For anyone still undecided about the consequences of global warming, the summer of 2018, one of the hottest on record, should have tipped the scales. Across far-flung longitudes and latitudes, regions are struggling with the fallout from large-scale climate-related events.
In the southern United States (US), cities and towns pummelled by Hurricane Florence in September were still drying out when Hurricane Michael brought more flooding in October. In California, firefighters are battling the embers of the largest wildfire in state history. And in parts of Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, agricultural output is in freefall following months of stifling heat.
Cooler weather has done little to ease the suffering. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “moderate” to “exceptional” drought conditions cover 25.1 percent of the US. But “extreme” and “exceptional” drought – the worst categories – expanded to cover 6.3 percent of the country, up from six percent in mid-September. Regions in Australia also are struggling with the worst drought in a generation.
In fact, for a growing number of people around the world, floods, landslides, and heatwaves – Japan’s summer in a nutshell – is the new normal. A recent study in the journal PLOS Medicine projects a fivefold increase in heat-related deaths in the US by 2080; the outlook for poorer countries is even worse.
The climate debate is no longer about causes; fossil fuels and human activity are the culprits. Rather, the question is how billions of at-risk people and businesses can rapidly adapt and ensure their communities are as resilient as possible. Even if the world meets the Paris climate agreement’s target of limiting the increase in global temperature to two degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, adaptation will still be critical, because climate extremes are now the new normal.
Some communities have already recognized this, and local adaptation is well under way. In Melbourne, Australia, for example, planners are working to double the city’s tree canopy by 2040, an approach that will lower temperatures and reduce heat-related deaths.
Similarly, in Ahmedabad, a city of over seven million people in Western India, authorities have launched a major initiative to cover roofs in reflective paint to lower temperatures on “heat islands,” urban areas that trap the sun’s warmth and make city living unbearable, even at night. These are just two of the many infrastructural responses that communities around the world have undertaken.
But adapting to climate change will also mean managing the long-term economic fallout of extreme weather, and this is a requirement that countries are only beginning to take seriously.
Consider water scarcity. According to a 2016 World Bank analysis, drought-related water crises in Africa and the Middle East could reduce gross domestic product (GDP) in these regions by as much as six percent by 2050. That would be painful anywhere, but it would be devastating in regions already rife with political turmoil and humanitarian crises.
At the same time, rising sea levels will cause severe damage to coastal areas. The decline in property values will have far-reaching implications not only for individual wealth, but also for the tax bases of communities and the industries that serve them.
A related concern is that homes and businesses around the world will eventually become under-insured or even uninsurable, owing to the frequency of weather-related catastrophes. ClimateWise, a global network of insurance industry organizations, has already warned that the world is facing a US$100 billion annual climate risk “protection gap”.
No single international organization or authority has all the answers to the cascade of challenges that climate change has triggered. But some are taking key leadership roles and pushing governments and local communities to act with more urgency. One of the more promising initiatives to accelerate solutions, launched just this week, is the Global Commission on Adaptation, chaired by former United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva.
Over the next 15 years, the world will need to invest some US$90 trillion in infrastructure improvements. How these projects proceed, and whether they are designed with low-carbon features, could lead the world toward a more-climate resilient future – or they could undermine food, water, and security for decades to come.
Patrick V. Verkooijen is Chief Executive Officer of the Global Center on Adaptation, and Non-Resident Professor of Practice of Sustainable Development Diplomacy at the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, Tufts University.