As of Tuesday, there are still over 400,000 people without power in Louisiana. The death toll for Hurricane Ida is now at 68 as the devastation is tallied from a single storm that brought floods and destruction across a wide swath of states. That’s just one storm. One storm, from one hurricane season, in one country.
The same week Ida passed through the Eastern United States, the Dixie Fire blazed in California. It’s still burning, Having consumed over 900,000 acres and far from being fully contained, that fire is almost certain to top the previous record holder. That previous biggest fire in recorded history burned a million acres—in 2020. Of the top 20 wildfires recorded across the nation, CNN reports that all but three have come in the last 20 years.
Those fires are persisting inside a megadrought that has made the western half of the United States drier than at any point in the last 1,200 years. Across the West, reservoirs are at record lows with limited water available to agriculture and falling short of predictions. Despite this, Utah is building a billion-dollar pipeline to siphon still more water away from a lake that is already at record lows.
Adding to the misery are frequent heat waves that in 2021 have brought what may be record temperatures to Death Valley and broiled the normally temperate Northwest. Salem, Oregon, reached 117 degrees in the first days of July, while nearby Portland notched two days above 112. It was just one fragment of a global phenomenon that made July 2021 the hottest month in the last 142 years of records.
Floods. Storms, Droughts. Heat. Fires. If it seems that the news is so often filled with weather disasters, that’s because it is. As NPR reports, weather disasters are five times more common than they were just 50 years ago. Some of that is because more people are living in areas that are subject to disaster, but the biggest reason is the one that everyone already knows—the manufactured climate crisis.
The picture of accelerating disasters comes from a new report by the World Meteorological Organization. They document nearly 11,000 disasters over a 50-year period—disasters that generated $3.6 trillion in losses and over two million deaths.
At the top of the chart for causing the most deaths are a series of droughts that brought famine to large parts of Africa and a cluster of vast storms that hit low-lying countries like Bangladesh. At the top of the chart for most cost are five hurricanes that have hit the United States since 2005. At number six on that list, Hurricane Andrew was the costliest weather disaster on record when it struck Florida in 1992. The scope of its destruction was such that it completely changed how homes were built in the area and created a whole new generation of measures designed to protect the region against a repeat. Since then, what’s been demonstrated is that even the best preparation can’t do much to limit the damage from increasingly large, increasingly powerful, increasingly wet storms.
And while heat waves and droughts may seem to be the opposite of flooding and hurricanes, they’re actually deeply connected. "We have more water vapor in the atmosphere, which is exacerbating extreme rainfall and deadly flooding," said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. "The warming of the oceans has affected the frequency and area of existence of the most intense tropical storms."
The statistics on weather disasters, showing their rapid and devastating increase, follow a massive report from the Intergovernmental Panel on the Climate Crisis released in August. Far from being eliminated or even slowing down, that report showed the climate crisis driven by human activities is accelerating. It’s impossible to stop the initial effects of the crisis because we’re already living them—that’s what those weather disasters are, the individual “pixels” of the whole climate crisis picture.
However, it’s still possible to keep too many of those images from being ones of despair and ruin. Which is why this week, over 200 medical journals are joining together to deliver one message from the world’s healthcare professionals:
Health is already being harmed by global temperature increases and the destruction of the natural world, a state of affairs health professionals have been bringing attention to for decades. The science is unequivocal; a global increase of 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average and the continued loss of biodiversity risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse. Despite the world’s necessary preoccupation with covid-19, we cannot wait for the pandemic to pass to rapidly reduce emissions.
The call from health professionals—battling a pandemic, no less—that the climate crisis has to be the most important topic on our agenda seems counterintuitive. But it comes in part because climate change contributes to human deaths and disease. While drought in Ethiopia and Sudan gets credit for a high death toll, the drought was just a precursor to famine. And when looking at one of the major effects of the climate crisis:
Global heating is also contributing to the decline in global yield potential for major crops, falling by 1.8-5.6% since 1981; this, together with the effects of extreme weather and soil depletion, is hampering efforts to reduce undernutrition.
Efforts to change this by expanding the cultivation area are actually making things worse because they’re damaging the ecosystem and converting healthy forest areas into poor agricultural land that can only produce for a limited time.
Whether it’s meteorologists, or climate experts, or healthcare professionals, the answer is the same — we are the authors of our own misery, and we can only hope to improve if we provide emergency care to the patient that is home to us all.