Unprecedented environmental disasters are no longer confined by geographical boundaries, with the summer’s wave of calamities across the U.S. serving as a stark example. The Golden State, known for its perennial drought and wildfires, was recently hit by a tropical storm, while the East Coast grappled with pollution from smoke drifting in from far-off fires, an issue typically associated with the West. Even Hawaii, with its lush native vegetation, wasn’t immune to this trend, as fires ravaged the island of Maui. These unexpected events underscore the reality of climate change, which is introducing new types of disasters to regions unaccustomed to them and imposing a double burden on communities still recovering from previous catastrophes.
Andrew Kruczkiewicz, a senior staff associate at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, emphasizes the escalating magnitude and socioeconomic impact of these disasters. Human activity, particularly the emission of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, is the primary driver of extreme weather patterns across the globe, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As these gases trap heat on our planet, temperatures are rising both on land and at sea, leading to larger storms and drier landscapes prone to fires. These changes in weather patterns and their implications are not only reshaping our understanding of climate change but also forcing us to confront new public health risks.
Climate Change: The Unprecedented Global Disaster
Climate change is no longer a distant threat, but a looming reality. Unexpected catastrophes are sweeping across the United States, turning what is usually predictable into the unknown. California, known for its droughts and wildfires, recently experienced tropical storm Hilary. The East Coast, familiar with hurricanes, is now grappling with pollution due to smoke from distant wildfires. Hawaii’s verdant landscapes, usually resistant to fire, have also been engulfed in flames. Climate change is ushering in new disasters across the globe, creating an escalating crisis for communities still recovering from previous calamities.
New Calamities, New Challenges
Andrew Kruczkiewicz, a senior staff associate at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia Climate School, observes a surge in the severity and socioeconomic impact of disasters. He notes an increase in unprecedented disasters and instances where different types of disasters intersect. Human activities, specifically greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, are the main drivers behind these increasingly extreme weather events, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
A Warmer World: The New Normal
As greenhouse gases trap heat on our planet, temperatures are rising both on land and at sea. This rise in temperature is fueling bigger storms, as hurricanes draw their energy from heat. This is why Hurricane Hilary escalated into a Category 4 storm over the Pacific and maintained tropical storm strength over Baja California and Southern California. On the other end of the spectrum, the hotter climate is drying up landscapes, priming forests and grasslands for potential wildfires. Prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke has become a new public health risk to large areas of the US.
The Ripple Effect of Environmental Disasters
Environmental disasters don’t occur in isolation. They exacerbate previous harms and create a cascade of problems. This is evident in Maui, where the transformation of the landscape due to US colonialism and Big Agriculture has set the stage for wildfires. Invasive grasses, which have taken over fallow fields, pose new fire risks that are heightened by climate change-induced droughts. Besides, the systemic marginalization of certain communities often leaves them bearing the brunt of these disasters.
Compound Events: A New Reality
As wildfires and hurricanes encroach on new territories, they often intersect and exacerbate each other. This phenomenon, referred to as a "compound event" in climate science, often takes a higher toll than the sum of its individual parts. Gonzalo Pita, an associate research scientist at John Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, says: "Before you’re able to fully recover, then you are hit again. So the effect of that string of events is worse because you’re living in that framework of a multi-hazard possibility."
Despite the grim reality, there is hope. By slashing greenhouse gas emissions, we can prevent these disasters from escalating further. However, with communities already facing multiple and new hazards, it’s time to prepare for the unexpected. Proactivity at all levels of administration – county, state, and federal – is crucial.
The severity and frequency of these unexpected disasters underline the urgency of addressing climate change. It is clear that no corner of the world is immune to its effects. A proactive, comprehensive approach that includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for compound events is needed. The risks are real, and the need to act is immediate.