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Tom Mitchell is head of climate change at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and one of the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on managing the risks of extreme events and disasters (SREX)
This week record-breaking temperatures and lack of rain likely herald a summer of drought in Britain, but a major new report from more than 200 scientists suggests that hosepipe bans could be the least of our problems over the coming decades.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has analysed extreme weather events and concludes that the number and frequency of such disasters is going to increase. And the world will not be able to cope. If we do not want to live in a never-ending disaster movie, we need to get serious about linking our carbon consumption to the changing weather map.
The 2003 heatwave in the UK brought temperatures of 38.5 degrees and cost thousands of lives. According to the Environment Agency, East Anglia and the South East are already in drought, costing hundreds of millions of pounds to the economy.
Yet according to the new IPCC report we can expect to see the mercury flirting with 40 degrees every couple of years by 2050. This spells bad news for golfers, farmers and the elderly, but it’s not just the sun which is set to up its game.
The very wettest days will be more frequent, arriving twice as often by the end of the century. On those days the UK will probably feel like summer in North Africa or the Indian Monsoon. The costs of flood damage to the UK will triple by 2070.
Certainly tomorrow’s extremes will stretch our ability to cope as never before. The report is the clearest signal yet that there is a direct link between high-carbon lifestyles and extreme weather. According to the report there is now reasonable evidence to suggest that the drought we are experiencing is being made worse because of our unchecked carbon emissions over the past two or three decades.
All of the above assumes the status quo: no emissions reductions, no growth in population and no changes to national infrastructure. There is of course a reasonable chance that this is a false assumption.
The gravity of the situation increases across the globe. By 2046, every year temperatures in Africa could reach the highest we currently see once every 20 years. By the middle of the century, parts of Asia will see a 50 percent increase in extreme maximum rainfall in any one day; by over 100 percent by the end of the century.
The Pakistan and Thailand floods of the past couple of years will pale in comparison to those of the future unless there is a massive shift in emphasis towards spending to protect people and cities from future extreme weather.
The report confirms the link between our carbon emissions and extreme weather events globally in the coming decades. This poses some really tricky questions.
* Should richer countries be held responsible for paying for disaster damages caused to poor countries whose people have done very little to contribute to the problem?
* What can we do now to ensure that the cheque we need to write in the future is as small as possible?
Undoubtedly we need rapid and deep cuts to global carbon emissions to avoid the worst future disasters, coupled with a fundamental shift in our international development assistance towards helping countries reduce the impact of future extreme weather.
The report offers practical guidance on how to prepare for and tackle disasters. In the UK, it says we need to:
- stop building on flood plains, or if we do make sure houses and infrastructure are defended against extreme floods
- be proactive in protecting elderly and vulnerable people in heat waves
- for businesses, prepare contingency plans when supplies from overseas are interrupted by disasters.
International development assistance should:
- support governments in poor countries to establish and enforce strong building codes
- conduct periodic assessments of disaster risk
- ensure plans to develop economies do not inadvertently put schools, hospitals, power plants and people in the way of the next hurricane or flood.
If significant progress on reducing disaster risk isn’t made in the next decade, the appeals for money to help victims of the next drought, flood or landslide will become an almost daily occurrence. The report warns that, if we continue on the same track, the international system that provides humanitarian assistance will reach breaking point.
The IPCC’s full report is online here.