A new report by Christian Aid, Counting the cost 2020: a year of climate breakdown identifies 15 of the most destructive climate disasters of the year.
Ten of those events cost $1.5 billion or more, with nine of them causing damage worth at least $5 billion. Most of these estimates are based only on insured losses, meaning the true financial costs are likely to be higher.
Among them is Storm Ciara which struck the UK, Ireland and other European countries in February costing $2.7 billion and killing 14. The UK’s Environment Agency issued 251 flood warnings.
While the report focuses on financial costs, which are usually higher in richer countries because they have more valuable property, some extreme weather events in 2020 were devastating in poorer countries, even though the price tag was lower. South Sudan, for example, experienced one of its worst floods on record, which killed 138 people and destroyed the year’s crops.
Some of the disasters hit fast, like Cyclone Amphan, which struck the Bay of Bengal in May and caused losses valued at $13 billion in just a few days. Other events unfolded over months, like floods in China and India, which had an estimated cost of $32 billion and $10 billion respectively.
Six of the ten most costly events took place in Asia, five of them associated with an unusually rainy monsoon. And in Africa, huge locust swarms ravaged crops and vegetation across several countries, causing damages estimated at $8.5 billion. The outbreak has been linked to wet conditions brought about by unusual rains fuelled by climate change.
But the impact of extreme weather was felt all over the world. In Europe, two extra-tropical cyclones, Ciara and Alex, had a combined cost of almost $6 billion. And the US suffered from both a record-breaking hurricane season and a record-breaking fire season adding up to more than $60 billion in damages.
Some less populated places also suffered the consequences of a warming world. In Siberia, a heat wave during the first half of the year set a record in the city of Verkhoyansk, with temperatures reaching 38°C. A few months later, on the other side of the world, heat and drought drove the fires in Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. While there were no human casualties reported from these events, the destruction of these areas has a great impact on biodiversity and the planet’s capacity to respond to a warmer world.
While climate change may have influenced all these events, many of the countries that bear little responsibility for global warming were affected. This includes Nicaragua, which was hit by hurricane Iota, the strongest storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, and the Philippines, where typhoons Goni and Vamco made landfall almost back-to-back.
These extreme events highlight the need for urgent climate action. The Paris Agreement, which set the goal of keeping temperature rise “well below” 2°C, and ideally 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels, has just turned five years old. It is critical that countries commit to bold new targets ahead of the next climate conference, which will take place in Glasgow, in November 2021.
Christian Aid’s climate policy lead and report author Kat Kramer, said “climate breakdown” had compounded the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in vulnerable regions.
“The good news is that, like the vaccine for COVID-19, we do know how to fix the climate crisis,” she said. “We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, boost clean energy investment and help those who are suffering on the frontline.”
Why are the weather events so severe?
Simply put, changes in the global climate exacerbate climate hazards and amplify the risk of extreme weather disasters. Increases of air and water temperatures lead to rising sea levels, supercharged storms and higher wind speeds, more intense and prolonged droughts and wildfire seasons, heavier precipitation and flooding. The evidence is overwhelming and the results devastating:
The number of climate-related disasters has tripled in the last 30 years.
Between 2006 and 2016, the rate of global sea-level rise was 2.5 times faster than it was for almost all of the 20th century.
More than 20 million people a year are forced from their homes by climate change.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that adapting to climate change and coping with damages will cost developing countries $140-300 billion per year by 2030.
Worldwide, more than 220 climate- and weather-related disasters hurt more than 70 million people and caused more than $69 billion in damage. Over 7,500 people were killed, according to preliminary figures from the international disaster database kept at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.
Of the disasters the group tracks, including earthquakes, volcanoes and landslides, 85% to 90% are climate and weather related, said Director Debarati Guha-Sapir.
Unlike the United States, which saw a rare break in 2020 from increasing non-hurricane flooding, worldwide “floods is your biggest problem,” Guha-Sapir said. “It’s a huge mistake to underestimate floods.”
Floods killed more than 1,900 people in India in June and affected 17 million people, according to the center’s data. Other flooding and associated landslides in Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and again in India killed at least another 1,250 people. African floods killed nearly 600 people. And flooding along Y angtze River and the Three Gorges Dam in China killed at least 279 people in the summer and caused economic losses of more than $15 billion, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
Hue, Vietnam had a record 103 inches (261 centimeters) of rain in October, according to the WMO.
Extremes, including heat waves and droughts, hit all over the world. Siberia reached a record 100 degrees (38 degrees Celsius) as much of the Arctic was 9 degrees (5 degrees Celsius) warmer than average and had an exceptionally bad wildfire season. Arctic sea ice shrank to the second lowest level on record and set a few monthly records for melt.
Death Valley saw the warmest temperature recorded, 129.9 degrees (54.4 degrees Celsius), on Earth in at least 80 years.
The pace of disasters is noticeably increasing, said disaster experts and climate scientists. The international database in Belgium calculated that from 1980 to 1999, the world had 4,212 disasters affecting 3.25 billion people and costing $1.63 trillion, adjusted for inflation. From 2000 to 2019 those figures jumped to 7,348 disasters, 4.03 billion people affected and $2.97 trillion in damage.
“Disasters are very much becoming a chronic condition in this country,” said Riggen, who has noticed the change since 2006 when he joined the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina.
Climate change figures in the growth of disasters, especially wildfires worsened by drought and heat, said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann.
“I didn’t expect to see a season with 30 named storms in my lifetime,” Mann said, noting that hurricanes were fueled by a natural La Nina cooling of parts of the central Pacific combined with human-caused warming of water temperatures.
National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Ed Rappaport said: “It was an exhausting year.”
Climate danger spike
Although better recording and reporting of disasters may help explain some of the increase in the last two decades, researchers insisted that the significant rise in climate-related emergencies was the main reason for the spike, with floods accounting for more than 40 per cent of disasters affecting 1.65 billion people storms 28 per cent, earthquakes (eight per cent) and extreme temperatures (six per cent).
“This is clear evidence that in a world where the global average temperature in 2019 was 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period, the impacts are being felt in the increased frequency of extreme weather events including heatwaves, droughts, flooding, winter storms, hurricanes and wildfires,” UNDRR reported .
Despite the pledge made by the international community in Paris in 2015 to reduce global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, Ms. Mizutori added that it was “baffling” that nations were continuing knowingly “to sow the seeds of our own destruction, despite the science and evidence that we are turning our only home into an uninhabitable hell for millions of people”
The disproportionate impact on the world’s poorest people
Extreme weather disasters affect all countries, rich and poor. But as we face a future with enhanced risks, it is critical to face the reality of those who bear the burden of our changing climate. For Oxfam, this is an issue of justice: those living in poverty are the hardest hit by climate change despite being the least responsible for the crisis.
Climate change is forcing people from their homes, bringing poverty on top of poverty and increasing hunger. People in poorer countries are at least four times more likely to be displaced by extreme weather than people in rich countries.
The world faces a race against time to reduce emissions and help the most vulnerable cope with climate impacts that are already being faced today and will escalate in the years ahead. It’s time to act now.