Call to Action on Weather and Climate Extremes

Just in case you hadn’t already figured out that something crazy is happening with our weather, the world’s top climate scientists today issued a report detailing exactly what we know.  Early this morning, the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) officially released the summary of a Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation.  The bottom line: It’s high time we start preparing for more extreme weather and climate events because odds are that the impacts of heat waves, wildfires, droughts, storms, and floods are going to be more severe.


Focusing on High-Impact Events that Affect People and Communities  

This IPCC report stands out in the extent to which it focuses on the climate changes that people are likely to detect in their day-to-day lives and the direct implications for managing these risks. Past IPCC reports have concentrated on gradual changes in mean temperatures and other climatic variables. But, aside from some plants and animals, most of us aren’t sensitive enough to climatic variables to notice small shifts in the mean. What we will notice is more severe heat waves, heavier rainfall events, more intense and longer droughts, and other extremes.  

The expert panel found evidence that many extreme events are already changing, and they projected that climate change will increase the severity of impacts from future weather and climate disasters. The report even points out that climate change “can result in unprecedented weather and climate events.” Some specific conclusions include:

  • It is “virtually certain” that hot temperature extremes will become hotter and more frequent. Specifically, “a 1-in-20 year hottest day is likely to become a 1-in-2 year event by the end of the 21st century in most regions” if carbon pollution continues unabated.
  • Heavy precipitation events are likely to become more frequent, especially in the high latitudes, tropics, and in the winter for northern mid-latitudes. This could mean more heavy snowfall events for parts of the United States.
  • It is likely that rainfall rates and maximum wind speed will increase for tropical cyclones.
  • Droughts in some regions—including Central North America—are expected to intensify as these places have less precipitation or more evaporation.


We Need to Step Up Our Disaster Risk Management

Existing strategies for managing weather and climate disasters leave us vulnerable to current weather and climate disasters, much less more severe events in a future warmer climate. Our preparedness hasn’t kept up with trends in population, infrastructure development, and other factors that make communities more vulnerable to extreme events. This conclusion won’t come as news to communities across the nation and world that have been reeling from an extraordinary year of extreme weather events. U.S. damages for 2011 sum in the tens of billions of dollars.

Preparing for future disasters is intertwined with steps necessary to address climate change. The report authors make it clear that an integrated approach provides multiple benefits for successfully reducing risk. Ideally, the strategy needs coordinate efforts across national to local scales of government. In other words, we need a national strategy in place to deal with these risks, and at the same time communities need to assess their vulnerability and start taking actions to protect themselves.

The report also highlights that a portfolio of actions is necessary for reducing disaster risk and providing livelihood benefits, and that ecosystem-based approaches are part of that solution.  Let’s hope we can be smart enough to make these investments in our forests, natural lands, wetlands, and biodiversity, so that we can actually reap these multiple benefits.  Both for our sake and for the sake of our treasured wildlife.

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Published: November 18, 2011