Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis?
This is the question posed in the 14th edition of the Global Risks Report just released by the World Economic Forum. How would you answer that question? I suspect Donald Trump’s reply would be: Crisis? What crisis?
The WEC survey of business, government, civil society and ‘thought leaders’ was conducted in October 2018. The roughly 800 to 900 respondents who answered the call placed the hazards and impacts of climate change impacts firmly at the top of global risks. Environmental risks accounted for three of the top five risks by likelihood, and four of the top five by impact. Only nuclear conflict has a higher score in terms of impact than climate change. So that places extreme weather and the failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation action pretty much in the same impact category as nuclear war. Clearly, a majority of the business, government, civil society, and supposed ‘thought leaders’ (at least in this sample) understand the enormous risks associated with the deteriorating climate.
The figure below shows the top right-hand corner of the report’s “global risk landscape” where the likelihood of an event and the level of its impact are at a maximum. The highest risk is judged to be extreme weather events. Since water crises are also strongly affected by the worsening global climate, this risk should also be included in the climate category. Natural disasters are defined in this report as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, and climate change doesn’t appear to have made them any worse (although there’s a suggestion that sea level rise may trigger more earthquakes). Cyber attacks are the sole entry that isn’t related to the environment.
Are these risks exaggerated? In this regard, it is interesting to see how the insurance companies are reporting their liabilities. They are often the first businesses to feel the financial pain when extreme weather and natural disasters hit hard. For MunichRe, a major international insurance company, 2018 was not a good year.
True, it wasn’t as bad as 2017—when Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused record losses. But 2018 was still the fourth-costliest year since 1980 in terms of losses. The key events once again were storms and wildfires. Hurricanes Michael and Florence in the Atlantic, and Typhoons Jebi, Mangkhut and Trami in Asia caused huge damage. Overall losses from tropical cyclones in 2018 came to $57 billion. The cyclone season was also statistically unusual: for the first time named tropical storms in all of the northern hemisphere ocean basins outnumbered the long-term average.
For the second year running, it was the worst ever wildfire season in California—with the most damaging wildfires in US history. First the Carr fire devastated 929 km2 of the state in July and August destroying 1600 structures. Then in early November, the Camp Fire almost completely destroyed the small town of Paradise in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Although all the residents were ordered to evacuate the town, 86 people lost their lives. At about the same time, the Woolsey Fire broke out near Los Angeles—burning down 1600 houses in Malibu.
It was a bad year for Japan. Seven storms either hit or just missed the islands. Five of the storms made landfall or came very close to land with typhoon strength and brought torrential rain. In July, some parts of Hiroshima received 2 metres of rainfall in 10 days causing major flooding. In total, 11 prefectures were affected by floods and landslides. Japan was also hit by two earthquakes—which reportedly caused only limited damage because of the strict building standards, although damage still amounted to $9 billion.
Indonesia was hard hit by tsunamis. These were triggered by earthquakes and undersea landslides that occurred on the slopes of the volcano Anak Krakatau. In September, a tremor near the city of Palu triggered a tsunami that killed 2000 people. A second tsunami towards the end of the year claimed 400 more victims.
In Europe, a long hot and exceptionally dry summer led to drought that caused substantial damage. Many countries had no rain for months. In Scandinavia, the drought led to widespread wildfires—even in the Arctic circle in Sweden.
Wildfires and drought were exacerbated by heat waves that affected almost all countries around the world. In June, Oman set a new record for its minimum temperature: 42.6°C, a new Asian record. In Ouargla, Algeria, temperatures rose to 51.1°C. Apart from the cyclones and earthquakes, Japan’s summer heat wave resulted in 22,000 people hospitalised with heat stroke. Even in California, temperatures rose to 43.3°C in early July, causing the electricity demand for air conditioning to soar resulting in several power outages.
Will 2019 see the world returning to less ferocious heatwaves, and fewer and less intense wildfires and storms? It hasn’t started well. While the northern hemisphere cools off in the winter, the southern hemisphere summer has already erupted into record-breaking heat. In Australia, temperatures have risen to 49°C during the day, and in mid-January night-time temperatures in New South Wales never fell below 35.9°C.
Australia is so hot that fruit-eating bats are falling dead out of the trees. The small mammals have no way to regulate their body temperature when the thermometer gets above 40°C. One expert said “they basically boil. It affects their brain—their brain just fries, they become incoherent, lose consciousness and fall to the ground.”
Anyone who believes that this extreme weather is unrelated to global warming caused by the continuing emission of greenhouse gases generated by the combustion of fossil fuels is simply delusional.
Three major scientific reports released in 2018 all sounded the same clear warning. Emissions of carbon dioxide rose once again in 2018 and are expected to continue to rise in 2019. In other words: global warming is still happening and temperatures are continuing to rise.
In the back office:
The Global Risks Report 2019 issued by the World Economic Forum is here : http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Global_Risks_Report_2019.pdf. The MunichRe report can found at https://www.munichre.com/topics-online/en/climate-change-and-natural-disasters/natural-disasters/the-natural-disasters-of-2018-in-figures.html .
See also the World Resources Institute article at: https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/12/2018-year-climate-extremes. For the Australian heatwave see: Code Red: Australia is so hot bats are falling from the trees, at https://thinkprogress.org/australia-heat-wave-so-hot-bats-falling-from-trees-9493180bfd35/
The three major reports on climate change released in 2018 can be retrieved at : https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/ , https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/ , and https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2018