Climate change, extreme weather events and the future of humankind

Distinguished Visiting Professor Asit K. Biswas and Professor in Practice Cecilia Tortajada reflect on the challenge of managing the impact of climate change.

Climate change, extreme weather events and the future of humankind

Globally, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent due to a warming planet which is changing climates. While scientifically it is still not possible to say if a specific climatic event was intensified by global warming, and, if so, by how much, the overall trajectory of available scientific evidence during the last two decades is becoming increasingly clear. This includes higher and more frequent floods, severe and longer droughts, hotter heat waves, bigger storm surges and heavier snowfalls. All these extreme hydrometeorological events, especially during the last ten years, seem to be increasingly breaking existing historical records.

Such extreme hydroclimatic events are now occurring more frequently all over the world. Consider 2021. It started with a record-breaking snowfall in Madrid during the first weeks of the year that resulted in damages costing €1.4 billion. Winter storms in Texas left 3.5 million households without power as the temperature dropped to -13°C. China faced the worst dust storm in a decade, turning Beijing’s sky orange. Serious floods occurred in Germany, Australia, China, India and Indonesia. Extensive forest fires raged in the USA, Canada, France, Greece and Russia, and we experienced soaring unprecedented temperatures in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, Canada and Moscow.

The World Meteorological Organization noted climate change and extreme weather events have contributed to a major surge in natural disasters over the last 50 years. There were more than 11,000 such reported disasters globally, resulting in over two million deaths and $3.64 trillion losses. More than 91% of the deaths were in developing countries. This meant, during this 50-year period, average losses were $202 million each day. What is frightening is losses during 2010−19 were seven times those reported in 1970−79.

The Sixth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in August, concluded unequivocally that "human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land". It concludes that global surface temperature will continue to increase at least until 2056 "under all emission scenarios".

A UN report released this year analysed the latest emissions reduction promises of 191 countries and concluded that these would propel the world to a "catastrophic" 2.7°C increase above pre-industrial temperatures, by 2100. This is above the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement of 1.5°C. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called this situation a "code red for humanity."

Water security and climate change

Impacts of climate change will be mostly felt, directly or indirectly, through the medium of water. Floods and droughts happen because either there is too much or too little rainfall. Global warming heats the ocean water causing it to expand and it melts polar ice caps, both contributing to increases in sea level. Steady melting of inland glaciers may increase river flows. However, when glaciers fully melt a major source of river flows will disappear. Flows, subsequently, will decline. Forest fires require dry periods so that under-brushes are dry; thus, fires spread quickly and become difficult to control. Extinguishing forest fires requires a tremendous amount of water.

More heatwaves and warmer temperatures mean increasing need for air conditioning and fans, requiring more electricity. Generating electricity by thermal and nuclear means more water will be necessary for cooling.

While water is an essential consideration for adaptation or mitigating impacts of climate change, there is a fundamental discontent between climatologists and water professionals on how they approach climate change. Climatologists have been primarily preoccupied by averages, i.e. how average global temperature may increase or what will be the average rise of mean sea level.

In contrast, water professionals are not interested in averages but in extreme hydrological events like prolonged droughts and high floods that may occur once every 100−500 years. This is because the water infrastructures are designed on the basis of recurrences of extreme hydrological events. This disconnect may have major consequences in the future.

Complexities of managing climate change impact

Managing climate change is a multidimensional and complex issue. The problem has to be tackled globally and by all countries. Reduction of emissions depends on numerous factors, including growth and structure of the population, urbanization, national and global economic growth rates, poverty alleviation, global increase of middle class and their aspirations and dietary patterns, speed and success of energy transition from fossil fuels to other sustainable forms of energy and a host of other associated factors.

If global warming is to be controlled, all countries will have to radically alter their development patterns. Politically and socially, this is a very difficult task.

Future of humankind

All major issues facing humankind are interrelated. The dynamics of our future will be determined not by any single issue like climate change, but by the interactions of a multitude of issues.

Increasing population and urbanisation mean more food, energy, water and raw materials is required by an increasingly concentrated population. Common requirements linking all practical responses to the solution of these major problems must include greater investments, higher production, a continuous strive for efficiencies, use of more technology and expertise and intensified global cooperation.

Interrelationships are global, and they can be best understood and resolved within a global framework. While the framework may be global, within this there has to be a wide variety of coordinated national and regional responses.

Humankind has a common future. We survive or perish together, North and South, East and West. Should we ignore this salutary exhortation, we should heed the warning of William Shakespeare: “Men at some times are masters of their fates. The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlining.”

Asit K. Biswas is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on water, environment and development-related issues. He is Director of Water Management International Pte Ltd in Singapore and is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Glasgow. Cecilia Tortajada has over 25 years of experience on water, environment and natural resources management, agricultural development and capacity building. She is currently Professor in Practice for Environmental Innovation at the University of Glasgow.

This article was published by CONNECT, October 19, 2021.

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