From 2001-10 there have been unprecedented extremes in global climate with more national temperature records broken than in any previous decade, according to a recent report from the World Meteorological Organization. For many this may not seem like news, it has been known for some time that the planet’s climate(s) has been changing radically for some years. Even people in their everyday lives are able to perceive with some accuracy changes in climate. What the report highlights is that these extremes have worsened in recent years, especially in regards to their impacts on human life and economy. During 2001-10 more than 370,000 people died as a result of extreme weather and climate conditions. This includes heat waves, floods, cold snaps, drought and storms.
Is every extreme weather event due to a changing climate? This is something that requires further research because of the complexities involved. What researchers can say is that it’s more likely for extreme weather events such as heat waves to occur more frequently because of climate change, and with increased intensity. This makes planning challenging, nevertheless it needs to happen. People can learn from extreme weather events that have taken place around the world in order to plan for the present and future. Climate adaptation, while less attractive in some cases to mitigation and more recently geoengineering techniques, has a major role to play in mitigating the impacts of extreme weather events.
Extreme weather events in Europe in 2003 and Russia in 2010 increased the global death toll from heat waves from less than 6,000 (1991-2000) to 136,000 (2001-10), an increase of more than 2000%. While heat waves may not sound so bad to countries with less comfortable climates, such as the UK, they have the potential to cause large loss of life and damage to infrastructure. Vulnerable populations are particularly at risk, such as older people, which has been the focus of some of IHRR’s research as preparation is key to adapting populations in need of care to extreme weather. Deaths caused by extreme cold also increased by 190% mainly due to ‘a few rare large-scale extreme winter conditions’. The report also notes that exposure to extreme weather is increasing — from 1970 to 2010 the global population jumped from 3.7 to 6.9 billion.
More people are exposed to flooding and severe storms in cyclone-prone areas and if rare events become more common these forms of exposure could continue to increase. Interestingly though, casualties from storms have actually went down from 2001-2010 compared to the previous decade that the report attributes to ‘better early warning systems and increased preparedness’. Economic losses due to weather events, however, only spiked in comparison amounting to 660 million USD, an increase of 54% in comparison to the previous decade (1991-2000) and much of the damage was caused by floods and storms, although flood damages actually went down by 20%, while economic damages due to storms went up 175%.
As you can see, a lot of good information can be gleaned from the WMO report so it is well worth a read. It is also important to keep in mind that when talking about systems affected by climate change, whether physical or socio-economic, they need not be discussed in an alarmist fashion. If in some cases fewer lives are lost or less economic damage is endured despite climate change then these may be opportunities to explore further the ways societies are resilient to extreme weather.
Video introducing findings of the report:
References and Further Reading
Climate change perception matters. Global Policy