It’s Been a ‘Summer of Disasters,’ and It’s Only Half Over
“We’re naming summer ‘Danger Season’ in the U.S.,” wrote Kristy Dahl, the principal climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, in early June. A couple of days later, at Axios, the climate reporter Andrew Freedman echoed that warning: “America is staring down a summer of disasters.”
The season is now only half over, and the worst months for California fires, which typically provide the most harrowing images of the summer, still lie ahead. But the calendar has already been stuffed with climate disruption, so much so that one disaster often seemed layered over the last, with newspaper front pages almost identical across the Northern Hemisphere. In July, Carbon Brief’s Simon Evans began compiling them on Twitter, running out of steam when he got past 100. Climate segments of newscasts cut quickly from one part of the world to another, telling almost identical stories, day after day.
And yet the mood of those newscasts — in which warming is shown clearly to be blanketing the world, country by country — has mixed horror with a reluctant acceptance. Climate change is here, you think, your mind perhaps drifting past what can be done to limit future warming and toward what can be done to manage living in that future. The disruptions are large already, and arriving as prophesied — indeed, often earlier than predicted. They’ve also been normalized enough that, alongside the shock, they raise practical questions.
The term for this is “adaptation,” and the wallpaper texture of the climate news cycle this summer — with once-horrifying impacts now seeming commonplace — suggests that efforts to acclimate to new realities are following quite quickly on the footsteps of alarm.
Each summer now is also a prelude. This year on Planet Earth, more than 100 million Americans were under extreme heat advisories that seemed almost unexceptional given the punishing temperatures across Europe, where multiple distinct heat waves have each set records, and in China, where residents found protective shade in underground fallout shelters and demand for air-conditioning threatened the electricity grid nationwide.
One year after temperatures so extreme that climate scientists worried about the calibrations of their models, a heat dome settled over the Pacific Northwest again, with Seattle recording six straight days above 90 degrees for the first time and Portland, Oregon, experiencing seven above 95, also for the first time.
This year’s most conspicuous heat episode began in the late spring, when more than a billion people in South Asia endured several months of almost uninterrupted temperatures above 100 degrees. Then came the monsoon rains, and the floods with them, affecting, as Inside Climate News tabulated, “more than 7.2 million people in Bangladesh, submerged over 2,000 villages in India and caused more than 300 deaths in Pakistan.” In a single province of Pakistan, Balochistan, 9,000 homes were washed away. The survivors navigated the floodwaters by rope.
There has been lethal flooding in Uganda. In Iran, floods and landslides have left dozens dead and dozens more missing. In Spain and Portugal, where fires tore through the peninsula in July, the recent heat killed nearly 2,000 people. In Britain, where off-the-charts temperatures shattered records kept nearly as far back as William Shakespeare’s time, perhaps 1,000 people died, and so many fires broke out in London that firefighters had their busiest day since World War II.
Britain also offered two of the most memorable media moments of the summer. In the first, a buoyant television presenter pushed a meteorologist to look on the bright side of the deadly heat. In the second, real weather seemed to match a worst-case climate scenario for 2050 put together just a couple of years before. But what was perhaps most remarkable about the contrast of those forecasts — the warning, set for 2050, and the real one, this year — was that the same thing had happened a few weeks earlier in France, when a separate heat wave matched forecasts climate scientists had mocked up just a few years before, as a sort of worst-case future for France in 2050. This year, in the midst of an energy crisis, France was forced to power down nuclear power plants, a carbon-free energy source, because the local rivers got too warm to use to cool the reactors. Water was poured on the pavement just ahead of bikers in the Tour de France to ensure the asphalt didn’t melt. The bikers themselves soldiered on.
In the United States, the most memorable images of weather disaster so far this summer have probably come from heartland flooding events. In the Midwest, where extreme precipitation events have grown by 42 percent, some neighborhoods were flooded last week by seven feet of water and firefighters had to rescue children from their homes. In St. Louis, which got two months’ worth of rain in the space of six hours, families swam to safety out their front doors. The same weather system delivered another deluge, considerably more deadly, to eastern Kentucky. Both were considered once-in-a-thousand-year events; overnight into Wednesday, another thousand-year storm hit Illinois.
The death toll in Kentucky was officially 37 as of Tuesday, though state officials expect the total will grow. The youngest identified victim was just two. With officials still boating through floodwaters trawling for victims, the region now faces a wave of extreme heat and the possibility of power outages.
“I wish I could tell you why we keep getting hit here in Kentucky,” Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, said. “I wish I could tell you why areas where people may not have much continue to get hit and lose everything,” he went on. “I can’t give you the why, but I know what we do in response to it. And the answer is everything we can.”
It used to be, when the scariest climate impacts were more common in models than on television screens, that climate advocates sometimes found themselves wondering what scale of disaster might shake the world from its basic complacency.
Then, when large disasters did strike — Hurricane Katrina, for instance, or Hurricane Sandy, or the Camp Fire — without much altering the shape of public concern, they sometimes wondered if it would take a string of disasters.
The intervals between such events are now shorter than ever. The world is finally moving to decarbonize, but haltingly, and too slowly to offer real protection from warming. “Some 35 million homes, almost one-third of the nation’s housing stock, are at high risk for disasters,” The Times recently reported. And of course climate vulnerability is greatest in the poorest parts of the world, where residents are least responsible for the perturbation of the climate and least equipped to protect themselves from the ravages of warming.
“Done right, adaptation efforts can soften the blow to billions of lives,” E. Lisa F. Schipper, an environmental social science research fellow at Oxford, wrote recently. “Done wrong, they can lead to maladaptation, wasting time and money while leaving people just as vulnerable as before, or even more so.” She cites a handful of cautionary tales: a sea wall in Kiribati that merely redirected erosion, for instance, and levees in Bangladesh that perversely encouraged more development in vulnerable areas and led ultimately to more death along the Jamuna River floodplain.
Over the very long term, the story of adaptation to natural disasters is an optimistic, even heroic one — a fraction as many people today die from such events as did a century or two ago. Most of that history did not include meaningful climate change, however, and those trends have been much flatter over recent decades, as the impacts of warming have come into play. We have only in the last decade passed beyond the range of temperatures that encloses all of human history and begun a new kind of experiment, testing our global capacity not just to lessen the impacts of perennial disasters but of disruptions of a much larger scale.
Even as policymakers have made great progress with some interventions and early warning systems, mistakes and miscalculations are not at all unusual. The $14 billion levees built in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, for instance, were not even designed to withstand a Category 5 storm, and may not offer “adequate” protection as soon as next year. Last October, the journal Nature published an article assessing global adaptation efforts. Its top-line finding? “Documented adaptations were largely fragmented, local and incremental, with limited evidence of transformational adaptation and negligible evidence of risk reduction outcomes.”
In moving as slowly on decarbonization as we are, globally, the bet we are making is that adaptation can catch up — and keep up, as the risks mount. We may tell ourselves that adaptation is what we will do to fill in the gap between the pace of transition that is necessary and the pace that is possible. But adaptation, though critical, is not a cure-all — at least as we’re doing it so far.
David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”