The question to consider is how global warming and climate change are affecting the weather around the world.
Droughts, wildfires, sea levels rising, storms and floods, ice caps melting, heat waves, cold snaps: Many people are asking whether these are being caused by climate change. This is the wrong question to ask, because obviously there have always been droughts, wildfires, heat waves, storms and floods. The question we need to consider is how global warming and climate change are affecting the weather around the world.
Not that this is an easy question to answer, but at least it’s an appropriate one. It’s appropriate because if climate change is indeed contributing to these events, we need to understand the extent of such impact, and then work out what resources and efforts we need to put into mitigating it. And then a more difficult question arises about how the responsibility of addressing this global problem can be fairly and equitably managed amongst the many nations and economies of the world.
Let’s answer the easy one first and leave the more difficult question for another time.
Knowing the Difference
Before I go any further, let me quickly remind us of the differences between global warming, climate change and the weather. As the saying goes, climate is what you expect, weather is what you get. In other words, climate is a long-term trend of events, while weather is what happens on a daily basis. For example, the weather can change in a few minutes, but the climate changes over much longer time frames. But they are linked, and we measure and record weather events which then give us an overall view of the long-term trends such as hotter days, more severe droughts, etc.
As for global warming, it is the increase in average global temperatures above what we would expect without the greenhouse effect, which is a result of increased levels of greenhouse gases — mainly as a consequence of human activity.
As I have done in all of my previous articles and will continue to do, I’ll start with the facts we have available. Yes folks, facts — this currently illusive concept — and not opinion, and certainly not belief. To develop appropriate measures and policies, to act on them and to do this properly, we will need a rational and scientific approach, and not be driven by ideology. We have no other choice than to have to rely on the science we have, as imperfect as it may appear.
So, let me summarize a few of the facts about extreme weather we have in front of us. According to the BBC, just this year, the UK has seen the warmest February day on record at 20.6°C (69.08°F) — the first time the country witnessed a temperature of over 20°C (69.08°F) in winter, breaking the February 1998 record of 19.7°C. On the other side of the globe, Australia’s Climate Council’s Weather Gone Wild: Climate Change Fuelled Extreme Weather in 2018 report states:
“The increase in global average temperatures has increased the probability of hot extremes (including record-breaking hot temperatures) and decreased the probability of cold extremes. In Australia, the ratio of observed hot to cold temperature records was 12 to 1 between 2000 and 2014. The annual number of hot days (above 35°C) and very hot days (above 40°C) has also increased strongly over most areas since 1950. Heatwaves are also lasting longer, reaching higher maximum temperatures and occurring more frequently over many regions of Australia.”
In a report by The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia recorded its hottest summer on record when average temperatures exceeded 2oC (3.6oF) above the long-term averages.
We Must Act
Are these isolated events, or do they indicate a trend that we must consider carefully? If we choose to ignore these trends, we risk the possibility of getting to a point in time when it will be too late to act effectively. At what point of being presented with evidential data that indicates a serious problem do we say that we must act.
The 2017 US National Climate Assessment report, which consolidated key messages and supporting evidence from 16 national-level topic chapters, 10 regional chapters and two chapters that focus on societal response strategies, concludes that the impacts of climate change are already being felt across the country, with more “frequent and intense extreme weather events and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities.” Whereas not all regions will be affected equally, “Future climate change is expected to further disrupt many areas of life, exacerbating existing challenges to prosperity posed by aging and deteriorating infrastructure, stressed ecosystems, and economic inequality.” The report predicts that “without significant global mitigation action and regional adaptation efforts, rising temperatures, sea level rise, and changes in extreme events are expected to increasingly disrupt and damage critical infrastructure and property, labor productivity, and the vitality of our communities.”
Numerous new studies are being presented around the world at a great rate and, increasingly, the data they provide on extreme weather events are unprecedented. As a US-led team reported in Nature Climate Change, the evidence of global warming attributed to human activity has reached what is termed “gold standard” or a “five-sigma” level, which provides a very high degree of certainty.
The Price Tag
The sector that knows more about this hard evidence than any other is the insurance industry. According to Munich RE, a global insurance company, the overall losses from natural disasters in 2017 amounted to $330 billion worldwide, $215 billion of which was claimed by hurricanes. The five largest natural catastrophes relating to climate change in 2017 were Hurricane Harvey, which caused 88 fatalities and $85 billion in damaged in the US; Hurricane Irma, with 128 fatalities and a $67-billion loss across the US and Caribbean; Hurricane Maria, which devastated the Caribbean islands, causing108 fatalitiesand a loss of $63billion; the California wildfires, which claimed 25 lives and a loss of $10.5 billion; floods and landslides in China, with 56 fatalities and losses of $6 billion. As a whole, North America shouldered 83% of overall losses — an increase from a long-term average of 32%.
So, back to our philosophical question: Now that the scientists have identified a certain link between fossil fuel burning and climate change, what are we to do with this information? What are the practical and sustainable options to decarbonize the world’s economies?
My answer to these vital and difficult questions is simple: Clearly, there needs to be a global solution. Each of us must take full responsibility for our actions and, wherever and whenever possible, make decisions in our own lives to reduce our own carbon footprint and that of our community. But, more importantly, we must exercise our democratic power to select politicians and leaders — political and corporate — who have the will and the intent to make the hard decisions.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.