A bold UN survival plan could put nature back in charge of the Earth − and researchers explain why that should happen.
LONDON, 26 February, 2021 − UN chiefs want to transform the world by putting nature back at the heart of global decision-making, arguing that the global economic shutdown triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to change the planet for the better: for a stable climate, for cleaner air and water, and for a richer natural environment, thanks to the UN survival plan.
The goal? A more sustainable and more equitable world by 2030, a carbon-neutral world by 2050, a curb on global pollution and waste and a halt to ever-accelerating rates of wildlife extinction worldwide.
That is because forests, savannahs, wetlands and other natural habitats represent wealth, and their loss accelerates poverty. If nations and regions can reverse environmental decline then they can at the same time advance the alleviation of poverty, and secure reliable food and water, and good health, for all.
And to reinforce such arguments, new and entirely separate research continues to underline the UN vision of natural capital as real investment in the services on which all humankind depends.
Since, in 2017, around one fourth of the global population had no access to sanitation facilities, and 14% used toilets that disposed of waste on site, this is not just an important service but a vital one: vital to human health.
The same research team reports in the journal One Earth that − since more than 892 million people worldwide in effect release excrement into holes in the ground − then nature must sanitise more than 41 million tonnes of human waste every year before it gets into the groundwater. So that’s a service worth US$4.4 billion (£3.14bn) a year, British researchers calculate.
Around 70% of the world’s crops depend on insect pollination, and the range and abundance of insect pollinators is vulnerable to shifts in climate. Importantly, many crops rely on wild pollinators − that is, commercial honey bee colonies cannot always do the trick of turning flowers into fruit, or grain − so what happens to wild insect populations affects what is available for supper.
“The war on nature has left the planet broken. But it guides us by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme”
US researchers report in the journal Ecological Applications that they took the case of wild bees and open field tomato crops: these depend on insects that release pollen by vibration, among them bumble bees.
They matched distribution of 15 species and climate data now against predictions for climate change across North America to find that − in the eastern US alone − within the next three to four decades, 11 species of pollinator could be in decline. The implications for food security are inescapable.
And a third study simply looked at what climate change, human population expansion, pollution and demand for freshwater had done to the planet’s rivers and lakes.
French and Chinese scientists report in the journal Science that they had identified what they call “marked changes” in the biodiversity of more than half the world’s rivers and lakes, thanks to human impact.
Of more than 1,000 fish species, 170 were extinct in their natural river basins, at a very conservative estimate. Out of 2,456 river basins, found everywhere except the deserts and the poles, 1,296 of them, covering more than 40% of the planet’s continental surface, and accounting for 37% of the length of the world’s rivers, revealed “deep and spatially distributed anthropogenic impacts.” That is science-speak for loss and defilement.
Lethal heat prospect
Such research − published on an almost daily basis − provides the context in which the latest UNEP report makes its argument. The report identifies a threefold planetary emergency and calls for advances in science and bold policy-making to make lives better both for the poorest in the world, and for nature itself.
“The war on nature has left the planet broken. But it also guides us to a safe place by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme,” says António Guterres, UN secretary general, in the report’s foreword.
“By transforming how we view nature, we can recognise its true value. By reflecting this value in policies, plans and economic systems, we can channel investments into activities that restore nature and are rewarded for it.
“By recognising nature as an indispensable ally, we can unleash human ingenuity in the service of sustainability and secure our own health and well-being alongside that of the planet.” − Climate News Network
Action to keep climate promises could prevent millions of deaths each year. Unless nations try harder, that won’t happen.
LONDON, 16 February, 2021 − Scientists have looked at conditions in just nine of the world’s 200 nations and found that − if the world keeps its Paris climate promises, of containing global heating to “well below” 2°C by 2100 − millions of lives could be saved.
Thanks to the cleaner air that would come with a drastic reduction in fossil fuel combustion, another 1.6 million people could expect to breathe freely for another year. And the shift from private cars to public transport and foot or bicycle journeys would mean another 2.1 million of us could expect to go on benefiting from the additional exercise for another year, every year.
The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change says in the journal Lancet Planetary Health that it selected the nine nations because they embraced around half the global population and accounted for seven-tenths of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“The message is stark. Not only does delivering on Paris prevent millions dying prematurely each year; the quality of life for millions more will be improved through better health”
The Countdown also looked at a range of scenarios for action. And the researchers also considered what, so far, those nine nations had promised to do to contain climate change − the international bureaucratic language calls such promises nationally determined contributions, or NDCs − and found them far short of the effective target: right now, the world is heading for a global temperature rise by 2100 of 3°C or more.
“The message is stark,” said Ian Hamilton, executive director of the Lancet Countdown. “Not only does delivering on Paris prevent millions dying prematurely each year; the quality of life for millions more will be improved through better health. We have an opportunity now to place health in the forefront of climate change policies to save even more lives.”
On the same day, a US team published the results of a look at what nations had to do to actually meet the goal chosen at a global conference in Paris in 2015 to contain global heating to no more than 2°C above what had been the long-term average for most of human history.
