From the West Coast of the United States to Canada, from Russia’s Siberia to Europe’s Rhineland, the past months have seen a series of extreme weather events — including abnormally high temperatures, forest fires and deadly flooding claiming the lives of hundreds of people.
In Canada, the coroner of British Columbia reported earlier this month that at least 486 sudden and unexpected deaths in a five-day period were mostly seniors living in unventilated homes who succumbed to heat exposure. A normal five-day period would see 165 unexpected deaths, she said.
Scientists are attributing the extreme weather to climate change and a series of recent studies warns more is to come.
Climatologists say it is a misnomer to dub what the world is seeing now "freak weather,” rather it is the unfolding of what they have been warning about — that rising carbon emissions lead to global warming and more extreme weather in the form of droughts, floods, heatwaves and storms. It is the new weather norm.
German climatologist Dieter Gerten told National Geographic that the increase in “extreme events” is “something we’ve seen in climate model projections.” He was, however, still shocked by the scale of the flooding in Germany, where his hometown of Oberkail was also affected.
“I am surprised by how far it is above the previous record,” Gerten, a professor of global change climatology and hydrology at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said.
Computer models suggest records will be broken much more frequently and in more places around the globe.
“This is the new normal,” Johannes Quaas, a meteorologist at Germany’s Leipzig University, told local reporters this week in remote briefings.
While scientists are assessing how much of the extreme weather can be attributed to climate change, a string of so-called rapid attribution studies point to global warming as a major contributor. Such studies compare real-time data with models simulating the absence of carbon emissions.
A recent rapid attribution study by Friederike Otto of the University of Oxford suggested the deadly heatwave in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada was “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.”
“Our results provide a strong warning: our rapidly warming climate is bringing us into uncharted territory that has significant consequences for health, wellbeing and livelihoods,” the study concluded.
Aside from the cost in human lives, the extreme weather will have severe financial costs. By 2100, European flood damage could cost as much as $60 billion annually, if emissions are not significantly restrained and if little is done to prepare for floods and heatwaves, according to the Joint Research Center, the science and knowledge service of the European Union.
Scientists say more must be done to build up resilience. In terms of the flooding in Germany and neighboring countries, for example, planners will need not only to focus on major rivers such as the Rhine and the Meuse, which rises in France and flows through Belgium and the Netherlands into the North Sea, but also on their tributaries.
With the storms in northern Europe, the West Coast of the United States and Canada struck by the most extreme heatwave on record, Siberia hit by raging forest fires and China flooded, pressure is mounting for November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, or COP26, to mark a major increase in global efforts to curb carbon emissions.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry this week warned COP26 would be a “pivotal moment” in a “decisive year” for climate action.
In an impassioned speech midweek in London, he urged all large economies to come forward with new plans to cut emissions.
“The climate crisis is the test of our own times and, while it may be unfolding in slow motion to some, this test is as acute and as existential as any previous one. Time is running out,” he said.
He singled out China, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, urging it to be far tougher with its plans to reduce emissions.
“It’s imperative that we and China, and the rest of the world, are pulling in the same direction on this critical effort,” he said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to reach zero carbon emissions by 2060, but climate critics note that the Chinese government is reluctant to link the country’s extreme weather with global warming, and Beijing has not detailed how it plans to meet its targets.