Our climate will warm in a way not seen for at least 10,000 years - the entirety of modern human history. This threatens - if unchecked - to destabilize the world’s weather systems with adverse consequences for society and undermining the very foundations of sustainable development. Weather-related disasters are on the increase - affecting two and a half billion people and inflicting over US$400 billion dollars of damage in the past decade alone.
The International Federation of Red Cross, Preparedness for climate change, 2003.
The summer of 2003 was an event calculated to occur on average every 450 years at most. But there will be such heat periods more and more often in future. Climate scientists have stated that only slight rises in average temperatures can result in significantly greater changes in extreme values. This leads to more heat periods, more record downpours and more thunderstorms. The risk of severe weather and hailstorms also grows disproportionately with each degree that average temperatures climb upwards. The consequences: neither buildings and infrastructure nor the agricultural and livestock sectors are prepared for such extremes. This is why the losses triggered by these increasingly extreme events are so large - and they are becoming more frequent: what we call a 100-year event today, will become a 10-year or 20-year event as a result of climate change.
Munich Re, Annual Report 2003, 2004(pdf file 2.2MB).
Climate change and the need for action to tackle it are moving up the global agenda for political leaders, industry and the community alike. As people think more about the issue, one of the frequently asked questions is whether we can attribute this major storm or that extremely hot day to human interference with the climate.
The mainstream scientific consensus is that the climate is changing and that human activities - in particular the use of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas - are the primary cause.
No single storm can be attributed directly to climate change. But, increasingly, scientists are able to detect the unmistakable fingerprints of human-induced climate change in major events, from extreme droughts and heatwaves to global coral bleaching events.
Unfortunately, without significant reductions in greenhouse pollution, these impacts are projected to get more severe and widespread with significant negative economic, social and environmental consequences.
One of the most concerning impacts of climate change is an increase in both the severity and frequency of extreme weather events. The CSIRO says, "Most climate models indicate that in many places global warming is likely to increase the frequency and duration of extreme events such as heavy rains, droughts and floods".
Consistent with the projections of climate change we are already seeing an increase in the frequency and or severity of extreme events both in Australia and overseas. While socioeconomic factors such as the increase in populations living in areas of risk, increased levels of insurance and better reporting of extreme events and their impacts have played a part in this increase, so too has climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s most authoritative scientific body on climate change, has concluded that this trend is in part “linked to climatic factors such as observed changes in precipitation and drought events”, both of which have clearly been shown to have altered as a result of climate change.
They have led the respected World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to state:
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