The climate crisis is not slow and gradual but unpredictable and catastrophic

Climate disasters are dangerously becoming a new normal. We must embolden our leaders to take the global action needed to avert climate catastrophe, say Rana Orhan, Tara Chen, and John Middleton

As yesterday’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed, “human induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.” In the past month alone, we have witnessed sudden, catastrophic visitations of the climate crisis. Nearly 500 people in British Columbia lost their lives to the Canadian heat dome and associated ongoing wildfires. More than 9.3 million people were affected by floods in China, which was also facing Typhoon In-Fa. Siberian wildfires are raging due to climate change thawing the Arctic tundra. The floods in the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion (Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands) caused billions of damage to infrastructure and housing, and social workers and psychologists stand ready to help victims and those who have been bereaved (with over 200 deaths reported).

These disasters are a deadly warning, coming immediately after the experience of UK heat waves in the summer of 2020 (we know that more than 2500 deaths were linked to these 2020 heat waves in the UK). These numbers do not give us any insight into the tremendous loss of nature and wildlife that extreme heat and rainfall have triggered. The ecological devastation is thought to have impacted more than a billion marine intertidal animals. Yet dramatic environmental stressors affect all species to some degree depending on their exposure to heat, physiology, and their vulnerability. 

These catastrophic events are dangerously becoming a new normal. Climate change feedback loops create a vicious cycle that leads to even more climate change. One emergency room doctor in Canada has advised other doctors to start treating wildfire season like cold and flu season and to prescribe inhalers ahead of time. These are necessary and local service responses, but they are a band aid for a broken leg.      

In the UK, we are already experiencing disruptive climate change. Last week, Sir David King, a former UK chief scientific adviser, launched the new Climate Crisis Advisory Group, a planned Independent SAGE for climate change. They have called for actions across the board to prevent and reduce the UK’s carbon emissions and for investment in the science and technology of mitigation. Yet so far the UK government, floundering and unprepared for a pandemic, shows no capacity or inclination to protect its people from the equally deadly unnatural disaster of climate breakdown. It is a similar picture on the global stage. Some governments have announced commitments to reverse the damage caused by climate events, but these same governments often continue to support industries whose activities directly or indirectly lead to these events happening in the first place (see, for example, the recent subsidies the Netherlands granted to Shell). 

Governments must act now and protect planetary health by mitigating the climate breakdown. Campaigns such as the United Nations’ Race to Zero and Act Now are rallying calls to collective and individual action, but national and global actions are still tokenistic and inadequate to address the root cause of the problem. It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the planet: the IPCC report shows we are the main driver of the retreat of glaciers, the warming of the global upper ocean, the increase of the global sea level, changes in land biosphere, and more consequences of climate change.

In July 2021, the European Commission adopted a set of proposals to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. These reductions will be vital if Europe is to become the world’s first climate neutral continent by 2050 and achive the European Green Deal. International pronouncements like this, and the G7 Carbis Bay declaration, are necessary templates and universal calls to action. However, they remain paper commitments and the public is hungry for more action.

Climate literacy is increasing in all levels and in all parts of the world. In a global survey by the United Nations Development Programme, 1.2 million respondents ranked the most needed climate actions as: conservation of forests and land (54% public support); solar, wind, and renewable power (53%); climate friendly farming techniques (52%); and investment in green businesses and jobs (50%).

Authorities need to implement climate adaptation strategies more rapidly, but they also need to take the people with them. The covid-19 pandemic has shown how trust is essential: where politicians have gained public buy-in and confidence in their governance, better outcomes have been apparent. Climate change is no different and our actions will need to be both global and local. Individual action can drive mitigation policies towards a healthier climate. More importantly though, populations must embolden their politicians to take the major action required nationally and internationally. Just last week prime minister Boris Johnson signalled new oil and gas drilling off Shetland could not be stopped. Yet this is exactly the action we must see from global leaders and that the public must make clear we want: fossil fuels have to be left in the ground if we are to survive.  

The pandemic has shown how many western, technologically advanced countries were unprepared for the crisis, operating in one dimension to the threat, incapable of appreciating multifaceted problems, and failing to coordinate international consensus and action. They were often governing in populist mode, second guessing what the people would accept and consent to in social restrictions, rather than what was needed to successfully mitigate the harms of a deadly pandemic. The pandemic has further widened economic and social inequalities and limited many people’s access to basic needs. Yet the climate crisis will make these inequalities even worse, and form complex interactions with migration, conflicts, crop failure, loss of  biodiversity, and the risks of new pandemics.  

The covid-19 pandemic has found our political leaders wanting, indecisive, unprepared, and largely incapable of the international action that is necessary against a single global threat. Confronted with the multiple and unpredictable collisions of disasters that climate change will bring, how will they fare? We need political leadership to overcome the paralysis and inertia of the “rabbits in the headlights” approach that has characterised most countries’ response to climate change so far. When will our leaders rise to the challenge and take the global action needed to avert climate catastrophe?   

Rana Orhan, fellow, Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region (ASPHER). Twitter @R0rhan

Tara Chen, ASPHER Young Professionals Programme. Twitter @TaraTChen

John Middleton, president. Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region. @doctorblooz

Competing interests: none declared.