Polling stations in Connecticut were commandeered to shelter residents still without power eight days after a freak October snowstorm. Two months earlier, residents of Bastrop County, Texas, lost a record 476 homes to a single wildfire. And corn farmers in Mississippi County, Mo., are still picking up the pieces after their land disappeared under the raging Mississippi River in May.
The human toll from a year of extraordinary weather is high and getting higher. It is no longer just in distant places like Brazil, Somalia or Thailand that extreme events are wreaking havoc on people’s lives and livelihoods. It is right here in the United States. Communities across the country have endured severe storms, record-breaking temperatures, droughts and flooding – in what appears an alarming upward trend in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather. NOAA has already tallied 10 disasters through August 2011 each caused more than a billion dollars worth of damage.
So what is going on? Public and media attention has focused mainly on the destruction and hardship triggered by these disasters, rather than their causes. Yet scientific evidence increasingly points to a link between climate change and extreme weather trends. In other words, these may not be just random weather events. Greenhouse gases from human activities are likely partly to blame.
In the latest authoritative report making this connection, the International Panel on Climate Change recently warned that a warmer world will likely bring more heavy rainfall, heat waves and breaking temperatures. The findings echo those of a 2009 assessment by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (sponsored by 13 federal government agencies), which pointed to climate change as a likely culprit in warmer nights, heat waves and heavy downpours.
The report also predicted that drought in the American Southwest is likely to worsen, with severe implications for wildfires and water supplies. Earlier this year the U.S. National Academy of Sciences added its voice to the chorus of warnings when it reported similar findings.
Nor can the alarming proliferation of extreme events in 2010 and 2011 be dismissed as out of the ordinary. Over the past 50 years every single U.S. state has experienced an increase in heavy rain and snowfall, ranging from 9 percent in the Southwest to 67 percent in the Northeast. And that pattern is mirrored worldwide, with major floods and hurricanes rising sharply for the past half century.
The implications are clear: the more climate change takes hold, the more extreme our weather will likely become.
And the costs are high. Drought-related losses to property, farmland and livestock in Texas have topped $9 billion. In Connecticut, FEMA is doling out emergency aid to snowstorm-battered areas that received its help just two months ago – after Hurricane Irene. NOAA estimates that the 10 major weather and climate disasters through August 2011 cost $45 billion in damages to homes, land, agriculture and infrastructure. And that doesn’t count October’s destructive snowstorm, which could cost more than $3 billion.
In the midst of an economic slump and stubbornly high unemployment, it is tempting to see action on climate change as a luxury that must wait until our economic house is put back in order – both in the United States and in other major economies. But this is inverted logic. With every new extreme event, and climate science report, the cost of delaying action on climate change becomes clearer.
Congress and the presidential candidates must face the climate reality. Both Washington, D.C., and governments worldwide owe their citizens a clearer plan of action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions fuelling rising global temperatures. The politics of climate change may have changed, but the facts haven’t. It is time to listen to the scientists, heed the evidence all around us, and take concrete action now.
Manish Bapna is acting president of the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. Vinod Thomas is director general of the Asian Development Bank and former senior vice president, Independent Evaluation Group, World Bank.