2012 ‘Clairvoyant’ climate report warns of extreme weather

Record high temperatures in urban Europe as heat waves scorch the planet more often. Devastating floods, some in poorer unprepared areas. Increasing devastation from hurricanes. Drought and famine in poorer parts of Africa as droughts worsen around the world. Wild weather worldwide is becoming stronger and more frequent, resulting in “unprecedented levels of extremes”.

Sound like the last few summers?

Is. But it was also the warning and forecast for the future issued by top UN climate scientists more than 10 years ago.

In a report that changed the way the world thinks about the harms of global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on extreme events, disasters and climate change warned in 2012: “A changing climate lead to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of extreme weather and climate events and may lead to unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.” He said there will be more heat waves, worsening droughts, increased rainfall that will cause flooding and stronger and wetter tropical cyclones and just more unpleasant disasters for people.

“The report was insightful,” said report co-author Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist. “The report was exactly what a climate report should do: Warn us about the future in time to adapt before the worst happens. And people did what they usually do. Some people and governments listened, some did not. I think the sad lesson is that the damage has to hit very close to home or nobody’s paying attention now.”

In the United States alone, the number of weather disasters costing at least $1 billion in damage—adjusted for inflation—increased from an average of 8.4 per year in the decade before the report was issued to 14.3 in the year after the report was issued. , with more than a trillion dollars in U.S. weather damage since then alone in the billions of dollars, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Record-breaking heat hit Northern California in September and 104 degrees in England (40 degrees Celsius) earlier this summer.

The 20-page summary of the 594-page report highlighted five case studies on the climate risks from worsening extreme weather events that scientists said will be more of a problem and how governments could address them. In any case, scientists were able to provide a recent example:

— Flooding in “informal settlements”. Look at the flooding in poor areas of Durban, South Africa this year, said report co-author and climatologist Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross and Crescent International Climate Center in the Netherlands. Or Eastern Kentucky or Pakistan this year or Germany and Belgium last year, the report’s authors said.

— Heat waves in urban Europe. “We have this in spades. That was consistent,” said Susan Cater, a disaster scientist at the University of South Carolina. “I think every year there were longer periods of heat in Europe.”

— Increase in property losses from hurricanes in the United States and the Caribbean as storms become wetter and stronger, but not more frequent. Oppenheimer pointed to recent years when Louisiana has been hit repeatedly by hurricanes, last year when Hurricane Ida killed people in New York due to heavy rainfall that flooded basement apartments, and in 2017 when record rainfall from Hurricane Harvey paralyzed Houston and Hurricane Rico Maria devastated Purico. Hurricane Irma in between.

— Droughts causing famine in Africa. This is happening again in the Horn of Africa and last year in Madagascar, van Aalst said.

— Small islands inundated by a combination of sea level rise, saltwater intrusion and storms. That’s tougher, but co-author Kris Ebi, a climate and health scientist at the University of Washington, pointed to the record of powerful Tropical Cyclone Winston hitting Vanuatu and Fiji in 2016.

“Right now people are feeling it,” van Aalst said. “Science no longer tells them. All these warnings have come true.”

In fact, the reality was probably worse, with more and stronger edges than the authors would have predicted when they finished writing it in 2011 and published it a year later, said co-authors Ebi and Cutter.

That’s partly because when real life played out, disasters escalated and cascaded with sometimes unpredictable side effects, such as heat waves and droughts that caused hydroelectric plants to dry up, nuclear power plants that couldn’t receive cooling water, and even generating stations coal-fired power plants do not take fuel. of dried up rivers in Europe, the scientists said.

“Imagining something scientifically or saying it exists in a scientific assessment is a radically different thing compared to living it,” said co-author Katharine Mach, a climate risk scientist at the University of Miami. He said it was similar to the COVID-19 pandemic. Health officials had long warned of virus pandemics, but when they did, the lockdowns, school closings, economic consequences, supply chain problems were sometimes beyond what dry scientific reports could envision. .

Before this report, the vast majority of climate studies, official reports and debate talked about long-term consequences, the slow but steady rise in average temperatures and sea level rise. Extreme events were considered too rare to study to get good statistics and science and were not considered a big deal. Now much of the focus in science, international negotiations and media coverage is on the extremes of climate change.

Deaths from weather disasters both in the United States and worldwide are generally lower, but scientists say that’s because of better forecasts, warnings, preparedness and response. From 2002 to 2011, before the report, the United States averaged 641 weather-related deaths per year, and now the 10-year average is down to an average of 520, but 2021 was the deadliest year in a decade with 797 weather-related deaths. At the same time, the US 10-year average for heat-related deaths rose slightly, from 118 to 135 per year.

“We’re adapting quickly enough to reduce the impact,” Cutter said. “We are not reducing greenhouse gas emissions to address the cause of warming.”

Stanford University climate scientist Chris Field, who led the report’s work a decade ago, said scientists got the warnings right, but “we may have been too conservative” in the language used. In addition to the dry facts and figures presented, he wished he had used wording that would have been “grabbing people by the shoulders and shaking them a bit more and saying these are real risks”.

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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears

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