Recent extreme weather events have resulted in much head scratching, soul searching and predictions for the future amongst scientists and politicians. Britain appears to be heading for its wettest winter on record and over the last two years the US has endured its hottest summers on record and one of its coldest winters. Meanwhile, winter 2012/13 was China’s coldest in 30 years, and both Australia and Brazil have suffered record high temperatures and dangerously low rainfall.
Whilst there is continued debate – boosted by last week’s publication by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of its latest assessment of the physical science basis for climate change - about the extent to which these events are the result of human activity, there appears to be a growing consensus that mankind is going to have to get used to many more such extreme weather events.
Writing in the UK’s Independent newspaper, Professor Nigel Arnell, Director of the Walker Institute for Climate System Research at the University of Reading, says, “Overall global exposure to flooding will increase much faster than the projected rises in population and economic growth alone might suggest. The message for politicians is clear. Even if deep cuts to emissions of greenhouse gases are successful, we will have to live with more floods in Britain.”
And as long ago as 2008, Professor James Lovelock, the pioneering climate change scientist who has been labelled a maverick, but has an unnerving habit of seeing his predictions come true, told The Guardian newspaper that “catastrophe is inevitable” and that that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics.
Even veteran weather forecaster Michael Fish – who could be expected to take a cautious approach to predicting the future, having ruled out the 1987 hurricane that caused devastation to southern England just hours later – says that “years of even worse weather are on the way and it is too late to stop it.”
Clearly, the future events which are now being discussed threaten not just inconvenience, but pose a threat to lives and livelihoods, national infrastructures, industrial output and supply systems, agriculture and food production – perhaps even social and political structures. Alongside the necessary examination how we might be able to avert, or minimise, such catastrophes, we need to make plans to deal with effects of extreme weather, both in the short and long terms.
A major part of that preparation involves providing the means to allow populations to access clean water and energy, and to communicate with each other when the usual utilities fail. UN agencies and NGOs are increasingly recognising this. Commercial companies, such as Freeplay Energy, are manufacturing the products that can make all the difference in a crisis. But governments, all too often, are focused on either short-term fixes for immediate problems, or grand schemes such as carbon offsetting. Little appears to be underway with regard to emergency preparedness.
Those affected by the current extreme weather need practical help now and, after a shaky start in the UK, many are receiving it. But if these events are to become regular occurrences, the thousands – even millions - who will be affected next year and the year after need to be given the tools they need to cope as well as they can.
As James Lovelock said back in 2008 about climate catastrophe, “…if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan." We need to be ready.