A Humanitarian Crisis Called Climate Change

The year 2010 may be remembered as the year the world felt the effects of climate change as never before. From historic fires in Russia to devastating floods in Pakistan, last year sometimes seemed like one long chain of extreme weather events that affected millions of people. The world’s most authoritative centers of climate research have recently confirmed 2010 was also one of the three warmest years on record, effectively tying with 2005 for the top spot (according to NASA , the temperature differences between these two years are small enough to be statistically insignificant).

As the world warms we are seeing more and more of the type of extreme weather predicted to become more frequent with climate change. Unfortunately 2011 is already racking up its own list of such disasters, with huge humanitarian implications. Extreme weather has caused tragic loss of life in both rich and poor countries, but as usual is hitting developing nations the hardest. This should be a warning to all those concerned about human welfare and equity. Climate change is the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time, and swift action to reduce consumption of fossil fuels is needed to protect the world’s poor.

Less than a month into 2011, we have already seen record-breaking floods in at least three countries: Australia, Brazil, and now Sri Lanka. The Australian floods have drawn the most media attention, and as reported earlier on Justmeans they have been linked by scientists to effects of climate change like unusually warm waters in the Indian Ocean. Similarly, Brazil has been drowning in fast floods apparently triggered by abnormally warm water in the Atlantic. Initial reports indicate the floods have killed more than 500 people in Brazil, with many others missing.

Both Brazil and Australia recently recovered from long droughts only to be deluged by floodwaters. This is exactly the type of weather pattern scientists have long said will become more common in a warming world, as rains in some areas become less frequent but more serious when they do hit. Yet these aren’t the only two parts of the world being affected; as if what we’ve seen so far isn’t enough humanitarian tragedy for one month, now Sri Lanka has been hit by flooding as well. The waters have left 350,000 people homeless and are causing a food crisis predicted to affect around a million people. Cultivated crops and livestock have been swept away by the worst flood in recent Sri Lankan history.

If climate change once seemed like a far off, academic concept with little relevance to daily life, it now could hardly be more real. Already the floods of 2011 have caused emergencies for hundreds of vulnerable communities, and it will require an international response to repair as much of the damage as possible. However the grim reality is unless major economies shift decisively to a renewable energy future, the frequency of extreme weather events will only increase even further. Perhaps the only thing more important than short-term relief for affected communities is a long-term commitment to reduce the burning of fossil fuels and eliminate the causes of climate change.

Photo credit: Amantha Perera