Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 8 July 2013

Climate crisis effects already upon us

A report last week shows that the climate crisis is already increasing extreme weather events with thousands of deaths, and countries should now prepare adaptation plans.


The world is facing weather extremes, and it's time for countries to act to prepare for them. That's the message from two events last week.

Most of the debate on climate change has been on mitigation, or how to prevent further global warming by curbing emissions.

But the spotlight should equally or even more be on adaptation how to cope with the effects of climate change.  Because whatever we do to curb emissions (and not enough is being done), the impacts are already upon us.

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) released their report last week, aptly titled The Global Climate 2001-2010:  A Decade of Climate Extremes.

It gave out the news that the decade was the warmest in the world for both land and ocean surface temperatures.

The report is full of information on data showing how the rate of increase in global warming between 1991-2000 and 2001-2010 was unprecedented.

Every year of the decade except 2008 was among the 10 warmest years on record. The average land and ocean-surface temperature for 2001-2010 was estimated to be 14.47C, or 0.47C above the 1961-1990 global average and 0.21C above the 1991-2000 global average.

The report is also very useful in documenting the recent effects that climate change have had, showing that the crisis of adaptation is already with us.

Firstly, there has been a rapid decline in Arctic sea ice, and accelerating loss of net mass from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and from the world's glaciers.

As a result, global mean sea levels rose about 3 millimetres (mm) per year, about double the observed 20th century trend of 1.6 mm per year. Global sea level averaged over the decade was about 20 cm higher than that of 1880.

Secondly is the increase in rainfall and floods. The 2001-2010 decade was the second wettest since 1901. Globally, 2010 was the wettest year since records were kept.

Most parts of the world had above-normal precipitation during the decade. The eastern USA, northern and eastern Canada, and many parts of Europe and central Asia were particularly wet.

Floods were the most frequent extreme event in the decade. Eastern Europe was particularly affected in 2001 and 2005, India in 2005, Africa in 2008, Asia (notably Pakistan, where 2 000 people died and 20 million were affected) in 2010, and Australia, also in 2010.

Thirdly, droughts occurred in all parts of the world.  Among the worst droughts were in Australia (in 2002 and other years), East Africa (2004 and 2005, resulting in widespread loss of life) and the Amazon Basin (2010) with negative environmental impacts.

Fourthly the decade saw 511 tropical cyclone related events which resulted in nearly 170 000 deaths, over 250 million people reported affected and economic damages of US$ 380 billion.

2001-2010 was the most active decade since 1855 in terms of tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic Basin, with an average of 15 named storms per year, above the long-term average of 12.

The North Indian Ocean saw the deadliest tropical cyclone recorded during the decade, when Tropical Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in early May 2008. More than 138 000 people were reported killed or missing, eight million people were affected and thousands of homes were destroyed.

Fifthly, there was tremendous increase of over 2000% in deaths from heat-waves, from less than 6000 in 1991-2000 to 136 000 in 2001-2010.  This is due mainly to the heat waves in Europe in 2003 and Russia in 2010.

Sixthly, more than 370,000 people overall died in 2001-2010 due to extreme weather and climate conditions, including heat waves, cold spells, drought, storms and floods, according to the data by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). This was 20% higher than 1991-2000.

The average population exposed to flooding every year increased by 114% globally between 1970 and 2010, a period in which the world's population increased by 87% from 3.7 billion to 6.9 billion. The number of people exposed to severe storms almost tripled in cyclone-prone areas, increasing by 192%, in the same period.

Can all extreme weather events be attributed to climate change?  Though there is no certainty and each case has to be taken on its own, many scientists conclude that the likelihood of many events was probably substantially increased by rising global temperatures.

I was also in Beijing last week for an international conference on adaptation, organised by China's National Development and Reform Commission and the UK and Swiss aid agencies.

We were treated to good presentations by Chinese scientists and policy makers on how climate change has been affecting local communities in several provinces in terms of rain, water supply, drought and sea level rise.

A 4-year project run by the three agencies helped the development of scientific research, policy coordination among government agencies, and the communities to adapt to climate change.

This was in the area of facing up to water shortages, flooding, development of drought-resistant and flood-resistant crops, health, and infrastructure to cope with flooding and other weather events.

Policy makers and NGOs from other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin American also shared their adaptation experiences.

Some of them, including Kenya, Mauritius and China itself have prepared national adaptation plans, covering various regions and sectors in their countries.

Formulating a national adaptation strategy is already an achievement as it requires scientific knowledge of local conditions in different regions in the country, projecting the effects of climate change under various scenarios, and mapping out solutions and costing.

But as one participant said, having a plan is one thing, getting it implemented is another big challenge.

Given the WMO report, of more extreme weather events to come, each country should prepare itself, and try to get their plans implemented.