If you are not at least a little bit scared about the Russian heatwave or the huge floods in Pakistan, then you really should be. Extreme and dangerous weather events will be far more common in a warmer world.
These devastating fires and floods are a taste of our future climate — unless we can force a political breakthrough on climate change and cut greenhouse gas emissions sharply.
The disasters of the past few weeks sound an unmistakable warning: we’ve emitted so many greenhouse gases already that we are losing a safe climate.
Russia has not gone through a comparable heatwave in the past 1000 years, said the Russian Meteorological Centre on August 9.
The centre’s Alexander Frolov told newsagency RIA Novosti: “We have an 'archive' of abnormal weather situations stretching over a thousand years. It is possible to say there was nothing similar to this on the territory of Russia during the last one thousand years in regard to the heat.”
Moscow’s previous record high temperature was set in 1920. By August 6, the record had been broken five times in 11 days. By August 10, Muscovites had been through 28 consecutive days of higher than 30°C temperatures, said meteorologist Jeff Masters on the Weather Underground blog.
At least 50 people have died directly from more than 500 fires consuming vast tracts of forest and numerous peat bogs. But thousands more in major cities are dying due to intense heat and suffocating smog.
On August 10, Moscow health chief Andrei Seltsovky said deaths in the city had doubled to an average of 700 a day. The city’s morgues were close to overflowing, AP said.
The August 9 New York Times quoted Russian health officials who said “the effect of the fine particles and carbon monoxide in Moscow’s smoky atmosphere was comparable to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day”.
Some economists have estimated Russia’s economic losses from the heatwave could reach US$15 billion, said AFP on August 11. This will deal a further blow to an economy that was already reeling from the global economic crisis. Last year, Russia’s economy shrunk by 7.9%.
Hardest hit is agriculture. Drought and fire damage will cut Russia’s grain harvest by up to a third, AFP said.
The drop in Russia’s grain harvest is also likely to push up food prices worldwide — disastrous news for the world’s estimated 1 billion malnourished people.
Earth Policy Institute president Lester Brown said on August 10 that the Russian experience shows how global warming will worsen global food shortages.
“The global balance between grain supply and demand is fragile and depends largely on climate”, he said. “If we continue with business as usual on the climate front, it is only a matter of time before what we are seeing in Russia becomes commonplace.”
Meanwhile, floods in Pakistan have affected about 20 million people. The disaster has already been called “Pakistan’s Katrina”.
The August 9 London Telegraph called the floods “the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history”.
United Nations spokesperson Maurizio Giuliano told the paper: “This disaster is worse than the tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake.”
The Pakistan Labour Relief Campaign summed up some of the devastation on August 7: “More than 650,000 houses have collapsed, mainly in villages. Thousands of hectares of crops have been destroyed due to flood water. Livestock, household goods, clothes, shoes and other items have been destroyed. Residents of villages are without drinkable water, food, shelter and in need of clothes.
“In particular, the situation is dire for children and women in desperate need of food and clothing. Disease is spreading fast due to the lack of drinkable water. Flu, fever, diarrhea and cholera have been noted and are spreading.”
The abnormal monsoon rains have also hit India and China hard. Xinhua reported on August 10 that the death toll from rain-induced landslides in the north-west province of Gansu has reached 702. A further 1042 people were still missing.
This follows huge floods in southern China in June that killed more than 130 people and displaced 800,000.
Extreme weather events have also plagued other continents in recent months. Drought has hit western Africa, leaving 10 million people in the Eastern Sahel region hungry, the June 3 British Guardian said. North-east Brazil was hit by massive floods in the same month. More than 1000 people are unaccounted for, presumed dead.
The eastern European country of Belarus recorded a new extreme temperature record on August 6 with a high of 38.7°C. It was the 17th nation to break high temperature records in 2010 — more than any other year.
On August 7, Masters said these 17 nations make up 19% of the Earth’s land surface. “This is the largest area of Earth’s surface to experience all-time record high temperatures in any single year in the historical record”, he said.
“Looking back at the past decade, which was the hottest decade in the historical record, 75 countries set extreme hottest temperature records (33% of all countries.) For comparison, 15 countries set extreme coldest temperature records over the past 10 years (6% of all countries)...
“Earth has now seen four consecutive months with its warmest temperature on record, and the first half of 2010 was the warmest such six-month period in the planet's history.
“It is not a surprise that many all-time extreme heat records are being shattered when the planet as a whole is so warm. Global warming ‘loads the dice’ to favor extreme heat events unprecedented in recorded history.”
All these unprecedented weather events are occurring now, when average global warming is still less than 1°C. The British Met Office predicts the Earth will be 4°C warmer by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise — meaning the cases of dangerous weather events will be greatly multiplied.
But if the reality of climate change is frightening, then the do-nothing response of the world’s richest and most powerful governments is scandalous.
As Russia burned and while Pakistan was submerged, a new round of international climate talks took place in Bonn, Germany. But once again, rich countries stalled on an agreement to cut emissions.
Bolivia’s permanent representative to the UN, Pablo Solon, told Democracy Now on August 10 that he “heard speeches in Bonn relating the situation in Pakistan, but the concrete pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are the same [as] one year ago”.
“It’s unbelievable”, he said. “And still, developed countries have put on the table targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that will increase the temperature dramatically during the coming years and during this century.”
Loopholes in the Bonn negotiating text would mean that if countries adopted the proposed agreement, emissions could still rise by 4% to 8% on 1990 levels, the June 9 Guardian revealed.
Solon said so little progress had been made in Bonn because “corporate interests, economy, profits have more weight in the negotiation than … to preserve life and biodiversity and Mother Earth”.
As the next round of negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, approaches in November, Solon called for “a lot of pressure around the whole world if we want really to have a greenhouse gas emission reduction that saves life”.