It’s never been clearer that the climate crisis is here now. Below are news stories from just the past few weeks describing catastrophes from around the world. This should be enough to push world leaders into action on climate. But this week’s G20 talks anticipated a ‘tepid‘ outcome on climate.
At the time of writing just 100 days remain until the COP26 summit, and the UK government is issuing new oil drilling licences while ignoring the gap between its emissions targets and a lack of policies to meet them. We have to speak out and ensure the voices of those on the front lines of climate change are heard.
Heatwaves, drought and fire
Madagascar is on the brink of a famine it played little part in creating. In Southern Madagascar, a four-year drought and vicious sandstorms have destroyed crops and turned arable land to desert. As many as 500,000 are nearing starvation.
‘Nowhere is safe’: heat shatters vision of Pacific north-west as climate refuge. A ‘heat dome’ brought unprecedented heat to the US Pacific north-west and western Canada. Known for mild summers, cities were unprepared for record temperatures of up to 42.2C (Seattle) and 46.7C (Portland, Oregon). Some inland areas managed to get up to 118F (47.8C). Hospitals suddenly found themselves overwhelmed, with several hundred people believed to have died in the heat. The town of Lytton shattered the previous heat record for Canada (45C), reaching 49.5C before residents fled a devastating wildfire, which destroyed large parts of the town. Temperature records are usually broken by fractions of degrees.
This is only part of a long-term trend – a 22 year megadrought as reduced snowfall mean reservoirs are not being replenished, causing an existential crisis for farmers and populations in the American West.
Heat and drought combined led to the West erupting in fierce wildfires. In California, 2020 was the worst fire season on record, burning double the previous area. But 2021 is currently ahead of the trend for 2020, with 900 more fires compared to this time last year. In Oregon, the Bootleg Fire has blazed over 350,000 acres, so powerful that it has generated dangerous columns of lightning-charged smoke and ash, reaching the stratosphere. The smoke from fires causes serious health problems, and has reached as far as the east coast, with New York issuing air quality warnings.
‘Everything is on fire’: Siberia hit by unprecedented burning Extraordinary forest fires, which have already burned through 1.5m hectares (3.7m acres) of land in north-east Siberia have released choking smog across Russia’s Yakutia region, where officials have described this summer’s weather as the driest in the past 150 years. Fires have sparked one of the world’s worst ever air pollution events. (20 July)
Norway, Sweden and Finland have also been experiencing a heatwave. Lapland recorded its hottest temperature for more than a century.
Wet-bulb temperatures (WBT) combine heat and humidity into a single measure, representing the human body’s ability to regulate to a safe temperature. At 35C WBT, even fit, acclimatised people who sit in the shade die within about 6 hours. With 2C global heating. it is predicted almost all of India would see 33-35C WBT at least every 8 years. The city of Jacobabad in Pakistan reached 52C, which with high humidity represented a WBT of 35C
As temperatures in Baghdad and southern provinces of Iraq rose up to 52C, power cuts left many without electricity for days, a reminder that climate impacts oftern come on top of existing conflict, inequality and infrastructure failure.
Death toll rises and thousands flee homes as floods hit China Days of torrential rain and massive flooding have hit China’s southeastern Henan province, bursting the banks of rivers, overwhelming dams and the public transport system and forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes. At least 25 people have been killed and seven are missing in the provincial capital, Zhengzhou. with a year’s worth of rain falling in just three days, flooding the subway system. The death toll is expected to rise.
Thousands displaced by floods in southwest China Just two weeks previously, heavy rain in Sichuan province affected more than 120,000 people, with the city of Dazhou evacuating more than 4,600 hit by rising water and landslides and damage of an estimated US$27 million.
More than 190 people have died in flooding caused by heavy rainfall. The district of Ahrweiler in Rhineland-Palatinate, south of Cologne, was the worst-hit area, with at least 117 people killed, and homes and roads torn up. At least 31 died in Belgium. In Austria, severe flooding also occurred but without fatalities.
Cause and effect
The link between climate change and heatwaves is obvious, but there is also a clear mechanism linking global warming to extreme rainfall events: warmer air can hold more moisture.
It used to be seemingly obligatory to end reports on extreme weather disasters with a disclaimer “No single event can be said to be caused by climate change.” We’re past that now. Researchers estimate climate destabilisation made the North American heatwave 150 times more likely.
The more extreme it is, the more likely it is that a disaster would simply not have occurred without the planetary experiment of altering our atmosphere. For other events, it is not that they could not have happened without climate change, but that the trend is towards greater severity. A recent study found that more than a third of all extreme heat deaths worldwide can be attributed to climate change.