Alongside the extreme weather events of 2020, new research that shows today’s atmospheric CO2 levels pushing average global warming beyond 2.0°C makes it that much more important to push a rapid decarbonization agenda, scientists say.
While previous estimates pegged the expected “committed warming”— the rise in average temperatures that will now occur, regardless of what humanity does next—at around 0.2°C, a study just published in the journal Nature Climate Change projects this “baked in” warming at closer to 1.2°C, reports The Associated Press.
Add the 1.1°C of climate warming that has already arrived since pre-industrial times, and breaching 2.0°C—a threshold that already excludes many vulnerable regions and small island states from safety—becomes inevitable.
“Think about the climate system like the Titanic,” said study co-author Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist with Texas A&M University. “It’s hard to turn the ship when you see the icebergs.”
Dessler explained that colder areas of the ocean surface—described in the paper as “spatial inhomogeneities”—do generate reflective cloud cover, but these clouds will dissipate as the ocean warms. That means areas that currently aren’t warming as quickly “are destined to catch up.”
But all is not lost—yet. What matters now, said Dessler, is how quickly the world can reach net-zero carbon emissions. Rapid decarbonization could potentially stave off the breach of 2.0°C by centuries, giving humanity time to adapt or even, says AP, to “come up with technological fixes.”
Speed is of the essence, however. “It’s really the rate of warming that makes climate change so terrible,” Dessler told the news agency. “If we got a few degrees over 100,000 years, that would not be that big a deal. We can deal with that. But a few degrees over 100 years is really bad.”
And proof of how bad it is has already begun to arrive. Citing data from the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), Inside Climate News reports that the U.S. alone experienced 16 extreme weather disasters with economic impacts of US$1 billion or more between January 1 and October 7 last year. The total cost was $49.9 billion and 188 lives lost—and that’s without counting the last three months of the year.
“The upshot is that this represents a conservative estimate, using the best data that we have available in the public [and] private sectors on what these extreme events are costing the United States,” said climate analyst Adam Smith.
Based on “tangible direct costs,” like damage to infrastructure and crop losses, such estimates also leave out the myriad psychological and financial impacts that befall the most vulnerable Americans, who, having lost whatever “tangible” assets they might have had to flood or wildfire, likely have no insurance and little savings with which to rebuild.
Smith added that existing climate cost measures leave out damage to the natural world, or to communities that “lack tangible assets to measure.”
Such unmeasurable factors are just one reason why government agencies cannot help but underestimate the true costs of the climate crisis, said Carlos Martin, a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
“Living in lower-quality housing, living in a community that has under-invested in infrastructure, including utility infrastructure, as well as public works like storm, water, sewage—these are compounding vulnerabilities,” he told Inside Climate.
Pointing out that the NEIC’s calculations also exclude the mental and physical treatments needed in the wake of an extreme weather event, Martin added that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance “typically requires claims to be filed within 18 months of a disaster, even though the full human impacts don’t surface for about four years.”
Highlighting the gaps that attend mainstream calculations of climate costs, a Bloomberg Green report on recent estimates of global losses from natural catastrophes reveals a strong distinction in the economic costs that get reported, and the human costs that don’t.
Citing estimates from reinsurance giant Swiss Re, Bloomberg notes that 2020 was “the fifth-costliest year for the industry in a half-century,” at US$83 billion in global damage, with the U.S. at the top of the list at $60 billion. But that placement, notes Bloomberg, owes much to the country’s “relatively high property values.”
The news story also refers to a recent report by the relief group Christian Aid ranking the year’s 15 most destructive climate disasters based on insurance losses, including the $13-billion Cyclone Amphan, which displaced 4.9 million people in the Bay of Bengal. The organization cautions that its report “likely undercounts devastation in poorer countries,” because “the price tag to insurers was higher in rich countries.” That leaves events like a flood in South Sudan, which killed 138 people and destroyed a year’s worth of crops, completely off the record.
“Only 4% of economic losses from climate-impacted extreme events in low-income countries were insured,” notes The Guardian, in its coverage of the report. That’s compared with 60% “in high-income economies.”
In related news, those hoping that a meaningful drop in global emissions could be a dim silver lining to the pandemic were met by a crushing late November report from Inside Climate.
“Global greenhouse gas emissions will drop by 4 to 7% in 2020 because of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, but that decline won’t stop the continued overall buildup of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” ICN wrote, citing data from the World Meteorological Organization.
“The big question is what happens next,” said David Reay, a University of Edinburgh climate scientist and director of Scotland’s Centre of Expertise on Climate Change. “Do we go back to business as usual, or even to higher emissions as we stimulate our economy and blow right past the Paris climate agreement goals? Or do we recover in a green way that helps economies and lowers emissions at the same time?”