The past eight years have been the eight hottest on record. This year is on track to be the hottest year in recorded history, and Tuesday last week might have been the hottest day in the past 125,000 years.
Climate change is ravaging the planet. Floods, droughts, extreme weather disturbances and wild fires are causing unprecedented damage. If governments throughout the world do not take bold, immediate and united action, the quality of life that we are leaving our children and future generations is very much in question.
In the short term, more melting of the Arctic ice caps, rising sea levels and increased flooding can be expected. There will be more drought and a decrease in food production. Major damage will be caused by intense storms, tornadoes and other extreme weather disturbances. There will be a decline in economic activity and the migration of millions of people as a result of water shortages. There will be a major disruption in all forms of marine life as a result of warming sea water and the acidification of the oceans.
The past few weeks have provided a glimpse of what this dystopian future could look like. The unprecedented forest fires in Quebec, preceded by massive fires in Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Alberta, have resulted in dangerously unhealthy air all across the US.
New York, Washington, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and other cities have reported some of their worst air quality levels ever, as people with chronic illness have been forced to remain indoors. During this same period, Texas has experienced a record-breaking heat wave. In Corpus Christi, the heat index, a measure of temperature combined with humidity, reached 51.7°C — close to the level at which humans are unable to survive.
As a result of long-standing drought, six western states that rely on water from the Colorado River have recently agreed to dramatically cut their water use. That river, which provides water for 40 million people and a US$5 trillion-a-year agricultural industry, is drying up.
The state of Arizona recently restricted home-building in the Phoenix area due to a lack of groundwater, based on projections showing that wells would run dry under existing conditions.
Needless to say, climate change is not just a US issue. Despite the frightening impact of climate change on the US, highly populated Asian countries are facing even worse challenges.
Sea levels on China’s coastline have hit their highest on record for the second year in a row, rising more quickly than the global average. China’s coastal areas are home to approximately 45 percent of the country’s population of about 1.4 billion people, and contribute to more than half of its economic output. Major cities such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Shenzhen are all located along the coast and could face catastrophic flooding in years to come, creating havoc with the entire Chinese economy.
Last year, India experienced a searing heat wave, during which parts of the country reached more than 49°C. It also experienced its hottest April in 122 years and its hottest March on record. It experienced extreme weather on 242 of of 273 days between January and October last year.
Long-term projections indicate that Indian heat waves could cross the survivability limit for a healthy human resting in the shade by 2050. The impact of these continued heat waves would not only result in more deaths and disease in India, but would increase poverty as a result of reduced economic output.
From June to October last year, heavy rainfall in Pakistan caused flooding and landslides at a rate nearly 10 times the national 30-year average.
The floods affected nearly 33 million people, damaged 1.78 million hectares of agricultural land and killed 800,000 farm animals. In the aftermath, rising food prices exacerbated already stressed levels of hunger and malnutrition in the country.
The number of people experiencing severe hunger has more than doubled since the floods hit in June last year: Today, 14.6 million people are experiencing severe hunger in Pakistan and its malnutrition rates are dire.
Climate change is taking a major human, economic and environmental toll in Europe, the fastest warming continent of the world. Last year was marked by extreme heat, drought and wildfires.
Based on country data submitted so far, it is estimated that at least 15 000 people died in Western Europe alone, specifically due to the heat last year. Among those, there were more than 4600 deaths in Spain, more than 1000 in Portugal, more than 3200 in the UK and about 4500 in Germany as a result of extreme heat.
As devastating as climate change has been for the US, Europe, China and other developed countries, its impact is even worse for the poorest countries on Earth that lack the resources to protect their inhabitants from the growing hunger, disease and migrations that droughts and floods are causing.
Here are a few examples as reported by the UN World Food Program: South Sudan’s temperatures are increasing at two-and-a-half times the global average. This has resulted in extreme weather events, including four consecutive years of flooding that have left half the country under water. The unprecedented flooding has swallowed large swathes of the country, while other parts are grappling with devastating drought.
Today, 64 percent of the country’s population (7.7 million people out of 12 million total) is experiencing severe hunger.
In February last year, Madagascar was hit with four tropical cyclones.
These storms destroyed infrastructure, decimated rice crops and left more than 270,000 people in urgent need of food. Today, nearly 2 million people in Madagascar are experiencing hunger and are in need of humanitarian assistance
In Somalia, there is no end in sight to the drought in that extremely poor country. Somalia has experienced five failed rainy seasons, drying up crops and killing livestock. This has resulted in 6.5 million people facing crisis levels of hunger.
It is no great secret that human beings are not particularly anxious to address painful realities — especially when it requires taking on powerful special interests such as the fossil fuel industry. This time we must.
Earth is warming rapidly. We see this every day in every part of the world.
Drought, floods, forest fires and extreme weather disturbances are increasing. We see this every day in every part of the world.
Hunger, disease and human migrations are increasing. We see this every day in every part of the world.
Instead of denying this obvious reality, instead of doing the bidding of oil and coal companies, instead of fomenting a new cold war with China, members of the US Congress must develop an unprecedented sense of urgency about this global crisis. We must bring the world together now to address this existential threat.
Failure to act would doom future generations to a very uncertain future. For the sake of our common humanity that cannot be allowed to happen.
Bernie Sanders is a US senator, and chairman of the US Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He represents the state of Vermont, and is the longest-serving independent in the history of the US Congress.
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