In the last century alone the planet has warmed by more than 1°C, and the last six years have been the warmest six years since records began. The promises made in Paris, if kept, could mean a 1% drop in greenhouse gas emissions every year.
But, scientists say in the journal Communications Earth and Environment, that will not contain global heating to 2°C. To deliver on the promise, the world must reduce emissions by 1.8% a year. That is, the global community will have to try 80% harder.
Some nations are nearer the more ambitious target: China’s declared plans so far would require only a 7% boost. The UK would have to raise its game by 17%. The US − which abandoned the Paris Agreement under former President Trump − has 38% more work to do.
In the summer of 2015, Laurie Weitkamp was walking on the beach near her coastal Oregon home when she saw something strange: The water was purple. A colony of tunicates, squishy cylindrical critters that rarely come to shore, had congregated in a swarm so thick that you could scoop them out of the water with your hand. “I’d never seen anything like it,” she says.
Weitkamp, a research fisheries biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Newport, Oregon, knew that something had been afoot in the northeast part of the Pacific Ocean since the fall of 2013, which was unusually sunny, warm and calm. A mass of warm water stretched from Mexico to Alaska and lingered through 2016, disrupting marine life. Tunicates weren’t the only creature affected; sea nettle jellyfish all but disappeared, while water jellyfish populations moved north to take their place, and young salmon starved to death out at sea, according to a report by Weitkamp and colleagues. Scientists dubbed this event “The Blob.”
Marine heat waves like The Blob have cropped up around the globe more and more often over the past few decades. Scientists expect climate change to make them even more common and long lasting, harming vulnerable aquatic species as well as human enterprises such as fishing that revolve around ocean ecosystems. But there’s no reliable way to know when one is about to hit, which means that fishers and wildlife managers are left scrambling to reduce harm in real time.
Now, oceanographers are trying to uncover what drives these events so that people can forecast them and so minimize the ecological and economic damage they cause.
The Blob, which lasted three years, is the longest marine heat wave on record. Before that, a heat wave that began in 2015 in the Tasman Sea lasted more than eight months, killing abalone and oysters. A 2012 heat wave off the East Coast of Canada and the U.S., the largest on record at the time, pushed lobsters northward. It beat the previous record — a 2011 marine heat wave that uprooted seaweed, fish and sharks off western Australia. Before that, a 2003 heat wave in the Mediterranean Sea clinched the record while ravaging marine life.
Heat waves are a natural part of ocean systems, says Eric Oliver, an assistant professor of oceanography at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. As with temperature on land, there’s an average ocean temperature on any particular day of the year: Sometimes the water will be warmer, sometimes it will be colder, and every once in a while it will be extremely warm or cold.
But greenhouse gas emissions have bumped up the average temperature. Now, temperatures that used to be considered extremely warm happen more often — and every so often, large sections of the ocean are pushed into unprecedented heat, Oliver says.
Pelagic ocean ecosystems, however, have not caught up to these hotter temperatures. Organisms may be able to survive a steady temperature rise, but a heat wave can push them over the edge.
When blue swimmer crabs started dying in western Australia’s Shark Bay after the 2011 heat wave, the government shut down blue crab fishing for a year and a half. This was hard on industry at the time, says Peter Jecks, managing director of Abacus Fisheries, but it managed to save crab populations. Not all creatures were so lucky — abalone near the heat wave’s epicenter still haven’t recovered.
“If you don’t have strong predictions [of marine heat waves], you can’t be proactive. You’re left to be reactive,” says Thomas Wernberg, an associate professor of marine ecology at the University of Western Australia.
See Them Coming
After Wernberg saw his region’s sea life devastated by the heat wave, he recruited scientists from many disciplines in 2014 to begin studying these extreme events in what became the Marine Heatwaves International Working Group. The group held their first meeting in early 2015 and has since created protocols for defining and naming marine heat waves, tracking where they happen and measuring their ecological and socioeconomic impacts.
If we could see heat waves coming, aquaculturists, fishers and wildlife managers would have a better chance at saving money and species, Wernberg says. Seafood farmers could hold off stocking their aquaculture facilities with vulnerable species. Lawmakers could enact seasonal fishing closures or temporarily expand protected areas. Scientists could store animals or seeds of vulnerable plants.
That’s why scientists around the world are trying to understand what triggers extreme warming in the ocean. Oliver is one such scientist. He feeds ocean data gathered by scientists, satellites, buoys, and deep-diving robots into computer modeling software to identify the forces that drive marine heat waves.
It’s a relatively new field of research for which there are still few definitive answers. But past heat waves can be broadly classified into two categories, Oliver says: those driven by the ocean and those driven by the atmosphere.
For an example of an ocean-driven heat wave, Oliver points to the 2015 Tasman Sea heat wave. An ocean current that flows south down the East Coast of Australia normally veers toward New Zealand, but in 2015 it pulsed westward toward Tasmania, bringing a wave of warm water from the tropics that lingered more than six months. “Tropical fish were seen in water that is normally almost subpolar in temperature,” Oliver says.
