Climate-fueled disasters rise, political action stalls
Devastating wildfires in the western United States and northern Europe. A record heat wave in southern Europe. Hurricanes, cyclones, and flooding in the Americas and the eastern Pacific Ocean. For many, this was the year climate change hit home. Climate-influenced disasters have grown stronger and lasted longer. As the latest iteration of the U.S. National Climate Assessment put it in November: “The evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming … [and] the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country.”
Several modern records will be broken this year, as they have been inexorably year after year. The overall temperature of the world’s oceans—the best thermometer for the planet itself—is the highest it has been since record keeping began. Ocean levels are some 8 centimeters higher than in the 1990s—and the rise is accelerating. And global greenhouse gas emissions will again hit an all-time high, likely rising by more than 2% over last year.
Yet, as the evidence—enumerated in a series of alarming scientific reports this fall—has mounted, the gap between what the world needs to do and what it is doing seems wider and starker than ever. In the United States, President Donald Trump has disputed the science of human-driven climate change, sought to roll back most of the climate-focused policies that his predecessor enacted, and stood firm in his intent to pull the United States out of the Paris agreement, the international deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The White House even tried to downplay the National Climate Assessment, a report mandated by Congress and endorsed by government science agencies. “I do not believe it,” Trump said when asked about estimated economic impacts; his spokesperson Sarah Sanders called the report “extreme” and “not based on facts.” “The federal government is constructing an alternative reality,” says Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. “They’re in la-la land.”
The United States is not alone. “Each year that goes by with lack of action and leadership in the U.S., more and more countries around the world have an excuse for stepping back,” says Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of Tufts University’s Center for International Environment Resource Policy in Medford, Massachusetts. For example, Brazil’s incoming president, Jair Bolsonaro, has promised to open Amazonian rainforest for development, potentially releasing a rush of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. China is once again focusing more on problems such as clean air rather than carbon emissions, and even the European Union is distracted by internal upheavals.
The costs of decades of little or no action are becoming manifest as the “natural” is slowly drained from natural disasters. The consequences are worst where human influence on the climate slams into the human predilection to live in risk-prone places. Take the record wildfires in California, such as the Camp Fire, which killed at least 86 people and reduced the town of Paradise to ash. Warming temperatures and a downturn in summer rainfall are drying out the western United States, prolonging torrid droughts that turn forests and brush to tinder. Large wildfires there now burn twice the area they did in 1970; by midcentury, the area burned by all wildfires in the region is projected to increase as much as sixfold. “These bigger fires, fires that move faster, and a longer fire season—it’s clearly, clearly here,” Duffy says.
On the East Coast, low-lying cities such as Norfolk, Virginia, are experiencing flooding at high tide thanks to a combination of sea-level rise and subsidence linked to the long-ago retreat of the ice sheets. And when there’s not sunny-day flooding, there are storms: This year brought no reprieve from 2017’s blockbuster hurricanes. Like Harvey, which devastated Houston, Texas, last year, this year’s Hurricane Florence exhibited many telltale signs of global warming’s influence: It intensified rapidly and dawdled over land, drowning the North Carolina coast with unprecedented rainfall.
Those effects don’t stop at U.S. shores. Super Typhoon Mangkhut, the year’s strongest storm, battered the Philippines, triggering landslides and killing at least 66 people. In the United Kingdom, human-driven warming has made debilitating summer heat waves 30 times more likely; by midcentury, such heat will grip the island once every 2 years. A similar heat wave in Canada this year killed more than 90 people. The recent spike in sea level, now at 3.9 millimeters a year, has put Pacific Island nations on edge, and studies this year suggested wave-driven overwash could make many of those islands uninhabitable within decades.
In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations–sponsored group that includes hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists, released a grim look at the effects of a global temperature increase just 1.5°C above preindustrial levels—not much more than the 1°C the planet has already warmed. Among the findings: After another half-degree of warming, many of the world’s coral reefs would be doomed. In some regions, drowning rains and scorching heat waves would grow more severe. Arctic sea ice would rapidly retreat. And holding the temperature increase to that level would require a stark drop in carbon emissions, along with steps to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere, the report said.
“We reach 1.5° by 2040. We’ve only got 2 or 3 decades,” says Myles Allen, one of the report’s lead authors and a climate dynamicist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Perhaps it’s still theoretically possible, Duffy adds. “But to meet the goal, [the world] needs to change now. And I don’t see that happening.”
Even when global warming recaptures the world’s attention, the problem will not be easy to solve. The world needs to weigh the costs and benefits of keeping the warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C or higher, Allen says. “Politically the conversation has to move from now to how much a burden we impose on the next generation,” he says. But Don Wuebbles, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois in Urbana and a lead author of the National Climate Assessment, says the burden is already heavy. “I’ve been through Paradise,” he says, “which no longer exists.” —Paul Voosen