Climate change is hitting the rich

Days before Europe was hit by floods, a European weather agency issued a warning

Shahid Javed Burki July 26, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

There seems to be some justice in the way nature is hitting back at those most responsible for causing climate change. Global warming and its many consequences are seriously affecting the industrial West that burnt fossil fuels to fire its industrialisation. The United States, Britain and Germany were among the countries that burnt coal and oil to provide the energy industrial growth needed in the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries. In the debate leading up to the signing of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, the developing world argued that it should not be punished for the mistakes made by the rich. They pleaded for the West to pay a significant part of the price that was now being exacted to control the emission of greenhouse gases. Their campaign went mostly unheeded but then nature struck.

Days before Europe was hit by floods, a European weather agency issued a warning based on detailed weather models. It was predicted that Germany and some of the neighbouring countries will see river surges not seen in 500 or even 1,000 years. Floods in Germany will have political consequences. The country is holding national elections on September 26, 2021, when the long-serving Chancellor, Angela Markel, will step down and a new chancellor would take her place. The contest is between the conservatives and the Green Party. Armin Laschet is the conservative leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, the state that was hit the hardest by the floods. The German emergency response system relies heavily on local governments since their leaders are supposed to be better informed about local conditions.

“I say this as a German: the idea that you could possibly die from weather is completely alien,” said Friederike Otto, a physicist at Oxford University, who studies the links between extreme weather and climate change. “There’s not even a realisation that adaptation is something we have to do right now. We have to save lives.” That is not the way nature was supposed to punish mankind for the irresponsible ways in which it had gone about interfering with natural forces. “Some of Europe’s richest countries lay in disarray this weekend as raging rivers burst through their banks in Germany and Belgium, submerging towns, slamming parked cars against trees and leaving Europeans shellshocked at the intensity of the destruction,” wrote Somini Sengupta on July 18, in her coverage for The New York Times of the crisis in Europe caused by weather events. Unprecedented rains caused the floods which took 170 lives — the death toll was likely to increase as scores of people are still missing.

Sengupta continued her news analysis by recounting what had happened in other parts of the rich world. “Only days before in the northwestern United States, a region famed for its cool, foggy weather, hundreds had died of heat. In Canada, wildfire had burned a village off the map. And this weekend the northern Rocky Mountains were bracing for yet another heat wave, as wildfires spread across 12 states in the American West.”

The human tragedies occurring in these parts of the rich world underscored two essential truths about science and history: the world was neither prepared to slow down climate change, nor live with it. The US was the most at fault. Donald Trump, its former president, had done a great deal of damage to the country’s climate-related policies. He not only took his country out of the Paris Accord, but also reversed several policies Barack Obama, his immediate predecessor, had adopted. At one point Trump called “climate change” a Chinese hoax thought of by the leadership in Beijing to slow down economic growth in the West.

The events in Europe, Canada, and western US were anticipated by scientists. A detailed statement issued by experts in 2018 warned that a failure to keep the average global temperature from rising past 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with the start of the industrial age could bring about catastrophic results from the inundation of coastal cities to crop failures in various parts of the world. The vulnerability of small island nations to global climate change was highlighted in a statement issued by Mohmed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, an island state at great risk from the expected rise of sea level because of global warming. “While not all are affected, the tragic events in Europe are a reminder that in the climate emergency, no one is safe, whether they live in a small island nation like mine or a developed Western European nation.” The former president spoke on behalf of a group of countries that call themselves as belonging to the Climate Vulnerable Forum.

“Extreme weather events in developing countries often cause great death and destruction — but these are seen as our responsibility, not something made worse by more than a hundred years of greenhouse gases emitted by industrialised countries,” said Ulka Kelkar, the climate director at the India office of the World Resources Institute. These intensifying disasters now striking the richer countries she said, show that developing countries seeking the world’s help to fight climate change “have not been crying wolf”.

Scientists had been warning about events such as unprecedented rains in Europe and the floods it caused and the drought and wildfires in the western parts of North America. Several years ago, the World Bank looked at the developing situation in the countries that have rivers originating in the Himalayas. It concluded that the flow of water would be severely affected as the rate at which the glaciers melt picks up speed. Also, heavier rains would become the norm since warmer air holds more moisture. For every 1 degree Celsius of warming, air can hold 7% more moisture.

Among the world’s large economies, the European Union introduced the most ambitious long-term plan to deal with the climate crisis. It proposed laws to ban the sale of gas and diesel cars by 2035, required most industries to pay for the emissions they produce. Most important, the proposal included a ban on imports from countries with less stringent climate policies. The last element in the European plan would affect the quantum of imports from the developing world including countries such as Pakistan.

The EU’s action plan was expected to meet considerable opposition from within the community of European nations as well as from the businesses that could be affected by the carbon tax. This programme as well as the one being developed by the Biden administration in Washington will be tested at the climate global summit that will be held in Glasgow. Science does not provide much comfort. Although it is still a subject of debate, there are studies that suggest, according to one review, that “rapid warming in the Arctic is affecting the jet stream by deducing the temperature difference between northern and southern parts of the Northern Hemisphere. One effect during summer and fall is that the high-altitude globe-circling air current is weakening and slowing down. The combination of more moisture and a stalled storm system can lead to extra-heavy rains over a given area.” In Pakistan we can expect warmer and considerably wetter summers.


Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2021.

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