On the other hand, a 2019 heat wave in the Pacific, the so-called “Blob 2.0,” was brought down from the atmosphere, according to Dillon Amaya, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Using computer models, Amaya found that this heat wave emerged when a weather system over the Pacific lost steam, leading to weaker-than-usual winds. Wind helps cool the ocean by evaporating surface water in the same way a breeze cools a person’s sweaty skin. But stagnant air above the Pacific locked more of the sun’s heat into the water that year.
Amaya is able to simulate heat waves thanks to recent technological advances. Scientists have known for decades that marine heat waves exist, he says, but “we have just begun to recognize these events as unique and deterministic — something we can predict — in the last five to 10 years.”
That understanding inspired researchers to build computer simulations capable of playing out complicated ocean processes by weaving together information about ocean and atmospheric currents, sea surface temperature and salinity. Creating these simulations helps them learn more about heat wave mechanics, which lays the groundwork for predicting future events.
Back in Oregon, Weitkamp is part of the group that manages the Pacific Salmon Treaty between the U.S. and Canada. As heat waves like The Blob and Blob 2.0 deplete fish populations, the group is trying to figure out how to create policies better suited to this new normal. Knowing when the next one might hit could help.
“These heat waves have been a good wake-up call,” she says. “People are trying to figure out how they’re going to adapt.”
Many alpine flowers could soon fade out. Some bees may be buzzing off. The wild things are victims of climate heat.
LONDON, 9 February, 2021 − Thanks to climate heat, this could be the last farewell to mossy saxifrage, to alpine wormwood and mignonette-leafed bittercress. With them could go plants most people could hardly name: dwarf cudweed, alpine stonecrop, mossy cyphel, cobweb houseleek and two kinds of hawkweed. All of them are mountain-dwellers, hardy little plants that depend for their existence on alpine glaciers.
And almost everywhere in the world, high-altitude rivers of ice are in retreat. Global heating, climate change and human disturbance alter both the conditions for growth and the rich variety of life.
Bees and flowers are interdependent: they evolved together and would perish together. But climate change threatens to take a selective toll on a range of alpine plants − beloved of gardeners but also important in liqueurs and medicines − as glaciers retreat in the mountainous regions.
These little flowers are to be found variously in the Sierra Nevada in Spain, the Apennines in Italy, along the spine of the Alps in Switzerland and Austria, and even in the highlands of Scotland.
“Something is happening to the bees, and something needs to be done … The next step is prodding policymakers into action while we still have time. The bees cannot wait”
The wildflowers listed in the first two sentences − Saxifraga bryoides, Artemisia genipi, Cardamine resedifolia, Leucanthemopsis alpina, Gnaphalium supinum, Sedum alpestre, Minuartia sedoides, Sempervivum arachnoideum, Hieracium staticifolium and H. glanduliferum − could all go, and another suite of alpine opportunists could take advantage of their living space.
Californian researchers report that they looked at 117 plant species and matched them with geological evidence from four glaciers in the Italian Alps, and then used computational systems to calculate how plant communities have changed over the last five thousand years, and what might happen as the glaciers continue to retreat.
They found that as the glaciers disappear, more than one in five of their sample alpines could also vanish. The loss of that 22% however could be to the benefit of around 29% of the surveyed species, among them the snow gentian, Gentiana nivalis and the dwarf yellow cinquefoil Potentialla aurea. Some alpines would probably not be affected: among them alpine lovage or Ligusticum mutellina and Pedicularis kerneri, a variety of lousewort.
The authors make no mention of one alpine almost everybody in the world could name: Leontopodium nivale or edelweiss. But what happens to even the most insignificant wild plants matters to everybody.
“Plants are the primary producers at the basis of the food web that sustained our lives and economies, and biodiversity is the key to healthy ecosystems − biodiversity also represents an inestimable cultural value that needs to be properly supported,” said Gianalberto Losapio, a biologist at Stanford University in the US.
Meanwhile in Argentina researchers decided to take advantage of citizen science to check on some of the flower world’s biggest fans, the wild bees. There has been huge concern about observed decline in insect abundance, as wild ecosystems are colonised by humans and global average temperatures rise to change the world’s weather systems.
But over the same decades, there has also been a dramatic increase in informed interest in the wild things, among gardeners, bird-watchers and butterfly lovers, and an exponential rise in records available to an international network of databases called the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
And, say researchers in the journal One Earth, as global records soar, the number of bee species listed in those records has gone down. Around 25% fewer species were recorded between 2006 and 2015 than were listed in the 1990s.
Wild bees have a role in the pollination of about 85% of the world’s food crops. Without the bees, many wild flowers could not replicate.
“Something is happening to the bees, and something needs to be done. We cannot wait until we have absolute certainty because we rarely get there in the natural sciences. The next step is prodding policymakers into action while we still have time. The bees cannot wait.” − Climate News Network
When the rains never arrived in the East African nation of Somalia in 2016, nor in 2017, hundreds of thousands of rural residents were forced to abandon their lands and livelihoods due to one of the most severe droughts in decades. Then, in 2019, from September to December, heavy rains led to severe flooding there, displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in rural areas and towns in the districts of Belet Weyne, Baardheere and Berdale.
