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Extremes Are Now Normal

CONNIE HEDEGAARD
EU Commissioner for Climate Action

It has been another summer full of reports of extreme weather events of unparalleled scope and severity. Among the highlights: one of the warmest years on record in the US,; record-high temperatures in Central and Eastern Europe; the wettest summer in the UK; the heaviest rainfall in Northern India and the Philippines; and some of the most severe droughts in the US and East Africa.

In short, climate change and weather extremes are not about a distant future. What used to be one-off extreme weather episodes seem now to be becoming the new normal. Indeed, weather extremes are not that extreme any more. Heat-waves, floods, droughts and wildfires are the new reality of an ever warming world.

This should not come as a surprise. Scientists have been warning for years that as the planet heats up, we will have to deal with more severe, more changeable, more unpredictable weather.

The evidence in mounting that human-caused climate change is pushing normal warming effects to extremes. Heat-waves have increased in duration and frequency. Some parts of Europe are now gripped by severe water shortages while others have suffered extreme precipitations causing floods and increased crop losses.

Although not every extreme weather event can be attributed to climate change, scientists are now much more confident about some of them. Take last year's record warm November in the UK, the second hottest on record. Researchers say that it was at least 60 times more likely to have happened because of climate change than from natural variations in the earth's weather systems. This last summer fitted the general pattern, and scientists confirm that similarly hot summers will occur much more frequently in the years ahead.

The National Snow and Ice Data Centre released new data this autumn which confirmed that the extent of Arctic sea ice had reached a record low since satellite measurement began in 1979. More satellite data in July showed that about 97 per cent of the massive ice sheet surface covering Greenland was melting, provoking a NASA scientist to ask: "Was this real or was it due to a data error?" Unfortunately, the data were correct.

All this record-breaking news reveals that global climate breakdown is occurring more rapidly than most climate scientists had expected. Climate change is happening, and it exacerbates a whole range of other global problems, adding further instability to an already unstable world

But, some may ask, isn't it too costly to invest in a low-carbon world? Well, yes it costs. But so does business as usual. It would be wrong to believe that to continue as we are doing is the cheap option. It is not. On the contrary, it is very expensive. To take just one example: the World Bank issued a global hunger warning earlier this month after severe droughts in the US, Russia and the Ukraine sent food prices to a record high. It pointed out that prices for maize and sorghum had increased by 113 per cent and 200 per cent respectively in some markets in Mozambique and in Sudan! This is the kind of cost that often gets ignored.

Businesses don't need to be told about the financial losses caused by weather extremes. This summer's drought in the US devastated the multibillion-dollar corn and soybean crops. US insurers may face as much as $20 billion losses this year, their biggest in agriculture. This is not exactly helping fight the economic crisis.

It is simply incredible what big risks some people are prepared to take on behalf of future generations. Despite the facts and evidence in front of us, there are still many interests advocating doing nothing or continuing with business as usual - or just forgetting the climate crisis until we have solved the economic crisis.

While some regard the current financial turmoil as a bitter setback for international climate protection, I see intelligent climate action as a driver of new opportunities for jobs in Europe, for investments in energy-efficiency technologies, for boosting innovation and competitiveness, and for lowering energy bills.

To me, tackling the climate crisis helps, not damages, our economic security and prosperity. Both crises are interlinked and must be tackled together.

The gathering of ministers and negotiators from all over the world in Qatar for the UN climate conference faces a crucial moment to advance the international fight against climate change. We can't afford inaction. Three years ago, at the Copenhagen climate summit, leaders pledged to keep below the crucial 2°C threshold for increased temperatures. Now the time has come to show they mean it.