Unnatural Disasters

Jul 15, 2009

A severe tornado ripped through the city centre of Atlanta, Georgia in March 2008.

Paleoclimatology shows extremes of climate change affecting weather. For example, the Milankovitch orbital cycles and solar radiance ­variability change the amount of energy reaching the Earth’s surface. These and other natural effects are measured, understood and included in climate models. But we are now facing weather fluctuations that can only be explained by examining human intervention in our one ­possible test-tube experiment, Earth. If our experiment fails, we’re gone. We know, from scientific evidence that:

  1. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, causing a rise in atmospheric temperature of at least 1ºC for every ­doubling of its ­concentration.
  2. In the past 150 years, humans have increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2 from 280 parts per million (ppm) to over 385, an increase of 38%.
  3. Approximately 57% of emissions from fossil fuels have been accumulated in the atmosphere; the rest has been absorbed by oceans and biomass (e.g., trees).
  4. The oceans are becoming more acidic (confirmation of their absorption of CO2) which is having a destructive effect on coral reefs worldwide.
  5. Increased atmospheric water vapour resulting from CO2 warming has a feedback effect that is ­doubling the impact of increased CO2.
  6. Other feedback relationships show that each doubling of atmospheric CO2 will result in a global average temperature rise of between 2-4ºC.
  7. Global average temperatures have risen by about 0.7ºC in the past 150 years. We’re almost halfway to the danger mark.
  8. Other factors are having an impact on temperatures but they do not explain the long-term rise.
  9. CO2 and ­temperature have a mutually reinforcing positive feedback relationship, a rise in one causing a rise in the other, both leading and ­lagging.
  10. There is a ­significant risk of reaching “tipping points” after 2ºC, possibly resulting in runaway devastating impact on the Earth’s climate.

Incidents Are on the Rise
Craig Johnstone, the Deputy High ­Commissioner for the UNHCR has ­commented that:

“Mitigating the effects of climate change is not the task for future generations; it is the most pressing task of our lifetime. If we underestimate the humanitarian implications of this threat, the consequences will be profound.”

He bases those comments upon observations of what is happening now. It’s going to get worse.

Health Canada, Natural Resources Canada, the Commonwealth UCL-Lancet Commission, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Forum and the Ontario College of Family Physicians (among others) have all published studies about the impact of ­climate change on extreme weather and health and how to adapt, here in North America and around the world.

With our intervention, with our habits, we are changing our world. We are exaggerating what used to be called “natural ­disasters.” Where does nature end and ­humanity begin?

How Has Extreme Weather Affected Us?
In Chris Mooney’s book “Storm World,” the renowned science journalist discusses the severity of storms and the politics behind denial of the science. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has documented an increase in tropical high clouds associated with severe storms and rainfall. They have also seen an increase in the severity of Atlantic hurricanes. There is no “smoking gun” to identify global warming as the specific culprit ­behind hurricane Katrina or other cyclones yet there is evidence pointing to increased frequency and severity, with resulting damage and death.

Drought and urbanization were the ­ingredients for Atlanta’s perfect storm. On 14 March 2008, a tornado swept through the downtown area, its 130 mile-per-hour winds ripping holes in the roof of the ­Georgia Dome, blowing out office windows and trashing parts of Centennial Olympic Park. This event was so rare in an urban landscape that researchers immediately began to examine NASA satellite data and historical archives to see what weather and climatological ingredients may have combined to brew such a storm.

Though hundreds of tornadoes form each year across the United States, records of “downtown tornadic events” are quite rare. The 2008 Atlanta tornado – the first in the city’s recorded history – was also unique because it developed during extreme drought conditions.

Europe experienced an historic heat wave during the summer 2003.  Compared to the long-term climatological mean, ­temperatures in July 2003 were sizzling,  soaring above 40°C (104°F). More than 52,000 died. Was that a natural disaster?

Extreme heat, extreme cold, extreme rain or snowfall, extreme drought and severe storms are all “natural” hazards affecting health in Canada and anthropogenic climate change is increasing both the frequency and severity of each. According to a recent report by Health Canada (Human Health in a Changing Climate: A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive ­Capacity) the total number of Canadians affected by natural disasters rose from about 80,000 (1984-1993) to 580,000 (1994-2003); and 51% of all Canadian disasters were weather related.