These climate migrants traversed barren and dusty landscapes, or traveled through torrential rains, in search of food and shelter. Many ended up in refugee camps in urban areas such as Badbaado, a sea of makeshift tents on the outskirts of Mogadishu that is now home to tens of thousands of internally displaced persons.
The challenges they face are profound, says Ben Mbaura, national emergency response and disaster risk reduction coordinator at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), including inter clan conflict, poor sanitation, limited education and insufficient access to food. On top of that, many “do not have the necessary skills to match labor market needs, which also results in high levels of unemployment and exclusion,” Mbaura notes.
The response to internal displacement like this has long been to provide emergency or short-term assistance. In recent years, however, with so many internally displaced persons living in protracted displacement, humanitarian organizations have increasingly recognized the need to empower them to move toward greater self-reliance. As a result, in 2016 the U.N. and the government of Somalia created the Durable Solutions Initiative (DSI) as a way to introduce long-term solutions for internally displaced persons in Somalia. The DSI gives these people a voice in decision-making processes that shape their future — and offers a model for other cities that are, or soon will be, in similar circumstances.
Every year, millions of people around the world are forced to abandon their lands, livelihoods and communities due to the effects of climate change. And the rate of climate-induced migration is increasing — with most taking place in the form of rural-urban migration within countries.
According to a recent World Bank report, “internal climate migrants” could number more than 143 million by 2050, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia. If the past is any indication, most will be forced from their homes by extreme weather events. Others will move from rural areas to cities due to slow-onset climate-related events, such as desertification.
Humanitarian experts predict that the current trajectory of climate change will displace millions of people in the Global South. Source: Kanta et al. 2018. Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.
Pablo Escribano, a specialist on migration and climate change in Latin America for the IOM, says this migration will create “urban hot spots” where displaced persons converge in search of shelter, food and jobs.
Climate migrants who arrive in cities are likely to move to informal settlements, and many of these hot spots will occur in rapidly expanding cities in low- and middle-income countries with weak governance and limited capacities to provide social services and infrastructure.
“In Asia, recent estimates of the increase in sea-level rise have strong implications for cities like Jakarta, Bangkok and Dhaka,” Escribano says.
In Latin America, he says, Rio de Janeiro, Lima, La Paz and Mexico City will experience migration pressure from sea-level rise, melting glaciers and other climate-change effects. “Fast-growing cities in Africa, such as Lagos, Luanda and Kinshasa are also considered to be city hot spots,” he adds.
Urban development expert Robert Muggah has dubbed these urban settings as “fragile cities.” As the co-founder and research and innovation director of the think tank Igarapé Institute in Brazil, Muggah developed 11 indicators that determine urban fragility, including crime, inequality, lack of access to services and climate change threats.
Ani Dasgupta, global director for the Ross Center for Sustainable Cities at the World Resources Institute (WRI), says fast-growing cities face multiple threats that increase the vulnerability of new arrivals.
“As cities expand, many municipal governments are overburdened. They are not able to keep up with increasing demand for basic services, like housing, jobs, electricity and transport,” he says. “The climate crisis is an additional challenge on top of this. Flooding, heat waves, water shortages and more powerful storms tend to affect new migrants and already vulnerable populations most severely.”
Move Toward Self-Reliance
The goal of the DSI is to strengthen the ability of government at all levels — local, state and federal — to help internally displaced persons integrate into society. It has mobilized funding from donors such as the World Bank, U.N. agencies and the Peacebuilding Fund (the U.N.’s financial resource for supporting peace in areas experiencing or at risk of conflict) to support initiatives that allow internally displaced persons to present their ideas for community infrastructure projects along with strategies to become self-reliant.
Teresa Del Ministro, the DSI coordinator for Somalia, says the DSI is a response to a growing global awareness of the limitations of traditional humanitarian approaches to deal effectively with internally displaced persons. “With that trend increasing worldwide, it appeared that multi-stakeholder partnerships are needed at all levels,” she says.
The DSI is considered particularly innovative because it lets internally displaced persons articulate the kinds of solutions they need to move toward self-reliance.
“A participatory, locally owned approach is one of the programming principles for the DSI,” says Isabelle Peter, the DSI’s coordination officer.
One example is the Midnimo I project supported by the Peacebuilding Fund with the IOM and UN-Habitat as partners.
With support from Midnimo I (“midnomo” means “unity” in Somali), climate migrants and other displaced persons in southern and central Somalia met with representatives of their host communities, along with city and national government officials, to develop creative solutions to the many challenges they face. Among other things, the initiative sought to help communities define and drive their own recovery — most prominently through community action plans (CAPs), documents that lay out local priorities for community-driven recovery.
As part of Midnimo I, the IOM trained Somali government representatives to engage displaced persons in visioning exercises to help them articulate their short-term needs and present ideas on strategies to move toward greater self-reliance.
Midnimo I was implemented in the cities of Kismayo and Baidoa, home to more than 450,000 internally displaced persons.
“Together they would come up with priorities for infrastructure investments or other types of investments. If a project didn’t have funding for these priorities, the government would convene other actors and ask for their support,” says Del Ministro.
