Yesterday's projections, today's impacts
The New Year has got me thinking about time, and specifically how we think and talk about climate impacts. I've been working on adaptation for 12 years now, since 2007, which is starting to feel like a very long time ago! In 2007, Apple launched the first iPhone, COP13 was in Bali, Bournemouth were relegated to League 2, and I started working on Adaptation, at SEI Oxford. My early work was focused on developing weADAPT as a knowledge-sharing platform, and providing technical assistance in the ACCCA programme, in particular around the use of climate projections. And as part of this work sometimes I'd come across climate scenarios for the 2020.
And now here we are; iPhone X, COP24 in Katowice, Bournemouth comfortably mid-table in the Premier League, and 2020 heading rapidly into view. We have a tendency to think about climate change in the future tense; asking how will precipitation change over the next 20 years? or how should I design this building to withstand future flood risk?. But here we are, and those climate projections for 2020? That's next year. We're living in their future, and it's abundantly clear that climate impacts are here, are real, and are happening faster than we expected.
Climate change made the devastating California wildfires bigger and more intense than they would have been, Cape Town's severe drought was three times more likely because of climate change,it was directly responsible for around 500 of the 735 deaths in Paris in the 2003 European heatwave, and the list goes on. Attribution science is now able to tell us, in near real-time, how the likelihood of different events has changed as a result of increased emissions. We talk about climate change as if it's a question of how bad it will be in 2050 – what's the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C? how much land will be lost to sea-level rise? – rather than something people face on a daily basis. This matters - people are bad at time. If we discount the issue to the future it makes it a lot easier to carry on business as usual. If the message is climate change 'will be bad' in 2050, rather than 'people are suffering now and by the way it is already costing billions of dollars' then it's much easier to ignore.
I think awareness is growing. 2018 was full of extremes, and there's a growing recognition that what's happening now isn't normal. So in 2019 let's be clear, we're suffering the effects now, and it's going to be a rough ride no matter how fast we manage the transition to a low-carbon economy.