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Continued from Part One: U.S. Re-engagement in a Warming World.

Map of U.S. 2020 Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters
Source: National Centers for Environmental Information – NOAA

According to the NOAA National Climate Report 2020, issued on January 12, 2021, last year was the most active wildfire year on record across the West. In California, thousands of firefighters battled five of the six largest wildfires in our state’s history. Nearly 10,000 fires burned over 4.2 million acres. The August Complex fire alone burned over 1 million acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. In Colorado, three extensive wildfires, burning over 500,000 acres, also broke the state’s historical record.

For 2020, the average temperature of 54℉ (12.2℃) for the contiguous U.S. (CONUS) ranks as the fifth warmest year in the last 126 years on record. On August 16th, temperatures soared to 130℉ (54.4℃) in California’s Death Valley—the hottest CONUS temperature recorded in 2020. Most of the contiguous U.S. experienced above average temperatures. Ten states across the Southwest, Southeast, and East Coast had their second-warmest year on record.

East Coast residents also faced several record-breaking storm events. Thirty named storms formed in the Atlantic Ocean, breaking the record of 28 set in 2005. Tropical storms Cristobal, Marco, Laura, Delta, and Zeta made landfall in Louisiana, the most storms on record for any state in one year. Hurricane Laura generated a storm surge of over 17 feet (5.16 meters) above ground level, which would be the largest on record for Louisiana.

The Midwest was not spared. In August 2020, the region was hit by a historic derecho, a destructive thunderstorm complex. The derecho raced across the Central States, causing damages estimated at $11 billion, the costliest to hit the region in four decades.

Perhaps, like me, you have not yet experienced loss of property, livelihood, or a loved one due to some climate disaster. Yet, we the working people all suffer the consequences of the economic costs of these weather and climate disasters. America’s annual loss in 2020 exceeded $95 billion, the fourth highest cost on record. Twenty-two of these events caused losses amounting to more than $1 billion each, shattering yet another annual record of 16 events made in 2011 and 2017. The total cost of U.S. billion-dollar weather and climate disasters over the last five years (2016-2020) exceeds a record $600 billion.

Unless we change the way we live and work, these weather and climate disaster events will continue to intensify and cripple our state and local economies, already under stress due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. On the upside, the lockdown and reduced economic activities in the U.S. and worldwide have led to a drop in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But, it is just a short-term reduction.

At the time of completing their Emissions Gap Report 2020, released on December 9, 2020, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported that 126 countries, covering just 51 percent of global GHG emissions have net-zero goals that are formally adopted, announced, or under consideration. If the U.S. adopts a net-zero GHG target, as announced by the Biden Administration, the share would increase to 63 percent.

Apart from the USA, only ten other G20 members have set net-zero emission goals by 2050: Argentina, Canada, China (before 2060), European Union, France, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. Based on pre-COVID-19 projections, only nine G20 members are on track to achieve their unconditional nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

Without a firm commitment to significantly reduce GHG emissions, as set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, we the people of Earth will face a temperature increase of at least 3℃ (37.4℉) by the end of this century.

As at October 2020, global COVID-19 fiscal spending continued to promote high-carbon economic production. In planning the recovery from COVID-19, governments worldwide have an opportunity to catalyze low-carbon lifestyle changes by disrupting entrenched practices. (Clearing forests to rear cattle for beef consumption comes to mind.) Based on UNEP’s consumption-based accounting, around two-thirds of global emissions are linked to private household activities. Moreover, the richest One Percent of the world’s population account for more than twice the combined share of emissions of the poorest 50 percent. The report further notes that our participation as members of civil society is essential to bring about wider changes in the social, cultural, political, and economic systems in which we live. We have to change our lifestyles if we are to bridge the emissions gap. (Emphasis is mine.)

Watch the UNEP’s video, “Emissions Gap: A Turning Point,” released on December 9, 2020 (duration 1:35 minutes):

Change is inevitable. More so when we set the change into motion. In 2020, COVID-19 forced us into lockdown mode, bringing the global economy to a standstill. In the USA, our inability as a nation to agree on a strategy to combat a highly contagious, mutating, deadly foe will cost us more lives. Our economic recovery will take longer. Meanwhile, time is running out on tackling a global climate crisis that is gathering force with each passing day. Staying safe in place may not be an option.