Extreme weather affected 62 million people worldwide last year in a clear signal that climate crisis-fueled natural hazards are rising, the United Nations’ weather agency reported on Thursday as a major cyclone unleashed the southern hemisphere’s worst weather-related disaster.
The World Meteorological Organization’s annual “State of the Global Climate” report showed the worsening effects of extreme weather triggered by man-made global warming.
“We have seen a growing amount of disasters because of climate change,” said WMO’s Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, who noted that the extreme weather had continued into 2019 with Cyclone Idai, which “may turn out to be one of the deadliest weather-related disasters to hit the southern hemisphere.”
Some of the worst flooding ever recorded hit Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe after Idai slammed into Mozambique’s coast in mid-March. Storm surge floods of up to six meters high destroyed much of the infrastructure in those nations.
“Idai made landfall over the city of Beira: a rapidly growing, low-lying city on a coastline vulnerable to storm surges and already facing the consequences of sea level rise,” Taalas said in a statement. “Idai’s victims personify why we need the global agenda on sustainable development, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.”
The United Nations put out an emergency appeal for US$282 million to help nearly 2 million people in Mozambique.
More than 1,600 deaths were associated with intense heat waves and wildfires last year in Europe, Japan and the United States, where they led to record economic damages of nearly US$24 billion. The Indian state of Kerala suffered the heaviest rainfall and worst flooding in nearly a century.
Among the 17.7 million people that were uprooted within their home countries last year, more than 2 million were displaced due to disasters linked to floods, drought, storms and other extreme weather and climate events, U.N. Migration reported.
Flooding, the worst of the impacts globally, continued to affect the largest number of people, which was more than 35 million, according to an analysis of 281 weather events last year recorded by the Belgium-based Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters and the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.
This week, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, or IFRC, said 10 million people in Afghanistan — more than a quarter of its population — faced hunger, homelessness and other hardships due to extreme weather involving floods and drought.
“Three years of drought have contributed to massive crop failure, economic hardship, hunger and loss of life, and forced 266,000 people from their homes,” said the Geneva-based organization, which was seeking US$7 million for the Afghan Red Crescent Society to deliver emergency aid.
“Climate change is increasing the hardship for people in Afghanistan,” it said in a statement. “Temperatures are rising, leading to changes in snowmelt, and rainfall is getting more erratic, with an increased risk of floods and droughts. Repeated disasters have eroded people’s capacity to cope.”
.@WMO’s new #StateofClimate report shows record highs in global temperatures, sea levels and greenhouse gas concentrations. This is why ambitious #ClimateAction is urgent. https://t.co/nzmXpjXhjR pic.twitter.com/nlSYI6MLpa
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) March 28, 2019
Less talk, more action
Extreme weather events were increasingly linked to anthropogenic influences, according to WMO’s report, which said that the past four years were the warmest on record and the Earth has warmed by about 1 degree Celsius above its pre-industrial baseline from the late 1800s.
The 2015 Paris Agreement seeks to prevent average global temperatures from rising no more than 2 degrees C. above pre-industrial levels, or 1.5 degrees C. if possible. Since the world’s average temperatures have already increased 1 degree since pre-industrial levels, the real choice is whether to allow it to heat up by a half-degree or 1 degree more.
Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere reached a record high of 405.5 parts per million in 2017, as increasing levels of man-made pollution changed the planet’s climate patterns. That was 45 percent higher than before the Industrial Age, when levels were about 280 ppm.
And for the first time in recorded history the average monthly CO2 level in the atmosphere exceeded 410 parts ppm in April 2018, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reported based on observations from the U.S. Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.
Researchers have predicted the worst climate disruptions will be unleashed if concentrations hit around 450 ppm or higher. That is far above the “safe” level of 350 ppm, last seen in 1987, that some scientists and environmental groups promoted a decade ago as a reasonable upper limit to which the world should adhere.
“For 2018 and 2019, greenhouse gas concentrations are expected to increase further,” WMO said.
Carbon dioxide is the heat-trapping gas blamed for the largest share of global warming. Atmospheric concentrations have built up due to industrial sources of CO2, such as power plants, cars and other fossil fuel burning, that come on top of natural sources such as human respiration and organic decomposition. Methane gas has the next biggest effect; some of it comes from cattle breeding, rice growing, landfills and incineration, but some also comes from natural sources like termites and wetlands.
Concentrations of CO2 build up over time, lingering in the atmosphere for decades, and take many years to drop back down again. The scientific measurements of CO2 concentrations come from a worldwide network of climate research observatories — such as the one at 3,397 meters high on the north slope of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano — that is largely maintained by the United States, Japan and Australia.
WMO’s report said ocean acidification, which comes from all the additional carbon that is absorbed by oceans, continues to affect marine life’s crucial ability to build and to keep shells and skeletal material.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who has made fighting climate change a top priority, urged world leaders to announce more ambitious plans at a climate action summit that will be held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly’s next meeting in September.
“Don’t come with a speech, come with a plan,” he said. “This is what science says is needed. It is what young people around the globe are rightfully demanding.”
He was referring to the hundreds of thousands of students who have been walking out of their classrooms around the world to demand that their governments do more to fight climate change.
The Fridays for Future movement of student-led climate strikes, reflecting deep-seated anger and frustration, has been helping to propel the work of the United Nations and other international organizations that have been trying for decades to rally the world around urgent solutions to environmental problems.
Last fall, Guterres prodded nations to act faster and more decisively against climate change by switching away from the fossil fuel burning that is overheating and killing life on Earth.
“The science is beyond doubt. Solutions are staring us in the face. It is time to get off the path of suicidal emissions,” said Guterres. “All of us — governments, businesses, consumers — will have to make changes.”