Climate Change and the Intensification of Extreme Weather

aus floods

There are tentative comments from those working on climate science that partially attribute the causes of the recent Australian floods to climate change. Mathew England, a scientist working at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, was guarded in his remarks to Reuter’s climate change correspondent David Fogarty, but the import of his message was clear – although the ‘direct’ cause of the floods was a combination of tropical cyclone Tasha with La Niña conditions the intensification of flooding arose from the wider correlation of cyclone, La Niña conditions, and climate change.

Considered in isolation these pose strong threats, but in their combined force they pose the more ominous threat of a persistent pattern of extremity in weather patterns. The cautiousness exhibited by climate sciences in the face of these situations is significant. England’s comments do not suggest that climate change is the direct cause of the floods, but we can infer from his comments that the abundance of extreme weather conditions in recent years belies a cause, and that this cause is climate change.

It is the not that we have extreme weather that is startling, since there has always been extreme weather, but that such weather is becoming so frequent. The frequency itself could constitute intensification, but the fact that each extreme weather manifestation is so frequently intense constitutes a double intensification.

Although authorities were quick, as they often are in these situations, to declare the area affected by the flooding a disaster zone we may be entering a phase where the frequency of such events warrants that we cease considering these events as isolated disasters and begin to see them as connected on a broader scale.

This is, as is well known, the core message that environmentalists, ecologists, and green advocates have been making in one way or another for quite some time. There is a disconnect all the same on this score because when it comes to the financial costs incurred in these events that is exactly how we approach them – contingency plans and funds included. In financial matters the assumption of the vulnerability of interconnected assets is the rule.

In the world of the market ecological thinking is de rigueur albeit misdirected. It is estimated that the disaster could cost upwards of $13 billion dollars and the markets reacted quickly with the Australian dollar down heavily. Considering that conservative estimates predict that the flooding will continue for weeks the market will remain depressed. All this pales, of course, in comparison to the human cost.

The floods have lead to mass evacuations, and even when the time comes to return the rebuilding process will take months to complete. It is not just property that has been lost or damaged, but lives have been lost and countless lives have been damaged. It is a disaster on a massive scale, but is it perhaps time to stop thinking about extreme weather in terms of these isolated manifestations? A recent predictive report from Nature Geoscience suggests that, based on the best science we have, climate change may well continue until the year 3000 at best if, and keep in mind the hesitancy here, we manage to set in motion a coordinated response to climate change.

The remarkable conclusion we can draw from this study, which operates in one scenario under the assumption that we might emit zero emissions, is that much of the forthcoming damage from our emissions thus far cannot be stopped – are irreversible. This is a dark conclusion, but it is by no means surprising. Taking the lesson that certain drastic climate events are a foregone conclusion we are left in a much more striking dilemma – just what is left for us to prevent and how does one identify the line between preventable, irreversible, and all manner of blurred lines in between?

Here I would like to take a positive line rather than profess more doom and gloom: given that in certain instances humans have irreversibly damaged the planet and altered the climate it is equally true that numerous events remain preventable. So long as such events can be prevented the ethical imperative to address the connection between frequent extreme weather and climate change remains in place and I suspect that our first task is indelibly mark the connection as best we can.

This leads inexorably to the tragedy that is our combined political response to environmental disaster. It is clear that a general acquaintance with climate change does not have the desired effect in driving governments to make green decisions, and that the ‘future’ nature of climate change means that the man on the street is always able to shrug their shoulders and ignore it – for the time being. What extreme weather is teaching us is that this is likely to change in coming years, and we need to be firm in getting the message of the connection across. 

Read more on Celsias:

The Weather of the Future

Climate Conflict

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2 comments

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Tim Morton (anonymous)

Yes--calling these events disasters turns them into discrete anomalies in our imaginations. Good argument.

Written in January 2011

I also think the word disaster implies that it can be contained - all disasters can be corralled in the end or so the logic of diaster goes. I think we need to see all this in a more open-ended, perhaps even hermeneutic, manner as a series of events opening into one another - perhaps what you call a hyper-object in your work.

Written in January 2011

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  • Posted on Jan. 17, 2011. Listed in:

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