Sceptics argue that there have always been droughts and floods, freak weather, heatwaves and temperature extremes, but what concerns most climate scientists and observers is that the extreme weather events are occurring more frequently, their intensity is growing and the trends all suggest long-term change as greenhouse gases steadily build in the atmosphere.
Killer droughts and heatwaves, deeper snowfalls, more widespread floods, heavier rains, and temperature extremes are now the “new normal”, says Nikhil da Victoria Lobo of the giant insurance firm Swiss Re, which last month estimated losses from natural disasters have risen from about $25bn a year in the 1980s to $130bn a year today. “Globally, what we’re seeing is more volatility,” he says.
People in the most affected areas are certainly not waiting for climate scientists to confirm climate change is happening before they adapt. In Nepal, where the rain is heavier than before, flat roofs are giving way to pitched roofs, and villagers in the drought-prone Andes are building reservoirs and changing crops to survive.
New analysis of natural disasters in 140 countries shows that climate is becoming more extreme. Last month, Oxfam reported that while the number of “geo-physical” disasters – such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions – has remained more or less constant, those caused by flooding and storms have increased from around 133 a year in 1980s to more than 350 a year now.
“It is abundantly clear that weather-related disasters have been increasing in some of the world’s poorest countries and this increase cannot be explained fully by better ways of counting them,” says Steve Jennings, the report’s author. “Whichever way you look at the figures, there is a significant rise in the number of weather-related disasters. They have been increasing and are set to get worse as climate change further intensifies natural hazards.
“I think that global ‘weirding’ is the best way to describe what we’re seeing. We are used to certain conditions and there’s a lot going on these days that is not what we’re used to, that is outside our current frame of reference,” says climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University.