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Climate Change Left Its Fingerprint On The Most Extreme Disasters in 2017

The science is progressing to the point where ignoring it could cause legal problems

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Climate change
A Feb. 11, 2017, aerial photo released by the California Department of Water Resources shows a damaged spillway with an eroded hillside in Oroville, California. VOA

Drought in the United States and East Africa. Floods in Peru and Bangladesh. Heatwaves in Europe and China. Even unusual cloudiness in Japan. Climate change left its fingerprints on some of the biggest climate extremes of 2017, according to a new assessment.

The report highlights how a changing climate has real-life implications for the professionals who have to deal with the consequences. Case in point: water managers faced with record-breaking rainfall that overwhelmed a faltering dam in California.

“This is not a problem for the future. It’s a problem for today,” said Penn State University climate scientist David Titley, who was not involved with the research.

Seventeen studies from 10 countries make up the report, which the American Meteorological Society has been publishing annually since 2011.

They tease apart the factors that led to each extreme event and estimate the extent to which climate change contributed.

Drought, Climate Change
In this July 26, 2017, photo, soybeans grow in a farm field near Indianola, Iowa. Drought conditions are getting worse in several states, and extreme heat and weeks with little rain have begun to stress corn, soybeans, wheat and livestock. VOA

For example, drought parched the U.S. Northern Great Plains in the summer of 2017, drying up farms and ranches, sparking wildfires and racking up more than $2 billion in damage.

The study found that climate change did not affect the amount of rain that fell over the region.

However, higher temperatures brought on by global warming meant that soil dried out quicker. That means a drought of this severity is 1.5 times more likely than it would have been without climate change, the report said.

The report was released at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. It comes as U.N. climate negotiators are meeting in Poland.

At that meeting, U.S., Russian and Saudi negotiators aimed to downplay a dire report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the impacts of global warming.

The new study’s findings confirm what the IPCC first predicted nearly 30 years ago, said study editor Martin Hoerling, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Climate Change, hurricane michael, Storms
In this photograph released by the Sri Lankan Air Force media division on May 29, 2017, flooding is seen in the country’s Matara district. VOA

According to the group’s first report, the impacts seen today are “the type of change in weather and climate that we would experience if we continued on a trajectory of increasing carbon dioxide,” Hoerling said. “We have certainly done so, and the consequences are unfolding.”

In Oroville, California, last February, the consequences of climate change provided a case study in the challenges of managing critical infrastructure in the face of a changing climate.

A series of torrential rains overfilled the lake behind the Oroville Dam. Because of a damaged spillway, overflowing water threatened to destroy the dam. Nearly 200,000 people downstream were evacuated.

The reservoir was already full when the storm that nearly broke the dam hit. One major reason, the report notes, was the unusual warmth at the end of the previous year. Storms that would normally have fallen as snow instead fell as rain.

Other California dams handled the deluge without incident, however, noted study co-author and hydrologist Julie Vano at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. It was the combination of climate change-driven extreme weather and the damaged spillway that made Oroville a near-disaster.

Fire, CLimate Change, California
Firefighters battle a wildfire as it threatens to jump a street near Oroville, California. VOA

“With aging infrastructure and more development happening in places where there’s risk exposure, we really need to think about how we manage our systems,” she said.

The science is progressing to the point where ignoring it could cause legal problems, according to attorney Lindene Patton with the Earth & Water Law Group.

Drought in the United States and East Africa. Floods in Peru and Bangladesh. Heatwaves in Europe and China. Even unusual cloudiness in Japan.

For example, she said, take the owner of a hypothetical chemical plant located near a river.

Engineers typically design safety features based on historical rainfall patterns. “If your calculations are done assuming 1970s rainfall events,” Patton said, “then your design would not be prepared for today’s climate.”

Also Read: As Climate Talks Come to a Halt, Africa Suffers From Global Warming

When climate science can show that rainfall patterns have changed, she added, “if you don’t use that different set of rainfall tables and a chemical release occurs, then you may find a claim is made against you.” (VOA)

Next Story

Students Worldwide Skip School to Protest Government’s Failure against Global Warming

They're angry at their elders, and they're not taking it sitting down

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global warming, climate change
Students from different institutions hold placards and banners as they participate in a climate protest in New Delhi, India, March 15, 2019. VOA

They’re angry at their elders, and they’re not taking it sitting down.