According to an evaluation report by the IOM, the Midnimo I project created short-term employment opportunities, led to the construction of community infrastructure projects and contributed to the establishment of a land commission and to improved relations between authorities and displaced communities. Nearly 350,000 people directly benefited from the Midnimo I project as a result of constructing or upgrading community-prioritized schools, hospitals, water sources, police stations, prisons, airports and more, according to the IOM’s Mbaura.
The DSI in Ethiopia
The DSI also has been implemented in Ethiopia, where a drought that began in 2015 left millions dependent upon emergency food aid. The government of Ethiopia, with support from U.N. agencies, governments, donor agencies and non-governmental organizations, launched its own DSI in December 2019. As in Somalia, the focus is on long-term self-reliance.
“The scale of the displacement surprised many in the international community, and there was recognition that collectively we needed to support Ethiopia,” says Hélène Harroff Atrafi, the DSI coordinator in the U.N. Resident Coordinator’s Office. “In doing so, we looked at international good practices, including in neighboring Somalia.”
At this point, the governance structure for the DSI is being established with the government of Ethiopia in the lead. “We have agreed on the vision forward, we have brought together all of the partners who want to work together. Now the operational rollout must begin,” says Atrafi.
In the Somali region, one of 10 regions of Ethiopia, the DSI is now at the stage of detailing the options that internally displaced families have: urban and rural relocation, return to the location of origin, and potential integration in the settlements where the displaced individuals currently reside.
According to the World Bank report “Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration,” the number of climate migrants in Ethiopia could close to triple by 2050, with Addis Ababa set to become an urban hot spot for climate induced migration. Smaller cities, such as Jigjiga and Deri Dawa, are also expected to receive increasing waves of climate migrants.
Around the world, fragile city governments can partner with international humanitarian organizations, NGOs, research institutions, the private sector, U.N. agencies and other city governments to strengthen their capacities to tackle challenges at the intersection of urbanization, climate and migration.
For the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), a think tank based in Geneva, multi-stakeholder partnerships play a crucial role in gathering information about internally displaced persons.
“We start with the people affected — internally displaced persons and host communities — and from there, we build up the agenda, collaborating with national governments, U.N. agencies, NGOs, academia and research centers,” says Pablo Ferrández, a research associate with the IDMC.
Andrew Fuys, senior director for global migration at the nonprofit Church World Service, says that one of the priorities for research is to identify how the risks climate migrants face are similar to, or differ from, those of other internally displaced persons in cities so that organizations can provide the appropriate services for climate migrants.
The UK, along with large parts of northern Europe, is in the grip of an unusually cold period of weather thanks to a flow of cold easterly winds from Siberia. On the morning of February 11, the village of Braemar in the Scottish Highlands recorded -23.0°C, the UK’s coldest temperature since 1995 and coldest February temperature since the 1950s.
The cold air outbreak has been dubbed “The Beast from the East Two”, the sequel to another extremely cold spell in late February-early March 2018 (although it should be noted that outbreaks of cold easterly winds have occurred more than twice, and indeed much more severely).
These two cold spells bookend a volatile four years of winter weather. In February 2019, the UK experienced a “winter heatwave” when the temperature reached 21.2°C at Kew Gardens in London. The following year saw the country’s wettest February in a record stretching back to 1862, with winter storms Ciara and Dennis producing some of the rainiest individual days on record.
Extreme cold, a heatwave, a deluge, and another cold snap: the succession of different extremes raises questions about climate variability and climate change.
Why the UK’s weather varies so much
Western Europe is at the mercy of the Atlantic jet stream – a band of westerly winds which steer powerful weather systems, flanked by cold air to its north and warmer air to its south. The jet stream is extremely variable and fluctuations in its strength and position are the main reason why the region can have such varied weather.
In both 2021 and 2018, the jet stream was unusually weak and shifted southward, allowing cold air to flood out of the Arctic. In early 2020, the jet stream was supercharged, keeping colder air locked up and instead pushing in mild, moisture-laden air and storm systems from the Atlantic. In 2019, it buckled northwards, allowing a dome of high pressure to develop over the UK under which the temperature skyrocketed.
These different patterns all fall within natural climate variability. The weakened jet stream in 2018 and this year, as well as the strengthened jet stream in 2020, are all linked to variability in the Arctic stratospheric polar vortex – effectively a vast low-pressure system around 30km above the surface, which fluctuates in strength from year to year.
But we do know that climate change is likely to make winters milder and wetter in the UK, largely because warmer air can hold much more water. This is supported by recent observations: the winters of 2013-14, 2015-16 and 2019-20 all rank in the top five wettest on record. Recent research has shown that climate change has also made exceptionally warm winter days – such the 20°C heatwave in February 2019 – around 300 times more likely, although they remain rare because the specific atmospheric configuration required is so unlikely.
So there is evidence to support climate change having amplified the extreme heat of 2019 and the rain of 2020. But what about cold weather and climate change? It is important to remember that extremely cold weather can still happen in a warming climate. If climate change is like loading a die, then rolling a one is still possible. Just because you roll a one every so often does not tell you that the die is not loaded. For that, you need to look at longer periods of time, to see if you are rolling more sixes and fewer ones.
