The Pakistan Floods and Climate Change: Another Warning about Global Weirding

August 23, 2010

It was gratifying to see no less of a distinguished trio than Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, USAID administrator Rajiv Shah and George Soros acknowledge this week the connection between climate change and natural disasters such as the current devastating flood in Pakistan.This connection is not a simple one, and those of us who want the public to listen to climate scientists must make sure we live up to our own standards. Therefore, it was even more gratifying to see Shah get the story exactly right, without overselling or underselling the evidence: no single extreme weather event can be attributed to climate change. But the evidence shows that “it is very likely that hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent,” and that “it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense.” (Why? In essence, because as the Earth system charges up with more energy locked in by the greenhouse effect, the climatic processes become more violent. The World Meteorological Organization has a good summary of the mechanisms behind the flood.)The Pakistani flood is a dramatic warning that it is high time to wrap our heads around the fact that climate change does not equal ‘global warming’. There is no reality to the associations of balmy winters and limited cost that this term seems to evoke in some, and notably in some U.S. senators. Rather, climate change means more volatility. (This is separate from the increased risk of cataclysm that is hard to quantify, but real, and is a powerful argument for cleaning up our act as a form of ‘insurance’. For instance, while we are not certain how the Himalayan glaciers will react to climate change, we know there is a risk of changes with dramatic implications for the water supply of hundreds of millions, including in Pakistan. But that is for another blog).So, Tom Friedman has it right in translating climate change into ‘global weirding’, rather than ‘global warming.’ Pakistan’s predicament shows why. The impacts of the flood are bound to be drastic, with one million homes reported destroyed, in excess on 15 million people affected, and “71% of the standing rice crop, 59% of vegetable crop and 45% of the maize crop” destroyed in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province along the Afghan border, according to the current OCHA situation report.But in addition to floods, the country also regularly faces droughts. Barely a decade ago, some arid areas of the country were ravaged by a secular failure of rains. In a forthcoming working paper, I show that a drought that would historically have occurred in Pakistan about every twenty years is associated an increase in the poverty rate by about 4%. In a country of 170 million people, that means an additional six million living in poverty. (Many have also made the point that natural disasters have security implications, in Pakistan and elsewhere, and while this is hardly the only reason to care about limiting climate change, it may help instill courage in politicians too timid to act.)Even for those who are spared extreme events, global weirding will be costly. Talk to a rubber plantation manager in South India, or to a subsistence farmer in East Africa, and you will hear about how difficult it is to make a profit, or eke out a living, as the monsoon rains become more erratic. Whether the decision is when to send out workers to tap the trees, or when to use what precious little fertilizer you can afford – volatility is not your friend.If we continue to fail to act, we can expect to see more of this. As global weirding progresses, major floods and drought previously encountered only rarely will become more frequent.  More continental summers are expected to become so hot and bone-dry that they fuel forest fires such as those we have seen in Russia. And (yes) we can expect to see more heavy precipitation in winter that leads to freak snow-storms on the U.S. East coast.None of this is news. What would be news would be for us to get real about taking action to reduce emissions – especially, for the United States to finally accept that putting a price on carbon is an efficient way to join the clean tech race with the rest of the world. We must also get serious and creative about building resilience against the change that is already locked into the system. In a recent working paper, David Wheeler and co-authors show that it makes sense to think beyond the obvious investments in infrastructure, weather forecasting or emergency services. An aggressive campaign to educate girls and women could be an efficient way to make a real difference in boosting resilience to extreme events. It is time for a serious and smart investment in both, clean technology and resilience.


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