The 2001-2002 prairie drought led to a loss of more than 41,000 jobs, economic losses of $3.2 billion, and for the first time in 25 years, zero or negative farm income.

This year has already seen early drought conditions causing crop and herd loss and severe hardship to prairie farmers. Inevitable climate change, already triggered, will result in more frequent and severe droughts in western Canada and the USA. Yes, it has happened before but it’s getting worse.

Economic losses from the 1998 eastern Canada ice storm totaled $5.4 billion, at the height of an unusually strong El Ninõ Pacific warming, affecting the southern jet stream.

The summertime Arctic sea ice cover is diminishing much more rapidly than projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Multi-year ice is down by 40% since 2005 and the total ­volume is down by 19%. We may see an ice-free Arctic ocean by 2030. Glaciers and ice shelves in Greenland and western Antarctica are accelerating their melting into the oceans. Coupled with increased thermal expansion, worldwide sea level is accelerating, threatening lowland flooding. This has already led to a refugee crisis in Bangladesh, with severe destruction of low-lying agricultural land.

Journalist Gwynne Dyer predicted a scary future in “Climate Wars” (available from the CBC “Ideas” series). One of the consequences predicted by governmental security agencies is a risk of regional warfare triggered by overpopulation and food scarcity, a result of climate change. We will see increasing demands from “climate refugees” from affected areas to safer ­ones, like Canada.

An overview of the leaders' final working session on the last day of the GB Summit.

What Can We Do?
The G8 (plus 5) conference held in L’Aquila Italy set a goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the point when severe consequences become obvious, to be achieved by having the G8 reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050, with a global goal of 50%. Unfortunately, they defined no baseline, leaving the reduction goals open to a wide range of interpretation and implementation. It had been a goal of the Kyoto accord to use a base of 1990 but several countries, ­including Canada, regard the 80% goal as “aspirational.” The Canadian government has set a goal of 70% from a 2006 base; the nationwide increase in emissions rose by 26% between 1990 and 2006.

Nature magazine published a study on 30 April 2009 which emphasizes the ­urgent need for emission cuts beyond what is likely to emerge, given the L’Aquila “aspirational” goal.

The study stated in part “Recent G8 Communiques envisage halved global GHG emissions by 2050, for which we estimate a 12-45% probability of exceeding 2°C – ­assuming 1990 as emission base year and a range of published climate sensitivity distributions. Emissions levels in 2020 are a less robust indicator, but for the scenarios considered, the probability of exceeding 2°C rises to 53-87% if global GHG emissions are still more than 25% above 2000 levels in 2020.

 One of the stumbling blocks in negotiations leading up to the 2009 UNFCCC Copenhagen COP15 conference in December is the lack of agreement concerning the apportionment of burden concerning greenhouse gas emissions. A research team led by Princeton University scientists has developed a new way of dividing responsibility for carbon emissions among countries.

The approach is so fair, according to its creators, that they are hoping it will win the support of both developed and developing nations, whose leaders have been at odds for years over perceived inequalities in ­previous proposals. “Most of the world’s emissions come disproportionately from the wealthy citizens of the world, irrespective of their nationality” one author (Chakravarty) said, noting that many ­emissions come from lifestyles that involve airplane flights, car use and the heating and cooling of large homes. “We estimate that in 2008, half of the world’s emissions came from just 700 million people.”

Rather than having the “developed” world bear the entire brunt remedial costs, they showed a roughly equal distribution of responsibility and proposed accountability among four groups – the USA, China, OECD countries minus the USA, and non-OECD countries minus China. Let’s hope that the Copenhagen negotiations create an equitable and effective mechanism, now necessary to avoid catastrophic unnatural disasters.

Natural disasters are unavoidable but we can reduce the frequency and severity of these unnatural events.

Mr. Alan P. Burke (B.Sc., RMC) is the President of Orcagis Inc., focusing on zero-defect software development and modelling in the fields of public safety, public health, energy and the environment.
© FrontLine Security 2009