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Extreme weather: can we adapt to a changing climate?
The disaster in Hawaii has been blamed on a warming world. But are there better ways to tackle such events than phasing out fossil fuels?
This is our latest preview of the debates at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 28 & 29 October. Here, Rob Lyons looks at some of the issues that will be discussed in Extreme weather: can we adapt to a changing climate?
The news coming from Hawaii over the past few days has been horrifying. Fast-spreading wildfires have killed at least 99 people on the island of Maui. Severe drought appears to have created tinder-box conditions. High winds seem to have helped spread the fire astonishingly fast. The blaze has been so thorough that it may take weeks to identify bodies in the ashes.
The events in Hawaii are not the only example of extreme weather and natural disasters in recent months. Southern Europe has baked in record temperatures. Indeed, July was reportedly the hottest month globally since records began. Wildfires in Canada covered much of the north-eastern US with smoke. There have also been major floods and landslides this year in Sweden, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. Last year, devastating floods affected Pakistan, leaving over 1,700 people dead.
Greenpeace declares: ‘Fires, floods, droughts, storms and other natural disasters are being linked to rising global temperatures. For example, experts are now able to confirm that storm surges are likely to be more severe because sea levels are rising, and wind speeds during storms are getting stronger. Likewise, recent analysis has connected some extreme weather events to human-caused climate change. It showed that rising temperatures are “driving more frequent and more deadly disasters”, and many would’ve been highly unlikely without the climate crisis.’
The world has certainly been getting warmer. Earlier this year, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) noted: ‘The average global temperature in 2022 was about 1.15°C above the 1850-1900 average’ and with an El Niño – a warming pattern in the Pacific Ocean – setting in, temperatures could move rapidly higher still. The assumption is that a warmer world will mean more heatwaves and both more severe drought and more severe downfalls when it does rain.
Are these assumptions about extreme weather borne out by the data? Bjorn Lomborg, a well-known critic of climate policies, has noted figures from NASA showing the burned area of the world has been in decline, from around 3% at the start of this century down to 2.2% in 2022. US academic Roger Pielke Jr argues that when it comes to overall measures of global weather and climate disasters, the trend is slightly down over the course of this century.
An important factor in determining how damaging an extreme weather event will be is preparedness. The MetOffice notes that whether a weather event becomes a disaster is ‘affected by both changing human factors, such as growing population and increasing infrastructure, as well as natural variability of the climate’.
A lack of preparedness may have been very important in the case of Hawaii, where it seems that early-warning systems did not alert those at risk to the speed and severity of the fires. In general, the impact of wildfires depends on local conditions and the management of trees, grasslands and scrub. Traditional management practices have often fallen by the wayside, due to changing fashions (like banning controlled burning) or simply due to budget cuts.
Moreover, wider economic development can mitigate the impact of these events. Deaths from natural disasters fell enormously over the course of the twentieth century, despite the world’s population quadrupling. Thanks to early warning systems, emergency shelters and other fairly low-cost measures, floods, fires and other extreme events no longer inevitably lead to thousands of deaths. Helicopters bring aid in and people out. Better buildings provide safety. The world can mobilise to provide aid and fly it in.
Which all raises the question of how best to approach the problem of climate change. Environmental protestors demand the rapid elimination of fossil fuels and governments have promised ‘net zero’ emissions in the coming decades. But we’ve always had extreme weather. At best, such measures could only stop things getting worse. In the meantime, fossil fuels power all the aspects of society and the economy that allow us to reduce the impact of all natural disasters, including those not caused by climate change, like earthquakes and tsunamis.
Should we spend trillions on reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions? Given that economic losses from such events can be enormous, isn’t prevention better than cure? Or would that money be better spent on making society more resilient to extreme weather? Does the narrative of climate-change catastrophe get in the way of less dramatic measures that can protect people and property?
Extreme weather: can we adapt to a changing climate? is just one of the debates at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on the weekend of 28 & 29 October. Paid subscribers to our Substack get exclusive discounts on tickets. For more details and tickets, click here.