Students worldwide are skipping class Friday to take to the streets to protest their governments’ failure to take sufficient action against global warming.

The coordinated “school strikes,” being held from the South Pacific to the edge of the Arctic Circle, were inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who began holding solitary demonstrations outside the Swedish parliament last year.

Since then, the weekly protests have snowballed from a handful of cities to hundreds, driven by social media-savvy students and dramatic headlines about the impact of climate change.

climate change, global warming
Students attend a protest ralley of the “Friday For Future Movement” in Berlin, Germany, March 15, 2019. VOA

Thunberg, who was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, was cheered for her blunt message to leaders at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland this year, when she told them: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.”

Friday’s rallies are expected to be one of the biggest international actions yet. Protests were under way or planned in cities in more than 100 countries, including Hong Kong; New Delhi; Wellington, New Zealand; and Oulo, Finland.

In Berlin some 10,000 protesters, most of them young students, gathered in a downtown square, waving signs with slogans such as “There is no planet B” and “Climate Protection Report Card: F” before a march through the capital’s government quarter. The march was to end with a demonstration outside Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office.

Organizer Carla Reemtsma, a 20-year-old university student, said social media had been key in reaching people directly to coordinate the massive protests in so many different locations, noting that she was in 50 WhatsApp groups and fielding some 30,000 messages a day.

“It’s really important that people are getting together all over the world, because it’s affecting us all,” she said.

Critics, supporters

Some politicians have criticized the students, suggesting they should be spending their time in school, not on the streets.

“One can’t expect children and young people to see all of the global connections, what’s technically reasonable and economically possible,” said the head of Germany’s pro-business Free Democratic Party, Christian Lindner. “That’s a matter for professionals.”

climate change, global warming
Students hold signs during a rally for global climate strike for future in Seoul, South Korea, March 15, 2019. VOA

But scientists have backed the protests, with thousands signing petitions in support of the students in Britain, Finland and Germany.

“We are the professionals and we’re saying the young generation is right,” said Volker Quaschning, a professor of engineering at Berlin’s University of Applied Sciences.

“We should be incredibly grateful and appreciative of their bravery,” said Quaschning, one of more than 23,000 German-speaking scientists to sign a letter of support this week. “Because in a sense, it’s incredibly brave not to go to school for once.”

Scientists have warned for decades that current levels of greenhouse gas emissions are unsustainable, so far with little effect. In 2015, world leaders agreed in Paris to a goal of keeping the Earth’s global temperature rise by the end of the century well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

Yet at present, the world is on track for an increase of 4 degrees Celsius, which experts say would have far-reaching consequences for life on the planet.

“As a doctor, I can say it makes a big difference whether you’ve got a fever of 41 degrees Celsius (105.8 Fahrenheit) or 43 C (109.4 F),” said Eckart von Hirschhausen, a German scientist who signed the call supporting striking students. “One of those is compatible with life, the other isn’t.”

Other action

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have publicly welcomed the student protests, even as their policies have been criticized as too limited by environmental activists.

In France, activist groups launched legal action this week for failing to do enough to fight climate change, citing a similar successful effort in the Netherlands.

climate change, global warming
Hundreds of schoolchildren take part in a climate protest in Hong Kong, March 15, 2019. VOA

In Germany, environmental groups and experts have attacked government plans to continue using coal and natural gas for decades to come. Activists say that countries like Germany should fully “decarbonize” by 2040, giving less-advanced nations a bit more time to wean themselves off fossil fuels while still meeting the Paris goal globally.

Other changes needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions include ramping up renewable energy production, reining in over-consumption culture now spreading beyond the industrialized West and changing diets, experts say.

“The fight against climate change is going to be uncomfortable, in parts, and we need to have a society-wide discussion about this,” said Quaschning.

ALSO READ: The Flamboyant Plastic Waste Boat Reminds The Global Policy-Makers The Urgency To Address Impact Of Plastics on The World’s Marine Environment

That conversation is likely to get louder, with several U.S. presidential hopefuls planning to campaign on climate change.

Luisa Neubauer, one of the Berlin group organizing Fridays for Future, said politicians should take note of the young.

“For the European elections in May, we’re urging everyone to think about whether they want to give their vote to a party that doesn’t have a plan for the future and the climate,” she said. (VOA)