The Central England Temperature (CET) is the world’s longest-running continuous instrumental temperature record, with data from 1659. It gives a clear indication of how even the coldest winters in recent times pale in comparison with those of the past. A winter with an average temperature below 2°C used to occur about once per decade. Central England has now not had a winter that cold since 1978-79 – a never-before-observed gap of four consecutive decades and counting.
Despite plenty of cold spells in the past few decades, no one under the age of 42 has lived through what could be considered a historically cold winter season in central England.
Thus, while weather extremes will continue to occur at both ends of the spectrum as part of a natural, jet stream-driven rollercoaster, the evidence supports the projections that warmer, wetter winter weather is winning.
High flyers could soon have a problem with high water. Rising sea levels could one day shut down airports.
LONDON, 3 February, 2021 − Passengers, prepare for splashdown. Take-off may have to wait for low tide. By 2100, thanks to rising sea levels, around 100 of the world’s airports could be below mean sea level and at least 364 will be vulnerable to flooding.
And that’s assuming the world’s nations keep a promise made in 2015 and confine global heating to no more than 2°C above the average maintained for most of human history. If humans go on burning fossil fuels and clearing forests at the present rate, then at least 572 of the world’s airports could be at risk of flooding from extreme tides, according to a new study in the journal Climate Risk Management.
These things have already happened: in 2018 a typhoon storm surge inundated Kansai International Airport in Osaka Bay, Japan. Superstorm Sandy in 2012 closed New York City’s La Guardia Airport for three days. One-tenth of the planet’s population lives on coastlines less than 10 metres above sea level.
Airports grow up around the great cities: they require flat land and a clear flight path. Coastal flood plains, wetlands and reclaimed land provide exactly that.
“These coastal airports are disproportionately important to the global airline network, and by 2100 between 10% and 20% of all routes will be at risk of disruption,” said Richard Dawson, an engineer at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. “Sea level rise therefore poses a serious risk to global passenger and freight movements, with considerable cost of damage and disruption.”
He and a colleague looked at the world’s 14,000 airports and helicopter pads to identify 1,238 airports in what geographers call low elevation coastal zones: that is, down by the seaside. Of these, 199, serving 3,436 routes, were in the US; China had 30 airports serving 2,333 routes.
They found that just 20 airports at risk handled more than 800 million passengers in 2018 − approaching a fifth of the world’s passenger traffic that year − and nearly 16 million tonnes of cargo: one-fourth of all the world’s air freight that year. They then started looking at what climate change could do to all that business.
“These coastal airports are disproportionately important to the global airline network, and by 2100 between 10% and 20% of all routes will be at risk of disruption”
Now Professor Dawson and his colleague have compiled a table of hazard rankings for flooded airstrips under a range of climate change scenarios.
Right now, 269 of the world’s airports are at some risk of coastal flooding. This number must rise: by how much, and at what cost, depends on what actions the world takes. But the researchers calculate that by 2100 the risk of disruption could increase 17-fold, or even 69-fold. And because so many important airports are already at or near sea level, up to a fifth of all the world’s routes will be at risk.
And that means higher costs for flood protection, or action to raise airport sites, or relocation. The choice is to adapt or, quite literally, to go under.
“The cost of adaptation will be modest in the context of global infrastructure expenditure,” Professor Dawson said. “However, in some locations the rate of sea level rise, limited economic resources or space for alternative locations will make some airports unviable.” − Climate News Network
The worldwide retreat of mountain glaciers is one of the most visible impacts of climate change. In the wake of receding glaciers, thousands of lakes have formed and expanded. These lakes threaten the communities living below them with tsunami-like waves known as “glacial lake outburst floods”.
One such lake, Palcacocha, sits high in the Peruvian Andes and is notorious as one of the world’s greatest flood risks. It threatens tens of thousands of people living downstream.
This looming catastrophe has raised questions about the role of climate change in creating this flood hazard.
Our new study, published in Nature Geoscience, is the first to assess the role of climate change in changing an outburst flood hazard. By establishing this link, our research provides new evidence for an ongoing legal case brought against RWE, which aims to hold the German utility firm responsible for its historical contribution to climate change.
As the Palcaraju glacier in the Andes has melted, Lake Palcacocha has expanded rapidly – approximately 34-fold by volume since 1990 (pdf). The meltwater is gradually filling the valley vacated by the retreating glacier.
The view that Lake Palcacocha poses a serious flood risk is well supported by scientific research. These studies show that were an outburst to occur – most likely triggered by an avalanche – flood waters would reach Huaraz, a downstream city of 120,000 people.
Palcaraju is just one of thousands of glaciers around the world that are retreating as the climate warms. The characteristics of each individual glacier, along with the local climate, will determine how it responds to Earth’s rising temperatures.
In our study, we accounted for these factors and considered all steps of the causal chain – from emissions of greenhouse gases to the present-day flood risk.
