The images of climate change seem straight out of a Hollywood science fiction movie: Raging wildfires that eat a football field per second. Floods that wipe away whole towns. Skies so heavy with air pollution that children wear masks to step outside.
Except that it’s all true — and some of the images come directly from my own life. Last October, when the Tick Fire erupted in Los Angeles, I watched as ash drifted past my back deck. The air smelled like burning chaparral tinged with something more chemical – charred plastic, from our homes, cars, and whatever else the Tick Fire had engulfed. My son’s preschool, which takes place outdoors, was cancelled due to poor air quality, not for the first time. And it likely won’t be the last: California experienced the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in its history in 2017 and 2018, and it’s getting worse. Analysing environmental data from the last 30 years, scientists predict that over the next two decades, as many as 11 U.S. states are predicted to see the average annual area burned increase by 500 percent.
How did we get here? Via progress, ironically. For every marvel industrialised life has given us — the ability to mass-produce clothing; to fly from Australia to India in a day; to get shampoo mailed to our house in 24 hours — it has exacted a cruel price. The world is now one degree warmer than it was pre-industrialisation. One degree may sound incremental, but the results are potentially catastrophic. Sea levels are rising, the temperature and acidity of the oceans is increasing, and our ability to grow life-sustaining crops such as wheat, rice and corn is compromised. Globally, we are on track to raise the temperature at least two more degrees by the end of this century, and that’s only the best-case scenario if we follow the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep the rise “well below 2°C” while “pursuing efforts to limit [it] to 1.5°C.”
If those predictions seem abstract, extreme weather events — floods, fires and heat waves, to name but a few — are devastatingly concrete, and here right now. According to UK scientists, wildfires around the world are on the rise due to carbon emissions and other planet-warming effects. Fires are now burning hotter, and coming at a faster rate. Australia’s bushfires, which have burned 10 million hectares and counting at the time of this writing, are a particularly heartbreaking example. Siberia, Southern Europe, Canada, and Scandinavia are also battling this new breed of mega-fire.
Other regions battle the opposite problem. Tropical cyclones, hurricanes, floods and other dramatic storms are on the uptick. According to a 2018 study, flood risk in Europe is increasing and a greater swath of people will be effected. Roughly estimated, 500,000 to 1 million European people are expected to be affected by flooding in the future climate. Flood-prone Asia may be hit the hardest, economically speaking, and they have already suffered: Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand are among 10 countries in the world most affected by climate change in the past 20 years, according to the environmental group Germanwatch.
As ever, less developed countries are generally more affected by climate change than industrialised countries. Heat waves gripped developed countries like Japan and Germany last summer, but they’re expected to become a critical problem in Africa. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, South Africa’s temperatures are rising at twice the global average. Research shows that only a few cities in Africa are dealing with extreme heat currently, but this is set to increase dramatically, particularly for southern, western and northern Africa. By 2050, many of the most at risk cities with large urban populations in poverty will be in West Africa, as well as Sudan and Egypt.
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