As a massive storm ravages North America we should remember that one extreme weather event does not constitute evidence of climate change. However, when we examine all the extreme weather events taking place around the world over the course of the last year, we develop a convincing portrait of the early effects of climate change.
Global warming is the chief suspect behind a wide range of extreme weather events including storms and floods. The higher temperatures associated with global warming cause more water evaporation, which increases the chances of heavy precipitation events, such as floods and snowstorms.
In January, 2011, 49 out of 50 US states reported snow on the ground. The National Weather Service estimated that 70.9 percent of the country was covered by snow. December 2009 had the second largest snow cover since the mid-1960s.
Extreme winter weather has significant negative economic impacts including reduced work productivity, snow and ice removal, restoring downed power lines, weather-related accidents and flooding. New York Cit Mayor Bloomberg has said that the snow costs taxpayers about $1 million for each inch of show. States like Virginia spend over 100 million per year to manage winter weather.
According to the UN, Natural disasters caused $109 billion in economic damage in 2010, three times more than in 2009. The economic cost estimates are based on data from national authorities as well as insurance companies including Swiss Re, Munich Re and Lloyd’s.
The Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (C.R.E.D.) has said there has been a “dramatic” rise in natural disasters during the past decade. C.R.E.D. Director Debarati Guha-Sapir said, “The number of events have gone up very, very dramatically.”
According to NOAA, the globally averaged temperature for 2010 was the warmest ever recorded. The UN weather agency announced, 2001-2010 is the warmest 10 year period since the beginning of weather records in 1850.
In 2010 record draughts killed 55,736 people in Russia and led to crop failures that helped drive up food prices. The devastating floods in Pakistan in July and August cost $9.5 billion and killed 1,985 people. A total of six million people lost their homes, and about 20 million people were affected.
But these are not the only disasters of last year, data compiled by the C.R.E.D. showed that landslides and floods last summer in China caused $18 billion in losses. A persistent drought, described as the worst in a century, effected 50 million people in southern, southwestern, and central China from January through April.
The storms, earthquakes, heat waves and cold snaps affected 207 million people and killed 296,800, according to C.R.E.D. data.
The Arctic ice sheet has shrunk to one of the smallest ever. During the summer of 2010, the Arctic ice shrunk at the fastest rate ever measured, or more than 50 percent faster than average. The last four years (2007-2010) are the four smallest Arctic ice sheets on record. Environmentalists have warned that the melting Greenland ice sheet will raise sea levels 23 feet.
A report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) titled “High mountain glaciers and climate change,” states that glaciers in the Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau and many others are melting quickly, threatening lives by flooding, and by reducing the supply of freshwater. The Himalayan glaciers alone are the main freshwater source for hundreds of millions of people across several countries.
Floods are likely to occur more often as a result of climate change and people will be directly affected because so many live in urban areas that are vulnerable to landslides and floods.
There has also been major flooding across a third of Sri Lanka, destroying 21 percent of the nation’s staple rice crop and raising fears of food inflation. Freak floods also wreaked havoc in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Flash flooding in Brazil has killed at least 62 people early in 2011 and in 2010, the Amazon River fell to its lowest level in more than a century. At their point of confluence, the Amazon’s depth fell more than 12 feet below its average and in October the Amazon was the shallowest it has been since records began over one hundred years ago. Local authorities reported that nearly half of Amazonia’s 62 municipalities declared a state of emergency. The drought conditions affected more than 60,000 families.
Although Australia is know for its extreme climate including droughts, the massive floods that hit four Australian states in December 2010 and January 2011 are the costliest natural disaster ever. Australia’s flooding has devastated an area the size of Germany and France and killed dozens. The estimated cost of rebuilding in the state of Queensland alone stands at A$10 billion ($9.8 billion).
The economic costs extend well beyond rebuilding. Central bank board member Warwick McKibbin warned that if lost production and infrastructure destruction were taken into account, the Queensland floods could cut 1 percent off growth, equal to almost $13 billion. Some early forecasts suggest that Australia’s economic growth for the current quarter could be cut in half. JP Morgan said Australia’s inflation risk had intensified due to the post-flood rebuilding programs.
The state of Queensland is the world’s biggest exporter of coal used in steel-making and with the vast majority of its coal mines under water, steel making throughout Asia is being affected. Some analysts are predicting that coal prices could almost double.
Flooding also drives up food prices. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization said global food prices reached their highest levels since its records began in 1990 and grain prices could climb further due to adverse weather patterns around the world.
Food inflation is a corollary of climate change that can be expected to intensify. There are additional costs associated with the instability that higher food prices auger. This was evident during the 2008 food crisis when soaring prices sparked riots, caused inflation and even led to trade deficits in some countries.
Extreme weather also affects those who can least afford it. According to a study by scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the frequent droughts which have plagued Eastern Africa for much of the past two decades are likely to continue as long as global temperatures continue to increase.
We are witnessing an ever increasing number of extreme weather events and we are increasingly aware of the significant costs that are associated with them. We have not even mentioned the costs to low-lying countries from rising sea levels which could entirely consume places like Tuvulu and the Seychelles. Rising sea levels are already eroding coastlines in places like Egypt.
Climate change can manifest in paradoxical forms, from shrinking Arctic ice sheets to dust storms in Iraq. When dealing with interrelated ecosystems, it is hard to precisely predict the costs of eco-degradation. There are incalculable costs associated with ocean acidification that imperils the base of the seafood chain, or extreme storms that create climate refugees. Suffice to say, the costs of climate change are staggering, particularly if you try to quantify scientific predictions that 20 percent of all living species will be driven toward extinction by mid-century.
Without significant investments in mitigation and prevention, extreme weather events like draughts, floods, and storms will continue to increase around the globe, ravaging economies and threatening billions of people.