In the eye of the storm

10th July 2013

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  • Mitigation ,
  • Central government ,
  • Adaptation



Paul Suff reflects on the rise in extreme weather events in recent years and weather the deastation being wrought is enough to inspire real action to tackle climate change

Last year was an exceptional one for extreme weather events, from heatwaves and droughts to wildfires and floods.

In the US alone, 2012 brought the most expansive drought since the “dust bowl” era of the 1930s, Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the Atlantic coast, and severe and long-lasting thunderstorms – known as “derechos” – caused widespread power failures across several states.

It was also the wettest year on record in the UK and extreme flooding affected Australia, Brazil, China, the Philippines, and several African countries, including Nigeria and Rwanda.

The first six months of 2013 have followed a similar pattern, most recently with swathes of central Europe and parts of Canada and India submerged by floodwater.

The financial cost of these events is escalating; the human cost is often beyond imagination. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there were 11 extreme weather events in the US last year that each cost at least $1 billion.

The $110 billion price tag the NOAA has attached to the 11 disasters makes 2012 the second costliest after 2005 – a year that included the costs associated with Hurricane Katrina.

Preparations to limit the damage of future potential disasters also need a lot of money. New York City, which was hit badly by Hurricane Sandy, is planning to spend $20 billion over the next 10 years building an extensive network of flood walls, levees and bulkheads along its 520 miles of coast to better protect it from future storms.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned consistently that more frequent and intensive weather events were likely.

Its 2011 SREX report forecast that the frequency and magnitude of extreme high temperatures would increase, resulting in longer and more frequent heatwaves, while the number of heavy precipitation events would rise, implying more floods.

A report last year from the UN concluded that climate change had contributed to extreme events in many regions over the past 50 years. Meanwhile, a separate study, from researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, discovered strong evidence linking heatwaves and extreme precipitation events to human influence on the climate.

Hurricane Sandy and other recent extreme weather events may have spurred the US into action on tackling climate change. Speaking recently at Georgetown University, Barack Obama listed recent droughts and flooding across America when arguing for the introduction of measures to reduce US greenhouse-gas emissions.

“We know that no single weather event is caused solely by climate change. Droughts and fires and floods go back to ancient times. But we also know that in a world that’s warmer than it used to be, all weather events are affected by a warming planet,” he said, using the example of the flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy to illustrate his point.

Among the initiatives unveiled by the president was an agreement with his Chinese counterpart to curb the production and consumption of dangerous hydrofluorocarbons, which have significantly greater warming potential than carbon dioxide.

This could help pave the way for a new international agreement on climate change by 2015 – some 19 years after the last Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, signed the Kyoto protocol.

However, it’s worth remembering that one of the first actions of Clinton’s successor, George W Bush, was to withdraw the US completely from the accord.


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