spectacular display. But besides the brilliant design and smooth implementation, another factor played an important role—luck.

It was lucky that the ceremony was not ruined by rain. Just a few weeks ago, much of Britain was deluged by floods caused by a lengthy spell of rain.

TV screens and newspapers were filled with images of cars being washed down streets that had turned into rivers.

The unusually intense rainfall and floods have reached historically worst levels in Britain. In January, a government report said that flooding caused by heavier rainfall will be Britain's worst effect from climate change in the coming decades, costing damage valued at billions of pounds a year.

Extreme weather events are of course not confined to Britain. They are taking place all over the world at an increasing rate and with damaging intensity.

Only a few weeks back at least 77 people died and thousands were displaced in the worst flooding to hit Beijing in more than 60 years. This was due to a long downpour on July 21.

It was the heaviest rain in Beijing since records began in 1951, causing rivers to burst their banks and flood major highways, submerging cars with people trapped inside, and sweeping houses and people away.

Meanwhile, the United States is facing a severe heat wave and drought. This has caused significant falls in farm output, with serious effects on global food supply and prices.

The dry weather in the United States is partly attributed to La Nina, which has a cooling effect on the Pacific Ocean, bringing warmer and dryer weather to the south of the country, including Texas whose agriculture has been devastated in the past year.

But many climate scientists are also linking the drought to climate change. According to Peter Stott of the British government's Met Office Hadley Centre, La Nina is only part of the story.

Stott co-authored a recent study which links climate change with the Texas drought and other extreme weather events. Interviewed by the Voice of America, he said his study found "clear evidence for human influence on the Texas heat wave and also in the very unusual temperatures we had in the United Kingdom in 2011".

According to the study, the 2011 Texas drought was 20 times more likely to occur than in the 1960s as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. The heat wave last November in England was 62 times more likely to have occurred than 50 years ago.

Scientists are cautious to note that it is difficult to pinpoint particular extreme weather events as being caused by climate change but new studies have found that climate change has made these events more probable.

Says Stott: "It is the combination of natural variations of climate that is important here. We saw that in La Nina in Texas, but over and above that, there is this additional climate effect that can and has indeed in the last year led to a greater vulnerability to extreme weather."

In November 2011, a path-breaking report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change involving 100 scientists linked the increase in extreme weather events such as heavier rainfall and flooding, and heat waves to climate change.

The report evaluates that there is at least a 66% chance that climate extremes have changed as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, and also notes that "economic losses from weather—and climate-related disasters are increasing".

The global insurance industry has reported that 2011 was a record year for catastrophes (many ol them weather related), with economic losses of $350bil to $400 bil.

A report on extreme weather events and insurance by the Geneva Association shows that the number of natural catastrophes increasing from almost 400 in 1980 to 800-1000 in the period 2006-2011. The associated economic losses rose from about $70 bil in 1980 to $380 bil in 2011.

Notable extreme weather-related events in Asia in recent years include Thailand's worst flooding in 50 years in September-October 2011 which had devastating effects on manufacturing, agriculture and homes, with losses estimated by the World Bank at $45.7bil.

Pakistan suffered heavy rain and extensive floods in July-August 2010, which affected 20 million people, killed 2,000 and severely damaged agricultural production: in 2011 the country suffered another major flood which killed thousands more people.

Last year a severe drought hit Eastern Africa, threatening an estimated 12 million people with food shortage. Again, scientists were careful not to link the shortage of rain to climate change, but were of the view that the changing climate increased the risk of such events.

There are many lessons from all these recent developments, including that policy makers must pay greater attention to the changing weather in their countries, that extreme weather events are not isolated and one-off events but part of a pattern.

Priority should be given to putting prevention measures such as flood control in place before disasters happen, and flood management in anticipation of their happening.

And the growing evidence of the links between these extreme events with climate change should also prompt governments and social movements to increase their seriousness to tackle the causes of climate change.
—Third World Network Features

Vol. 45, No. 18, Nov 11-17, 2012

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