Climate news comes in a deluge

Zero hour for climate action

China flood
Rainfall in China’s Henan province reached 25 inches in 24 hours. One hour when nearly eight inches fell set a national record. (UN Climate Twitter)

6 minute read

Every day we see another street or highway turn into a rapids carrying cars and debris in its torrent. China, Germany, Belgium, India, Pakistan, Mexico, Turkey, Arizona, and the list goes on. Wildfires devour Siberia and the North American west at an unprecedented rate. Smoke travels thousand of miles to choke New York and New England.

Radical climate disruption has arrived. Even as the world’s nations prepare for the 26th U.N. climate meeting, this time in Glasgow, the planet is throwing the inadequacy of the last 25 into sharp relief. Meanwhile, scientists prepare the latest global climate assessment to be released August 9. It’s expected to be bad.

Still, whatever fine words political leaders are saying about the “existential crisis” of climate, their actions don’t match the emerging, critical reality. We have reached a climate zero hour when action at an unprecedented scale is required.

Linking the extreme events is a jet stream that has grown wavy and fragmented. Normally, these winds roll around high in the atmosphere driving weather systems ahead of them. So when it rains, it doesn’t rain too much. When it gets hot and dry, it will soon cool down again. But when the jet stream slows and breaks up, weather systems are blocked. Rains deluge areas for days while heat sizzles others, sparking wildfires.

This graphic depicts how it happens.

The key is that strong temperature differences between the North Pole and Equator drive the jet stream forward, like squeezing a watermelon seed between your fingers. But the Arctic is heating much faster than the rest of the planet, so there is less pressure difference to squeeze the winds forward. Thus, global weather patterns go crazy.

Many scientists are saying the current wave of weather extremes is
”off the charts,” arriving faster than expected, the unlikely outliers in climate models that now become facts on the ground. Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann “is worried that current models do not reproduce the jet stream behaviour accurately. ‘This means they are underestimating the magnitude of the impact of climate change on extreme weather events. While the overall warming of the planet is pretty much in line with climate model predictions from decades ago, the rise in extreme weather events is exceeding the predictions.’”

It’s no surprise that we are seeing increased extremes. Humanity is thickening the blanket of heat-trapping gases around the planet. In just the last 15 years, the amount of heat being added to atmosphere and oceans has doubled, scientists recently found. The last seven years have been the hottest on record. 2020 is tied with 2016 as the absolutely most sweltering. These also may be the coolest years in the rest of our lives.

Thus, in a warmer atmosphere that holds more water, China’s Henan Province is hit by floods laying down 25 inches in 24 hours. One hour clocking at nearly eight inches set a national record. In Zhengzhou, a city about the size of the L.A. metro area, the rainfall total grew to 31 inches over three days.

Meanwhile, fires race across Siberia and North America. Mark Parrington with the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service told Axios, "In the more than 10 years that I've been monitoring wildfires in the boreal forests, I can't recall a period where there was such widespread wildfire activity in both North America and Russia simultaneously.”

Unfortunately, what we are seeing is only a taste of what is to come if humanity continues on its current trajectory. Off-the-charts heatwaves such as the one that recently hit Cascadia will scorch the planet more often.

“Recent climate extremes have broken long-standing records by large margins . . . Here, we show models project not only more intense extremes but also events that break previous records by much larger margins,” scientists recently found. “These record-shattering extremes, nearly impossible in the absence of warming, are likely to occur in the coming decades . . . their probability of occurrence depends on warming rate, rather than global warming level . . . “

In other words, it’s not just how much we heat the planet - It’s how fast we do it. Carbon Brief has an explainer.

On the other end, deluges and floods are projected to intensify. The kind of storms that recently landed two months of rain on Germany in 24 hours, rare before, are projected to increase 14 times over the coming century.

It’s time to amp up climate action to levels we have not seen before. Humanity faces “untold suffering” if we don’t, says a new study endorsed by 14,000 scientists, reiterating a 2019 call that we are in a climate emergency. The planetary report card finds situations worsening in related aspects as well such as Amazon rainforest destruction and ocean acidification.

We have reached zero hour.

“How many years do we have to act? Strictly speaking, zero – which is to say, that we must act, in earnest, now,” Mann says. “We have a decade within which we must halve global carbon emissions. As I argue in The New Climate Warthis requires dramatic systemic change: no new fossil fuel infrastructure, massive subsidies for renewables, carbon pricing and deploying other policy tools to accelerate the clean energy transition already under way.”

Says NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus, “We have zero years before climate and ecological breakdown, because it’s already here. We have zero years left to procrastinate. The longer we wait to act, the worse the floods, fires, droughts, famines and heatwaves will get.”

The need is people power. Getting in the way of business as usual. Organizing for action at all levels, from elections and lobbying, to street protest and nonviolent direct action. That combination showed its force just the other day when Whatcom County in Washington state became the first county in the U.S. to ban all new fossil fuel infrastructure. Currently the site of oil refineries, people power activism shoved back plans for a massive coal export terminal. Now that victory is firmed with a revision in land use ordinances that forbids new fossil shipping and processing facilities, and guarantees environmental review for any additions at existing refineries.

The indigenous are in the forefront. In Washington, the Lummi Tribe was crucial in the victories. In northern Minnesota, tribes and their allies are fighting Line 3, an expanded tar sands pipeline threatening their lands and waters. Indigenous leader Winona LaDuke, who recently spent three days in jail for opposing the pipeline, talked about the resistance on Democracy Now.

To not act, to not do all we can to stop the onrushing climate catastrophe, is in the end, to be complicit in mass murder. A new study finds that 4,434 metric tons of carbon dioxide released in 2020 will be responsible for one death by 2100. Over the century, climate impacts such as floods, famines, disease and heatstroke caused by that amount of CO2 will kill on average one person. Over the course of their lifetimes, that amount of CO2 will be released by 3.5 average residents of the U.S. - 3.5 of our lives taking another over the next 80 years, probably in a poor country or neighborhood. Many millions of lives are at stake. We are all hurtling toward ever deeper catastrophe and death. No one can stop this machine on their own. It’s going to take a whole lot of us acting, and now.

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