February 24, 2021
When last week’s winter storm descended upon the southern United States, few were prepared. Freezing temperatures and a blanket of snow covered a region that is ill-equipped to handle either. The crippling cold left millions in the state of Texas without power, as electricity equipment and natural gas wells froze in the icy weather. In the days that followed, things only got worse. Burst pipes flooded homes across the state and a compromised water supply left many residents without safe drinking water. As of this week, millions remain under a boil order. The return of milder weather has brought some hope, but Texans are no doubt shaken as they grapple with the repercussions from the storm. Was this a once in a lifetime occurrence or could it be a sign of darker days ahead?
Unfortunately, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests extreme weather events will become more frequent. Scientists fear these events are a direct consequence of climate change. For Texas, the unprecedented storm resulted from a weakened jet stream. Normally, the jet stream traps cold air deep in the northern hemisphere, but researchers speculate a warming Arctic is weakening the jet stream. This allows for freezing air to make its way much further south, plunging the region in uncharacteristic cold.
Elsewhere the effects of climate change have played out much differently. Just earlier this month, an avalanche occurred in the Himalayans, flooding the lower ground with icy water and debris. Over fifty people have died and nearly 150 more are still missing. The area has experienced decades of higher-than average temperatures and while scientists cannot yet say for sure, they worry the warming weather may have caused the avalanche. Climate change is also the likely suspect in last year’s wildfires across Australia and the western United States. Quite possibly climate change is to blame for many of the severe droughts, hailstorms, hurricanes, and tsunamis that have crippled places around the world over the past decade.
We should heed the warning. Each extreme weather event is a tell-tale sign of troubling times ahead and unfortunately these are occurring more often. In the United States alone, 2020 brought a record-breaking number of billion-dollar climate disasters. A total of 22 of these extreme weather events were recorded in 2020. That is a significant increase from the previous record high of 16 reached in 2011 and 2017. Even more telling is the fact that in a 40-year period, most of the recorded climate disasters occurred in the last 20 years. Between 1980 and 2020, the years with 10 or more billion-dollar weather disasters include 1998, 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2015-2020.
Clearly, we need to make some drastic changes. Up first should be tackling the emissions crisis. We need to cut emissions in all sectors, reaching net-zero emissions as swiftly as possible. This will require a concerted effort. We will need to pair our best technological advancements in low to zero emissions fuels with the newest carbon removal techniques. In doing so, we will outright reduce emissions where feasible, while drawing carbon out of the air in places where it is harder to make cuts.
Such changes often seem overwhelming but in reality, many can be made on an individual level. Taking public transportation, driving an electric vehicle or replacing failing appliances with energy-efficient models are just a few ways in which one person can make a difference. On a larger scale, we need to put more pressure on businesses to become sustainable. We can avoid businesses that refuse to act sustainably and support those that choose to be green. Finally, we will need governments to foster these changes. They can incentivize companies to become more environmentally friendly and impose fines on businesses that are unwilling to cooperate. In the end, climate catastrophes need to be our wake-up call to find more sustainable ways to live. If not, what will be?
Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Overview | National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) by CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE, BRAD PLUMER AND HIROKO TABUCHI
Texas Blackouts Point to Coast-to-Coast Crises Waiting to Happen – The New York Times by NIHA MASIH AND CHRIS MOONEY
Deadly floods in India point to a looming climate emergency in the Himalayas – The Washington Post