The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic had no effect on the “relentless” increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases, but made the impacts of the climate crisis worse for tens of millions of people around the world, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) concludes in a report released this week.
“Last year was ranked as the hottest on record, in a tie with 2016 and 2019, despite the cooling effect of the cyclical natural climate phenomenon, La Niña,” The Guardian reports. “Without this, 2020 would most likely have been the hottest year yet. The decade 2011-20 was the hottest on record.”
The report chronicles record-breaking extreme weather around the world, from hurricanes and cyclones in the United States and India, to heat waves in Australia and the Arctic, to floods in large parts of Africa and Asia, to killer wildfires in the U.S.
“All the key climate and impacts information in this report highlight relentless, continuing climate change, an increasing occurrence and intensification of extreme events, and severe losses and damage, affecting people, societies, and economies,” said WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas.
“This is a frightening report,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told media Monday. “It needs to be read by all leaders and decision-makers in the world.”
With average global temperatures 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels, “2020 was an unprecedented year for people and the planet,” he said. “It was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But this report shows that 2020 was also another unprecedented year of extreme weather and climate disasters,” and “the data in this report should alarm us all.”
The Guardian says the report points to:
• At least one marine heat wave in 80% of the world’s oceans, with record heat accumulating at sea;
• Billions of tonnes of ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica, with the Arctic reaching its second-lowest sea ice extent on record;
• Severe flooding that helped drive (literally) a plague of locusts in the Horn of Africa;
• Extreme drought across parts of South America producing losses worth US$3 billion in Brazil alone, with impacts as well in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
Bloomberg Green stresses the human impacts of those changes, noting evidence in the WMO report “of an often-repeated projection: Climate change will deliver the greatest suffering to people who had the least to do with causing it. More than 50 million people were ‘doubly hit’ by climate-related disasters and COVID-19 restrictions, the WMO authors write.”
In the South Pacific, after Cyclone Harold drove more than 100,000 people in island nations from their homes in April, the humanitarian response was slowed down by pandemic restrictions, the news agency notes. “A month later, 180,000 people evacuated their homes in the Philippines before Cyclone Vongfong, an effort slowed considerably by social distancing measures that limited capacity for transportation and shelters.” Cyclone Amphan displaced nearly five million people in eastern India and Bangladesh in May, before summer flooding and landslides in China “forced 2.2 million people to evacuate, destroying 29,000 homes.”
Monsoon-related flooding killed more than 2,000 people in South and Central Asia.
“What is notable is an emerging picture that climate change is gathering pace,” University of Reading climate scientist Richard Allan told The Guardian. Ice is “melting more quickly and heat is accumulating more rapidly in the ocean,” and “CO2 increases, which are driving these changes, are becoming progressively larger over time.”
“The 1.5°C Paris guardrail is close to being breached,” warned University College London Prof. Chris Rapley. “The way we are running human affairs is destabilizing the climate system, with predictable and increasingly dire consequences. It’s time for an uprising of concerted action to fix politics,” after which “managing the climate crisis will follow.”