Perhaps the most extreme thing about extreme weather events is that, in no small part, humans are responsible for them.
Make no mistake, the relationship between our changing climate and extreme weather events is complex; it is impossible to claim x company’s emissions caused y country’s floods or wildfires. Yet at the same time, the science is clear: the frequency and intensity of the extreme weather events experienced in all corners of the globe in recent years must be attributed to anthropogenic climate change.
An international group of scientists, led by the UK’s Met Office, found that the record temperatures exceeding 38 degrees in Siberia in the first half of 2020 were likely to happen less than once in every 80,000 years without human-induced climate change.
Attribution science is a relatively new field, in which studies attempt to understand the relationship between the rapidly changing climate and major weather events. The study on Siberia’s heatwave found what the scientists involved called, “unequivocal evidence of the impact of climate change on the planet.”
Across the globe, from the Arctic to Australia, the Bahamas to Bangladesh, extreme weather events are causing havoc, uprooting human and nonhuman communities, destroying homes and habitats. Whilst the UK is experiencing record temperatures and deadly flash floods (as seen in this week’s Stonehaven trail derailment which killed three people), it is necessary to fit these extremes into their global context.
Several media outlets have been criticised for glorifying the UK’s abnormally high temperatures (which saw six consecutive days of above 34 degree heat for the first time since 1961), with bikini-laden spreads of Brits basking in the sun on overcrowded beaches.
A failure to contextualise these extremes has been criticised by climate scientists and campaigners alike, whilst BBC weather presenter Tomasz Schafernaker was praised for saying that the heatwave was “Nothing to be gloried,” adding, “This is the future.”
The global context, then, is one of increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, affecting rich and poor countries (if not always the rich and the poor in those countries), as well as small island states and population giants.
Our weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable and unprecedented; for instance, Tropical Storm Kyle, which has formed in the last 24 hours over the Atlantic, has arrived at the earliest date in recorded history (since 1851) for an 11th named storm in the season. As the meteorologist and climate author Eric Holthaus put it, “2020 continues 10 days ahead of the record pace.”
Another storm, Thalia, has ravaged Greece in recent days, with torrential floods sweeping through the island of Evia, killing seven people: more than a foot of rain fell in the space of just six hours.
Meanwhile, in India, the heaviest monsoon rainfall in nearly half a century saw the greatest single day’s rain in August in 47 years, alongside winds of over 100 kilometres an hour. Mumbai, home to over 20 million residents, and a city marked by great divides between the slum-dwelling poor and the high-flying rich, has seen over 2 metres of rain.
One resident told the Guardian; “Every year we suffer from flooding, every year it’s the same nightmare but this is altogether different. I saw coconuts flying off in the air and smashing into car windows.”
It is easy to be shocked and awed by pictures of floods washing through city streets. It is just as easy to overlook the fact that these pictures are showing the destruction of peoples’ entire livelihoods, just washed away in an instant.
In a recent article, Holthaus writes; “Our weather has changed so rapidly that we now stand on the brink of collapse. But simply speaking about the impending apocalypse will do nothing to change it. We need to reimagine human relationships.”
One word that Holthaus repeats is ‘interdependence.’ Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from seeing these images of floods and fires ripping apart peoples’ lives is that our actions, and our inactions, have far-reaching reverberations.
We are interdependent, both on our fellow humans and nonhumans. Almost everything we eat, wear, or own has been planted, dug-up, or stitched together by strangers. You might have even witnessed their homes being flooded on TV.
Extreme weather events should not be glorified, celebrated or stared at in awe then. They should act as constant reminders that our world is changing fast. They should be spurs for action, empathy and a heightened awareness of our complex yet fragile interdependence.