Sobering climate science: Extreme weather on the rise

Ilissa Ocko

A recent Lancet report on climate change impacts is sobering: More people will be exposed to extreme weather over the next century than previously thought. We also just learned that 2015 is on pace to be the hottest year on record, following last year’s record-shattering global temperatures.

Should we be alarmed? Yes. Feel hopeless? No. But more on that later. First, let’s have a look at the latest science.

Billions are vulnerable to extreme events

The Lancet report is more evidence that people can’t afford business as usual any more than the environment can.

By the end of this century, there will be 2 billion more people exposed annually to extreme rainfall events, 3 billion more elders exposed to heat waves, and 1.4 billion more people exposed every year to drought, scientists found.

These extreme weather events – storms, droughts, heat waves, floods – are linked to mental illness, cardiovascular disease, poor nutrition, allergies, infectious diseases and a host of other serious physical problems.

With extreme weather on the rise, climate change is increasingly becoming a human health issue to which policymakers need to pay attention if they aren’t already.

Extreme weather: the numbers

A growing body of research shows that as we continue to spew greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, trapping heat, our weather patterns are shifting dramatically:

  • There are about 20 more warm days and nights, and 15 fewer cold days and nights, every year on average today than during the mid-to-late 20th century. 
  • Heat waves are five times more likely to occur now than before the Industrial Revolution; and Europe, Asia and Australia have been especially hard-hit.
  • Heavy rainfalls are more common, especially in the northeastern United States, where there is now 71 percent more rainfall during heavy storms.
  • Snowstorm intensity and frequency has increased in the Northern Hemisphere, and storms are shifting poleward.
  • Wildfires in western U.S. from high temperatures and earlier snowmelt have almost doubled since the 1980s.
  • There is more hurricane activity in the North Atlantic and hurricanes are shifting toward the poles. Strong storms, meanwhile, are becoming more intense.

The science is clear: Trends are emerging and projections show even worse situations in the future. But there is still hope, and perhaps more so than since the Industrial Revolution began to push up temperatures two centuries ago.

We have an audacious plan to stop, once and for all, the steady rise in greenhouse gas emissions and see them peak, level off and begin to decline already by 2020. The most influential players - China, the United States, the European Union along with top religious leaders - are moving in the same direction.

This is why I, a scientist, have hope today.

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