Quantifying the role of climate change
To assess the human influence on the flood hazard from Lake Palcacocha we considered in turn:
The role of greenhouse-gas emissions in the change in temperature around Palcaraju glacier.
The influence of this change in temperature on the retreat of the glacier.
The impact of the resultant expansion of Lake Palcacocha on the flood hazard to which the people of Huaraz are exposed.
Previous research has established that virtually all global temperature rise since the mid-19th century is the result of greenhouse-gas and aerosol emissions from human activity. Given spatial variation in temperature trends, we first tested whether this relationship between human influence and warming held true in the region around Palcaraju glacier.
We then considered what role this temperature change has played in the retreat of Palcaraju glacier and, therefore, in the expansion of Lake Palcacocha.
Our results show that the observed retreat would not have happened without human-caused warming. Further, our central estimate is that 100% of the retreat is due to the temperature trend since 1850. In other words, in the absence of climate change, it is as likely that the glacier would have lengthened as it is that it would have retreated.
Having established the role of climate change in the dramatic expansion of Lake Palcacocha, we considered how this has changed the outburst flood threat posed by the lake.
Applying two independent “outburst flood hazard” ranking indices, the smaller lake of the 19th century is categorised as having a “medium” hazard. Subsequent growth has raised the lake to the highest hazard level. In response, local authorities have been compelled to implement hazard mitigation measures (pdf).
These findings establish a direct link between greenhouse gas emissions and the growing flood hazard to which Huaraz is exposed. The need to implement protective measures now – as well as any potential damages caused by flooding in future – can, therefore, be linked to climate change for the first time.
Early climate change impacts
The people of Huaraz have experienced the deadly threat posed by Lake Palcacocha once before. In 1941, a devastating outburst flood from the same lake destroyed one-third of the city, causing at least 1,800 fatalities and possibly as many as 4,000.
Our research shows that the emergence of human-induced climate change in the early 20th century initiated the retreat of Palcaraju glacier and the expansion of Lake Palcacocha, giving rise to the dangerous setting depicted in the photographs.
Our results indicate, therefore, that this mid-20th century event was one of the earliest fatal impacts of climate change to have been identified.
Setting a legal precedent?
Our findings offer new evidence relating to an ongoing lawsuit in the German courts.
In this case, Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a farmer and mountain guide from Huaraz, sued RWE – a German energy utility and Europe’s largest carbon dioxide emitter – seeking compensation for a portion of the costs of measures to reduce the flood risk from Lake Palcacocha.
The lawsuit argues that RWE is liable for part of the costs of building flood defences, in proportion to their contribution to historical greenhouse gas emissions. As such, the case hinges on the existence of a causal relationship between climate change and the need to build flood defences.
The lawsuit is now in an evidence-gathering phase, in which scientific evidence about this causal relationship may be considered.
And, although evidence from attribution research has not yet entered widespread use in climate lawsuits, climate scientists now possess the tools to provide evidence about the role of greenhouse gas emissions in causing specific impacts.
For example, scientists previously published a study investigating the role of climate change in Japan’s 2018 summer heatwave. The research found that a heatwave as intense as that of summer 2018, in which over 1,000 people died, could not have occurred without climate change
Such studies add to the growing body of evidence that lawyers have at their disposal on which to base legal claims for compensation.
Glacial lake outburst floods are already a major hazard as mountain areas. The ongoing retreat of glaciers will threaten growing numbers of communities. Our findings provide clear evidence that the threat to life from Lake Palcacocha is a direct consequence of human-caused climate change.
Even as the impacts of climate change continue to accumulate globally, there remains no comprehensive assessment of what the climate change impacts experienced to date are.
Understanding which events are the consequence of human activity has assumed growing significance and research on this topic may inform litigators and the courts, support policymakers in prioritising adaptation measures, and refine estimates of the economic impacts of climate change.
The latest Uttarakhand tragedy has been devastating to watch. Current reports estimate 32 deaths and nearly 200 missing as a result of an avalanche that has destroyed dams and bridges, and trapped workers at the base of Nanda Devi, India second highest peak.While the exact reasons for the disaster are still being mapped, it is critical for this ecologically fragile Himalayan state to re-evaluate prevailing policy and institutional processes to better coordinate disaster planning and long-term resilience. Over the last six years Acclimatise has spent some time in Uttarakhand engaging with the Department of Environment and Forests to operationalise the state’s climate plan. Here are six key take-aways from our work there:
State authorities have a relatively clear picture of current disaster risks as a result of Uttarakhand’s topography and its socio-economic and ecological circumstances. That knowledge needs to be concretely applied in the operationalisation of sectoral policies and strategies that determine development and infrastructure growth in the state. Projects linked to land-use planning, hydro power development, and road construction need to be consciously tied to local ecological and climate imperatives. Multiple benefits-based development planning can capture political drivers while also factoring community-led socio-economic needs and considerations of climate risk.
The State’s current climate plan, which was approved in 2016, provides generic sectoral recommendations and has had limited resources. This is true for most state climate plans in India, Adaptation has been attempted through isolated projects, supported by some central funds and multilateral agencies. Initiatives have been rolled out as part of short-term technical assistance projects (a few of which we have been a part of). In developing its new climate plan, the state has an opportunity to address some of these gaps. Sectoral recommendations can be cognisant of the current political economy and political ecology of the state. The government can focus on investments and solutions that are scalable and can ensure a better management of physical risks.
