Climate Enters Uncharted Territory—But We Can Prepare for the Risks Global Warming Brings

March 30, 2017 | 11:19 am
Astrid Caldas
Senior Climate Scientist

The World Meteorological Organization recently released its State of The Global Climate for 2016. There was a wealth of information in it: a new temperature record (approximately 1.1 °C above the pre-industrial period and 0.06 °C above the previous record set in 2015), CO2 new highs (400.0 ± 0.1 ppm in the atmosphere at the end of 2015), unprecedented global sea-ice extent (more than 4 million km2 below average in November), and global sea level rise in early 2016 values making new records (with plenty of coral bleaching and acidification).

To top it all, news were also released that ice in both the Arctic and Antarctica have reached record low extents (for winter maximum in the Arctic and summer minimum in Antarctica).


State of the Climate 2016, WMO 2017.

“Truly Uncharted Territory”

All of those facts are eye-catching and concerning enough, but they were not the headline-makers. That honor went to the line “Truly Uncharted Territory”. It describes perfectly the situation – we have no exact grasp of all the potential consequences because we have never been there. Yes, we do know that the temperatures will keep going up, but that does not mean we know all of the effects the higher temperatures can have – . But we could take a few guesses – and we’d probably be right.

Among the more intuitive consequences: more extensive and longer-lasting wildfires (check). More extensive and longer lasting droughts (check). More frequent and heavier downpours (check). More severe floods (check). Among the not-so-intuitive: An increase in winter storms frequency and intensity (check). An increase in the intensity, frequency and duration of Atlantic hurricanes (check). An increase in health problems related to the increase in ozone as a consequence of warming (check). There are more, but you get the idea.

We must be prepared for a range of climate-induced risks

So how can we prepare for possible outcomes of global warming? The answer is actually pretty simple: by preparing for a range of risks. Just as home insurance covers a variety of risks (but, for the record, does not cover flood), so should climate preparedness. And just as in a home we can do things to reduce risk (sprinklers, handrails, door locks), so can we do in the case of global warming.

Disaster risk reduction is a concept that has been around for quite a while. Risk reduction and management comes in many ways, such as the update to the federal flood risk management standard, part of Executive Order 13690 signed by former President Obama in 2015, which requires federal agencies to ensure that public infrastructure (including public housing, hospitals, and water treatment plants) is more resilient to flooding.

Why prepare? It makes sound fiscal sense, and saves taxpayers in the long run. The National Institute for Building Sciences in 2005 found that, on average, every dollar invested in hazard mitigation results in $4 saved in recovery costs. And from 2005 to 2014, the federal government spent $277.6 billion on disaster assistance, while FEMA designated less than $600 million toward its primary pre-disaster mitigation program. Increasing preparedness investments before disaster strikes is just plain smart – it saves not only money but disruption of the economy and human lives.

Risk reduction requires science, policies, and financial resources

Budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration can seriously undermine disaster mitigation. Not only does preparedness require financial investments, the planning must be based on solid science. Agencies like FEMA, NOAA, EPA, and HUD – all at risk of diminished budgets – are the ones providing the science and evidence-based decisions that guide disaster risk reduction programs and policies. Without the myriad scientific information streaming regularly from NOAA and EPA science programs and monitoring, FEMA and HUD can find themselves at a loss when deciding next steps. The American people will pay the price – twice: in their pockets and in their everyday lives.

Last but not least, the rolling back of climate safeguards through Executive Order will have significant impacts not only on disaster preparedness and risk reduction, but also on the necessary global warming mitigation efforts. The logic is straightforward: if we do not reduce emissions, warming rate will be higher, and with more warming, comes a broader range of possible risks, which will require more resources and more preparedness. And one thing we do not need is to have to figure out even more protections – we are struggling enough as it is.

We can effect change – one step at a time!

No matter how discouraging the news is, we can keep the fight everywhere we are, everywhere we go. Everyone has a stake in this fight, scientists and non-scientists alike. We can change things, for the people are truly powerful – and they are learning about their power. A movement has started that will not be stopped, and will hold our nation’s leaders accountable.

Please join us on April 29 for the People’s Climate Movement in Washington DC. You too can – and should – be part of the movement.