The Asian Floods—Signs of Climate Catastrophes to Come?

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They haven’t gotten anywhere near the attention they deserve, but the floods that have struck much of Asia over the past couple of weeks may be the biggest humanitarian disaster in recent memory—bigger even than the earthquake that hit Haiti in January and the 2004 Asian tsunami. Both of those catastrophes killed far more, but the floods have affected 13 million people in Pakistan alone, and parts of India, China and North Korea have also suffered from the rains. The floods will destroy homes and business, wreck agriculture and destroy infrastructure, leave disease and disability in their wake. Flooding in China has already killed more than 1,100 people this year and caused tens of billions of dollars of damage. In shaky Pakistan, where the public has been enraged by the government’s typically fumbling response to the flood, it could even increase support for hard-line Islamic groups.

As governments and charities grapple with the extent of the floods, the question arises, as it does every time there is a major weather event like this one: was this disaster truly natural, or is it connected in some way to climate change? Now it’s important to remember that major floods have been happening in this part of the world since well before humans began worrying about the impacts of global warming. And the massive number of people affected by these floods—or for that matter, the sky-high death tolls of the Haiti quake and the Asian tsunami—have as much to do with the growing number of people living in high-risk areas like the coast, earthquake zones and flood plains as it does with the strength of a storm or a temblor. The Haiti quake killed as many as 300,000 people, but at a magnitude of 7.0, it was slightly weaker than the 1989 Bay Area temblor that killed 62 people—the difference was Haiti’s population density, poverty and complete lack of earthquake building codes.

Still, the unrelenting rains that have produced the Asian flood is the sort of extreme weather that is likely to become more common with climate change, as Alister Doyle points out for Reuters:

This year is on track to be the warmest since reliable temperature records began in the mid-19th century, beating 1998, mainly due to a build-up of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

“We will always have climate extremes. But it looks like climate change is exacerbating the intensity of the extremes,” said Omar Baddour, chief of climate data management applications at WMO headquarters in Geneva.

The reinsurer Munich Re reported last month that the first half of 2010 set a loss record for natural disasters; overall it estimates that the number of extreme weather events like windstorms and floods have tripled since 1980, and is expected to grow with warming.

That could be especially true for extreme flooding. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that warming is, on the whole, likely to increase intense rain and snowfall, leading to more catastrophic floods like the ones we’re seeing in Pakistan. Warmer temperatures will also mean that colder or high-elevation areas that once received most of their precipitation in snow will get more of it in rainfall—and if the people and the land are ill-equipped to deal with heavy rain, that shift can also lead to more floods as well.

In India, that’s exactly what appears to be happening to the Himalayan town of Leh, which has been inundated by flash floods that have killed more than 160 people. I’ve visited this remote and beautiful settlement twice: once for a holiday, and last year for a story on the impact of climate change on the Himalayas. There’s a saying about this Buddhist outpost, home to many refugees from nearby Tibet: “the passes are so high and the land is so barren, only a dear friend or a serious enemy will reach here.” A cold desert, it receives less than 5 in. of precipitation a year—most of it in snow—so when the area is hit by a sudden extreme storm, the nearby Indus River swells and swallows roads, villages and monasteries. When I visited Leh last years, town officials told me that it was snowing less and raining more—already a problem, given the area’s dependence on meltwater for irrigation. (The snowpack of the Sierra Nevada mountains, which helps feed California, is also dwindling.) Now Leh—already poor—will need to recover from a true catastrophe.

It’s all part of what Thomas Friedman has called “global weirding“—the weather gets strange and unpredictable, with the extremes getting more extreme. And unpredictability can kill—cities and countries are forced to deal with natural disasters on a scale they’ve never had to before, no longer able to look to the past for a reasonable expectation of what the future will be. We’ll need to get better at adapting to disasters—even poor countries can provide some protection, as Bangladesh has shown by fortifying itself against sea-level rise. But the heartbreaking Asian floods should be one more reminder of the need to put the world on a path to lower carbon emissions—before the weather reaches extremes that no one can handle.

Update: The science policy expert Roger A. Pielke, Jr. criticizes me on his blog for using the “suffering of brown people in places far away as poster children” for the political battle here over climate change policy, and notes that:

These people are not evidence about what might happen in the future — they are real people suffering today.  The heartbreaking Asian floods should be one more reminder that the world is full of vulnerabilities today and there are things that we can do today to make a difference.

As I wrote to him, my post notes first the impact today that poverty, lack of governance and lack of preparation have on the death tolls and destruction in a natural disaster—poverty kills, and turns what would might be a moderate quake in a rich nation into the death of 300,000 in Haiti. And that means that any carbon mitigation policy of course needs to take economic growth into account—carbon cuts that bankrupt the world, and especially the more vulnerable developing world, would do more harm than good. (It also means that it would be scandalous for rich nations to take climate adaption funds out of existing foreign aid—yet that’s exactly what may happen.) But that fact hardly seems to preclude the need to reduce carbon emissions over the long-term in order to reduce that disaster multiplier that climate change may bring. That’s the world is full of suffering today doesn’t mean we don’t have to plan for tomorrow.

Still, reducing carbon emissions tomorrow won’t help flood victims right now. That takes money—donating to relief groups like Oxfam International or Caritas India, which are already working on the ground now, would go a long way.