Persistent political and bureaucratic shifts tend to impact how the climate and resilience agenda is perceived and adopted across Indian states. Re-establishing a permanent body like the State Climate Change Centre in Uttarakhand can ensure continuity of action, provide much needed institutional memory, and build local capacity for mainstreaming adaptation.
While there is some climate data (based on model-based projections) for Uttarakhand at the district level, there is limited capacity among departments and agencies to interpret and apply the information to plan projects and policies. This is a prevailing challenge globally among governments and the private sector. In addition, sectoral departments and non-government agencies possess rich socio-economic and ecological data that isn’t always aggregated. Efforts to unpack technical climate information into Agendas for Sectoral Action, as well as map-based tools to visualise risks, need to be built on and disseminated for better decision-making under uncertainty.
The state disaster management agency has historically focused on current disaster risks. With its funds and fair degree of political traction, there is an opportunity for the organisation to invest time and resources to evaluate future risks to better inform disaster planning and preparedness in the state.
The current disaster in Uttarakhand comes at a crucial juncture, as India leads a multi-stakeholder global partnership under the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure. India has an opportunity to bring global expertise and experiences to bear in developing practical solutions to ensure infrastructure assets and services are more resilient in Himalayan states. These lessons can in turn inform policies and solutions in other countries.
Even as the current tragedy in Uttarakhand unfolds, parallels to the 2013 flash floods, that claimed 6000 lives, are being drawn. Back then I had written about the newly developed state climate plan that needed to be better heeded and operationalised. Eight years on, and some standalone projects later, the state is faced with the challenge many governments and organisations need to address, which is how can institutional pathways be re-engineered to better manage disasters and enable long-term climate resilience.
The connection is possibly quite simple. Rising average temperatures encouraged a change in the natural vegetation of the forests of Yunnan, the southern Chinese province, close to the forests of Laos and Myanmar.
What had been tropical shrubland shifted to tropical savannah and deciduous woodland: the province became a suitable habitat for many bat species. It is also home to the scaly anteater known as the pangolin, and the masked palm civet: both of these have been also proposed as intermediate carriers of the virus.
And, researchers say, in the last century an additional 40 bat species moved into Yunnan: these may have delivered 100 more types of bat coronavirus to the pool of potential infection.
Magnet for bats
And this “global hotspot” − far from the city where the first human cases were first confirmed − is where all the genetic data suggest that the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 may have arisen, says a study in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
“Climate change over the last century has made the habitat in Yunnan province suitable for more bat species,” said Robert Beyer of the University of Cambridge, now at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, who led the research.
“Understanding how the global distribution of bat species has shifted as a result of climate change may be an important step in reconstructing the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak.”
That animals carry viruses which can infect other species is well established: the HIV-Aids pandemic, the Ebola outbreaks in Africa and many other infections have all been linked to animal-to-human transmission.
For decades, scientists have been recording new “zoonotic” or animal-borne diseases in humans at the rate of two a year. An estimated 80% of all the viruses linked to human disease are of animal origin, including rabies.
“The fact that climate change can accelerate the transmission of wildlife pathogens to humans should be an urgent wake-up call to reduce global emissions”
The case for bat transmission of SARS-CoV-2 driven by climate change remains circumstantial. It identifies a suspect and a set of possibly incriminating connections, but does not deliver the evidence for a secure conviction.
Using global records of temperature, rainfall and cloud cover, the scientists behind the latest study mapped global vegetation as it must have been a century ago. Then they used what they knew of the ecology of the world’s bat species to estimate the global distribution of each species 100 years ago. And then they matched this with records of species distribution in the last decade.
“As climate change altered habitats, species left some areas and moved into others − taking their viruses with them. This not only altered the regions where viruses are present, but most likely allowed for new interactions between animals and viruses, causing more harmful viruses to be transmitted or evolve,” Dr Beyer said.
If the number of bat species increases, in a region also occupied by humans, then the risk of the infection of a new host, via bat urine, faeces, saliva or other transmission, also increases.
Bat viruses have been linked to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Cov-1 and CoV-2.
The region of Yunnan identified as now richer in bat species is also home to the pangolin, and one theory is that the virus jumped from bat to pangolin, or bat to masked palm civet, and then to humans when a pangolin was sold at a wildlife market in Wuhan, in Hubei province, more than 1200 kilometres away, where the first cases of Covid-19 were detected..
The implication of such a research finding is that, if human disturbance of the natural world increases the chance of such animal-to-human infection, then it will happen again. And it could happen with even greater potential loss of life.
That is why the discovery of this possible climate link to Covid-19 will now attract the minutest attention not only of scientists but of policymakers across the world.
“The fact that climate change can accelerate the transmission of wildlife pathogens to humans should be an urgent wake-up call to reduce global emissions,” said Camilo Mora, of the University of Hawaii, another of the research team. − Climate News Network