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This post is written by our guest blogger Bill McGuire. He is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters. His new book is Knock Three Times: 28 Modern Folk Tales for a World in Trouble; a short-story anthology co-edited with Andrew Simms.
A broken climate isn’t just about higher temperatures and rising sea levels. As global heating driven by human activities accelerates, so the links that hold a stable climate system together start to weaken and ultimately snap. The result is not just a warmer planet, but a world of greater extremes on all sides. In this way, a broken climate is a bit like a stable climate writ large – the same weather, but bigger and bolder; more intense rainfall, harsher droughts, increasingly powerful storms. It is chaotic too. At the same time, a broken climate can bring severe floods to one part of the world and raging wildfires to another. So, as Venice and much of the English Midlands and north struggle against record tides and floodwaters, down under, much of south eastern Australia is burning.
A hotter world is also, broadly speaking, a wetter one. Higher evaporation rates lift more water vapour into the atmosphere, sea levels climb relentlessly and torrential downpours reduce the frequencies of major floods from every few centuries to just every few years. Since 1910, the Met Office reveals, 17 months or seasons have smashed records for extreme rainfall in the UK, and nine of these have occurred in just the last 19 years. It should come as no surprise, then, that serious winter flooding is the new normal, somewhere or other in the country. In addition, the number of flood disasters across Europe has more than doubled in the last 35 years. If we continue to pump out greenhouse gases at the current rate, many countries will see their flood risk climbing by 500 percent. Even if we manage to keep the global average temperature rise below 1.5°C, which is a huge ask, the risk of flooding will still double across much of the planet.
While climate breakdown, driven by global heating, plays a key role in the arrival of more, bigger and increasingly destructive floods, it is not the sole cause. The destruction of woods and forests, thoughtless farming practices, greater urbanisation and building in the wrong places, also play a part. Building ever-higher barriers as the floods worsen is not an option. All it does is tackle the symptoms rather than the cause. What needs to happen is that measures are put in place to soak up excess water before it reaches the flood-prone parts of rivers. Rewilding, reforesting, and less concreted-over space will all help. But, in the longer term, the only real solution is to slash greenhouse gas emissions – and quick. Even then, it will take many decades, possibly centuries, for rainfall patterns to return to normal.
Those parts of the world that global heating is not making wetter, it is making drier, so that down under, flooding is the last thing on people’s minds at the moment. Bone dry vegetation and record-breaking temperatures, already soaring above 45°C in places, have provided the perfect recipe for wildfire formation in Australia. Fires have raged for weeks now across New South Wales, Queensland and elsewhere, burning more than 17,000 square kilometres – that’s an area the size of Kuwait – destroying hundreds of homes and decimating the koala population. On the other side of the world, massive fires have rampaged across California and – at the time of writing – threaten thousands of homes in Santa Barbara.
The Australian situation is particularly depressing as the current government is packed with climate change deniers in thrall to the fossil fuel sector and the coal lobby. Even as his country burns before his eyes, PM Scott Morrison refuses to link the ever-increasing wildfire threat to global heating. He has even suggested that Australia could push up its emissions even further without any impact on the wildfire threat. As it is, the country’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions is four times greater than its share of the population. Australia’s record on emissions is one of the worst among the advanced nations and has been firmly on an upward trajectory since 2014. It is hard to imagine what it will take to get the government to sit up, take notice and actually start to do something about bringing emissions down. It is clear, however, that if policies don’t change soon, increasing drought, blistering temperatures, and ever more wildfires will make this country virtually uninhabitable.