Floods, fires and extreme heat: Is it climate change or just bad weather?
Twenty years ago, in his groundbreaking book The End of Nature, Bill McKibben was one of the first to sound the alarm about the potential dangers of global warming. His warnings were largely ignored and now, in his new book, the oddly titled Eaarth, he says we need to acknowledge that we’ve waited too long, and that massive change is not only unavoidable but already under way.
Recent weather events would seem to support McKibben’s contentions. Extreme flooding in Pakistan, record-breaking heat waves in Russia, deadly mudslides in China, uncontrollable forest fires in B.C. – the list goes on. In the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that, so far, 2010 is the hottest year since records began in 1880. Seventeen nations have reached new temperature highs, another record. Pakistan hit (129F) 54C, a new record for all of Asia. The current flooding there is the worst in that country’s history, with two million people homeless, 20 million affected, more than a million acres of croplands flooded, and signs of an incipient cholera epidemic. Six million people are without assistance in severely affected areas. The UN has rated the floods in Pakistan as the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history, with 13.8 million people affected and 1,600 dead.
Meanwhile, Russia is locked in the worst heat wave and drought in its documented history, with unprecedented high temperatures in Moscow and hundreds of wildfires burning out of control. Moscow had never hit 100F (38C) before this year; this summer such temperatures have been commonplace in Russia’s capital. The combination of extreme heat and thick smoke and smog from the fires doubled the city’s death rate at the peak of the heat wave last week, which reached 700 deaths per day at one stage due to heat-related causes. The drought and fires have destroyed a quarter of Russia’s crops, prompting the government to ban grain exports for the rest of this year in hopes of keeping domestic food prices under control. Since Russia is one of the biggest grain exporters, this move contributed to a spike in the price of wheat on the global market.
Flooding and mudslides in China have killed more than 1,100 people this year and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage across 28 provinces and regions. And back in Canada, the forest fire season in B.C. is the worst in 12 years, having already charred more than 300,000 hectares of forest, an area larger than Metro Vancouver. Only 2 days ago, an ice chunk the size of Bermuda (50 square kilometres) broke off Ellesmere Island, rudely disrupting our Prime Minister’s intentions of never having to even mention the words climate change on his current Arctic tour.
Taking a cue from the subtitle of this here blog, just what on earth is going on? What can we say about the connection between these events and climate change? Is there one?
To find out, I spoke with Dr Vladimir Ryabanin, a scientist with the World Climate Research Programme of the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva. Most scientists say that no single weather event can be attributed to climate change but, at the same time, these kinds of extreme weather events are precisely consistent with the scenarios that climate forecasters have long predicted if we did nothing to reign in carbon emissions (which we haven’t). So can we expect more frequent and more devastating storms in the future? Have a listen to what the good doctor Ryabanin has to say by clicking the audio player below. To download right click here and select ‘Save As’ or ‘Save Target As.’
Final word to Bill McKibben from his recent article in the Guardian. “This is no longer an environmental battle. As this summer demonstrates, if you’re concerned about development, climate change is issue No 1 (how much development is going to go on in Pakistan, now that its bridges are all gone?). If you’re concerned about war and peace, climate change is issue No 1 (when Russia stops sending grain to Egypt and Nigeria, and when wheat prices start to rise, what do you think comes next?). If you’re concerned about the future, then climate change is issue No 1 – because this summer is a tiny taste of what the future is all about. So far we’ve barely raised the earth’s temperature a degree, and that’s caused all that we’ve seen so far. But climatologists assure us there’s four or five degrees more by the century’s end unless we work with incredible speed to end the fossil fuel era.”