They predicted it with eerie accuracy a decade ago, in a report that would ultimately change the way the world thinks and talks about global warming.
Whether it’s the persistent drought threatening East Africa with famine, the raging wildfires continuing to plague much of Europe, or the wild swing of “weather whiplash” now pummeling much of the United States, climate scientists foreshadowed in their landmark 2012 report—with great detail—the kind of extreme weather the world is now experiencing on a far more regular basis.
“The report was clairvoyant,” Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist and a co-author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2012 special report on extreme events, disasters and climate change, told the Associated Press. “The report was exactly what a climate report should do: Warn us about the future in time for us to adapt before the worst stuff happens.”
In particular, the 2012 report warned governments to watch out for five specific disaster scenarios that have mostly come true in recent years regarding climate change making them more frequent and severe. They warned of increasingly destructive flash floods in less affluent regions, such as the deadly summer floods this year in Kentucky, Pakistan and China. They warned of longer and hotter heat waves in urban hubs, particularly in Europe, like the ones that broke all-time records in the United Kingdom in July. They warned of increased property damage from hurricanes in the U.S., like storms that have frequently pummeled the Gulf Coast and even killed dozens of people across the Northeast last year. And they warned of droughts causing famine in African countries, which experts say is now a serious threat in the Horn of Africa.
They also warned of small island nations losing land and possibly disappearing due to sea-level rise by the end of the century. And while that scenario is harder to illustrate through a definitive example just yet, scientists generally agree that the warning signs are there. This month, the massive glacier known as the Greenland Ice Sheet lost tens of billions of tons of ice, marking its most extensive melting rate on record for the month of September and prompting fresh warnings from scientists who said the glacier would contribute to at least 10 inches of sea level rise even if humans immediately stopped emitting greenhouse gases.
In fact, as the summer of 2022 reaches its final days, reports from all around the world this week seem to showcase with grim vividness the warnings scientists underscored in that decade-old report.
Only days ago, California’s Death Valley set a world record when temperatures hit an astonishing 127 degrees Fahrenheit amid another historic heat wave for the region and as drought continued to deplete water reserves and threaten crops across dozens of states. Then over the weekend and through Tuesday, torrential rain poured down in regions spanning both coasts, causing flash floods in part because dry ground helps to repel water rather than soak it up.
In California, the floods washed out roads, overturned cars and even trapped dozens of motorists after a 20-foot-tall “wall of water” triggered mudslides in the southern part of the state. A similar scenario played out in Chicago, as heavy rainfall flooded basements and forced drivers to abandon their cars that had stalled on waterlogged roads. And on Monday and Tuesday, parts of Arizona, Nevada, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey were all under flash flood warnings as storm cells loomed overhead.
In some ways, the recent years of disaster-filled summers have been an especially poignant wakeup call for Americans who, like those in many other wealthy Western nations, have been somewhat insulated from the impacts of climate change and have therefore enjoyed the privilege of being able to ignore it. In developed countries, for example, residents are more likely to have advanced irrigation systems to water crops during droughts and air conditioning to mitigate extreme heat.
Last week, the Biden administration launched a new website that maps just how global warming is affecting different parts of the country, painting a nearly real-time picture of America’s climate threats and providing policymakers with data that can help them better prepare for extreme heat, drought, wildfire, as well as inland and coastal flooding. The new tool, for example, allows users to compare historical trends with climate projections roughly 10, 30 and 60 years from now.
As of today, the website shows more than 114 million Americans experiencing drought, nearly 40 million Americans under flood alerts and 300 wildfires actively burning across the country. Considering how the previous administration intentionally deleted information about global warming from government websites, the new online tool is the latest sign that American politics are beginning to catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to climate change. In November, the U.S. can also go into the United Nations’ global climate talks with at least one legislative victory after Congress dedicated roughly $370 billion to its efforts to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, a growing number of climate scientists say world leaders aren’t moving with enough urgency to properly address the emerging threats of global warming. It’s a message that leading climate research organizations reiterated Tuesday in a new report, saying that even with current efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, the world is quickly approaching dangerous climate tipping points.
The primary question now is whether governments will heed that warning and rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels. When the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC released its groundbreaking report in early 2012, many of its members hoped their warning would be the catalyst that rallied nations around a common threat, spurring quick and decisive collective action.
Instead, “the world proceeded to do what it usually does,” Princeton’s Oppenheimer said. “Some people and governments listened, others didn’t. I think the sad lesson is the damage has to occur very close to home or else nobody pays attention now.”
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