News headlines this year paint a frightening picture, almost making it seem like we are in the midst of a climate apocalypse. As cataclysmic events grip the entire planet, it is evident that no region is safe from the devastating impacts of climate change. Encapsulated below are just a few of these extreme calamities tormenting the world right now:
Extremely dry weather conditions have parched lands across Europe, causing the worst drought in the continent in the last 500 years. The crisis is speculated to be getting worse, with the Global Drought Observatory stating that the water stress could further potentially result in famines.
Droughts have also struck other parts of the world, as China is facing the worst drought on its record.
Wildfires have consumed vast swaths of land in Europe this summer, having burned areas twice the size of Luxembourg.
- Meanwhile, floods have wreaked havoc in South Asia, with Pakistan declaring a state of emergency as floods inundate one-third of the country and displace millions of people.
Unrelenting heat waves have set record temperatures across cities in Asia and Europe. The scorching heat has impacted the poor and the vulnerable sector, who are forced to work in inhumane weather conditions. The World Health Organization states that heatwaves have caused over 1,700 deaths on the Iberian peninsula alone.
Waterbodies have been shrinking, and hot weather conditions are killing grass. It has also revealed a wide array of archaeological remains from World War Two ships still loaded with explosives in Serbia to traces of 17th Century gardens in England.
These events have bought in the realization that the seemingly distant concept of climate change is happening, and it poses a grave threat to human civilization.
What is causing these extreme weather events?
Over the last century, there has been a massive increase in heat-trapping greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which have caused the planet’s temperature to rise. Attribution studies carried out by scientists have revealed that this increase in global temperature by anthropogenic activities is fueling extreme weather events.
The Sixth Assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that “human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened” since the Fifth Assessment report in 2014.
As the climate change crisis worsens, weather events which were once occasional occurrences are becoming the new normal.
Analyzing the impact of extreme weather events
Apart from the direct impact they have on the physical environment and on human lives, the cascading effects of these climate-induced disasters have been grave, as it has hampered agricultural production, impacted businesses and damaged urban ecosystems.
Some of the pernicious economic effects caused by the extreme climate events this year are:
- Impact on manufacturing industries: The droughts in China have dried up rivers in the country which are vital for the operations of hydroelectric plants. The resulting power shortages have caused problems for energy-intensive companies, with manufacturing companies such as Toyota and Foxconn halting production. Battery supply and electronic device sales are also expected to be impacted due to the hiatus in the manufacturing sectors in Sichuan, which is known to be a lithium hub. Further, as water levels dropped in the Yangtze river, China’s largest waterway for trade, it has also caused supply chain challenges, threatening to paralyze the manufacturing and export industries. Similarly, floods in Pakistan have destroyed a huge amount of cotton crops in the country. As Pakistan is the world’s 5th largest cotton producer, it is likely to impact global clothing brands and retailers as it is assessed to cause a shortage in cotton supply and trigger price inflation.
- Impact on Shipping and Trade: As the torrid heatwaves and droughts have brought major water bodies such as the Rhine, Danube, Po and Yangtze to extremely low levels, it has impacted global shipping and trade activities. In Germany, vessels had to reduce their shipping loads to 30-40% of their capacity, resulting in delays and rising costs in addition to choking trade and holding up supply chains. Economists have speculated that this could impact Germany’s economic growth by half a percentage point.
- Impact on overall economy: The ongoing floods in Pakistan, dubbed “monsoon on steroids”, are estimated to cost economic losses worth USD 12.5 billion. Floods have impacted the agriculture and cotton sectors immensely. The country’s planning minister Ahsan Iqbal stated that 45% of the country’s cotton crops had been washed away. As agriculture contributes up to 23% of Pakistan's GDP, these losses are projected to have a dire impact on Pakistan’s economy, with some assessments predicting that the economy will slow down significantly in the near to medium term. Estimates also indicate that it can cause inflation to shoot up to a range of 24-27% and poverty and unemployment rates to over 36 per cent.
- Impact on food production: Extreme weather conditions and wildfires have impacted the agriculture sector immensely. For example, as dry weather conditions have gripped the European continent, the yields for maize are estimated to be 16 per cent below the average rate in the past five years. Likewise, in Germany, it is assessed that if the country does not receive rainfall soon, it could result in a reduction of harvest yields by 30% or 40%. Similarly, the floods in Pakistan have led to the destruction of large amounts of crops such as tomatoes, onions, wheat and sugarcane, in addition to flooding farmlands. As agricultural production is impacted, it is likely to further cause an increase in the price of food.
