Climate Change

We need to treat extreme events as connected, not as anomalies

Clear trends of interconnected extreme weather events intensifying and becoming more frequent can be seen across the world as the climate crisis unfolds

 
By Avantika Goswami
Published: Friday 11 September 2020
Trees uprooted by Amphan, as seen in Kolkata. The cyclone caused damage amounting to $13 billion in West Bengal alone. Photo: Avantika Goswami
Trees uprooted by Amphan, as seen in Kolkata. The cyclone caused damage amounting to $13 billion in West Bengal alone. Photo: Avantika Goswami Trees uprooted by Amphan, as seen in Kolkata. The cyclone caused damage amounting to $13 billion in West Bengal alone. Photo: Avantika Goswami

Super cyclone Amphan that formed on the Bay of Bengal May 2020 was the strongest cyclone recorded in the region. Despite advances in the India Meteorological Department’s use of early warning systems and climate data, Amphan resulted in damages that amounted to $13 billion in West Bengal alone.

Climate change amplifies cyclonic storms that typically form in the northern Indian Ocean. Increasing sea surface temperatures can make cyclones more powerful. The Bay of Bengal was about one degree warmer than normal in early May, creating conditions ripe for an unexpected increase in the strength of the cyclone. Amphan was not an isolated event.

Clear trends of interconnected extreme weather events intensifying and becoming more frequent can be seen across the world as the climate crisis unfolds. These events include the wildfires in United States’ California, Hurricane Laura in the US’ Gulf Coast, heat waves in multiple regions around the world and locust swarms in East Africa and India.

When compounded with a public health crisis like the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, these events generate apocalyptic visions of complete societal collapse.

Scientists have consequently started studying climate risks and extreme events in relation to one another, to not only improve climatological forecasts and analyses, but to also better inform disaster preparedness and response.

Several studies in attribution have established a trend in weather extremes in line with the increase of global average temperature. These extremes include hotter heat extremes, less frigid cold extremes, more intense precipitation and more damage from storms due to higher storm surges and subsequently more precipitation.

A paper titled Understanding and managing connected extreme events, published in the journal Nature Climate Change in June 2020, goes a step further and introduces the concept of connected extreme events.

In post-Amphan Bengal, physical damage from the cyclone and the public health crisis from the COVID-19 pandemic were intertwined with political and socio-economic factors. Photo: Avantika Goswami

When consecutive storms devastate infrastructure and lead to loss of homes and livelihoods, or an early spring and a hot and dry summer cause agricultural losses leading to a strain on government budgets, the combination of extreme events can be termed as connected.

This better represents the “diversity and complexity of interacting physical and societal mechanisms that cause their impacts to be amplified relative to the impacts from those same events occurring separately or univariately”.

Why is the concept of connected extremes so crucial? For want of a less over-worked term, this is our ‘new normal’, evident this year as governments across the world — in both developing and developed countries — struggled to cope with multiple overlapping crises.

In post-Amphan Bengal, physical damage from the cyclone and the public health crisis were intertwined with political and socio-economic factors.

These include the lack of national media attention, inadequate funding for preparedness and relief from the Union government and inadequate protection of the Sundarbans’ native flora due to a preference allotted to clearing swathes of mangroves for the construction of roads and other grey infrastructure.

A shift in perspective begins with no longer viewing climate change, extreme weather and socio-economic planning in sectors such as food, public health and infrastructure in silos, but in viewing them as connected, so future risks are appropriately reduced.

The impacts of connected extreme weather and climate events are often influenced non-linearly and by non-physical factors such as exposure and vulnerability of a community, according to the paper.

These ‘societal’ factors can influence response to different closely occurring extreme events such as the exhaustion of funds for COVID-19 relief, leading to limited funding for emergency responses to hurricanes and wildfires.

While a systems-thinking approach is often advocated to comprehensively address multiple interconnected disasters, our governance structures are vulnerable to compartmentalisation stemming from a legacy of focusing on competing interests, instead of solidarity and cooperation.

Cross-sectoral risk assessments, planning for low probability high impact tail-end risks, multi-agency coordination and seamless communication are among many mechanisms required for appropriate preparedness to oncoming complex crises.

To accelerate such action within the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s timeline of limiting atmospheric warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, multilateralism is critical.

Sharing climate information, extending risk mapping across borders, codifying preparedness plans for multiple connected extreme events into countries’ commitments to the Paris Agreement and a focus on internationalism in scientific research on climate change, health, etc are steps that can help better manage multiple crises.

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