- Impact on key sectors: Climate-induced disasters such as wildfires also massively hurt the economy. According to a study, each additional day of smoke exposure from a wildfire brings down the earnings in a community by about 0.04% over two years. The pinch is felt even more severely in key industries such as the agriculture and transportation sector, utility companies and the insurance market. For example, as wildfires get increasingly frequent, it has impacted the insurance companies massively as estimates reveal that between 1964 to 1990, the American insurance industry, on average, paid less than $100 million a year toward wildfire losses. However, in the next two decades, the number shot up to an average of $600 million annually.
Evidently, these extreme weather events have caused significant damage to the economy and continue to do so. Surpassing the predictions made by climate models, these disasters have brought a staggering realization that we have underestimated the scale and scope of climate risks.
Assessing the Limitations of Climate Models
One of the prominent tools in assessing climate risks is climate models. However, a growing body of literature speculates that the existing climate models are inaccurate and failing in this phase of accelerating climate crisis. For example, recent studies have established that the earth’s atmosphere is much more sensitive to greenhouse gases (GHG) than previous climate models predicted. Similarly, a new research stated that the Antarctic sheets are not melting linearly, as climate models had earlier predicted, while another study estimates that Antarctica’s ice shelves could be melting 40 per cent faster than anticipated.
While climate projections are imprecise by nature and require constant revisions, scientists are worried that these climate models significantly underestimate the risks.
A paper co-authored by several experts states that there is “ … mounting evidence that current economic models of the aggregate global impacts of climate change are inadequate in their treatment of uncertainty and grossly underestimate potential future risks.”
Even information espoused by trusted sources such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which collates the latest data from scientific research papers and climate models to set an international standard for evaluating the impacts of climate change, is considered insufficient.
Prof. Dame Julia Slingo, former Met Office Chief Scientist, stated, “We should be alarmed because the IPCC (climate computer) models are just not good enough.
These studies have exposed the significant gaps in climate risk assessments. One of the major factors responsible for this is the lack of credible data.
Data: solution for effective climate modeling
Accurate, credible data is the cornerstone of a reliable climate model. While many factors play an important role in bettering climate models, such as strong computing systems capable of crunching more data and effective frameworks, data remains the paramount factor for effective climate modeling. This is because a climate model is only as good as its inputs. It not only increases the accuracy of the models but also helps in creating better simulations. This further helps provide a clear picture of risks and, thus, by extension, aids in building resilience against them.
Some of the key characteristics for effective climate modeling concerning data are:
High-frequency data: Climate modeling without high-frequency data has very limited utility. For instance, data gathered a few times a year cannot paint a clear picture of climate risks. High-frequency data is important to gain better insights and enables higher statistical precision in climate modeling.
High resolution: High-resolution data is important for better mapping and monitoring of climate systems. It also helps in better quantification of vital factors such as the change in land cover. At present, most climate models are of a global scale and have to be scaled down significantly to get regional insights, which compromises the resolution. For instance, the IPCC CMIP6 offers a resolution of 250km x 250km. Even the highest available resolution of the CMIP6 projections is 11.1km x 11.1km.
Near real-time data: Near real-time data allows continuous monitoring, which is helpful in identifying trends, establishing parameters, trigger levels and real quantification of risks and probabilities. Moreover, it is an important factor in developing prediction sets. Currently, climate models draw vast insights from historical data that no longer suffices. As climate change is driving new weather patterns, relying only on historical data reduces the model's accuracy. In addition, historical models have limitations. For example, documentation has been poor in many parts of the world, and government agencies in most countries began collecting data only towards the end of the last century.
Wide-scope: Climate models must have a broad scope that looks at the earth as one system. Monitoring a single variable does not provide an overall understanding of the climate crisis, as most climate phenomena are interlinked. All the essential variables need to be assessed for a holistic understanding of our planetary systems.
While climate models have significantly improved in recent years, with systems getting more sophisticated, it still faces a daunting array of challenges when it comes to data. Hence, transparent, high-frequency and near real-time data with high resolution is crucial for accurate and reliable climate modeling.
Scientists have established that climate change's impact will only worsen in the coming years, with highly catastrophic climate-related crises projected to get more frequent. In this context, reliable climate models are critical to understanding the risks better, developing mitigation strategies and systems accordingly and reducing the disastrous consequences.
While climate models will always be marked by a certain amount of inaccuracy, credible data can improve predictions and undertake timely action to minimize impact.