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How are climate change and climate risk related?

In recent years, climate change has become one of the most talked-about topics in the world. Everyone from scientists, global leaders, corporates are all talking about the risks associated with climate change. Most of the major economies of the world have now set, or are in the process of setting, goals to reduce their emissions, limit climate change and minimize these climate risks.

But what are these climate risks? How can they impact human society, and exactly how important it is to mitigate them?

What are climate risks?

Risk, in general, refers to the potential for adverse consequences for human or ecological systems. Climate risks refer to the result of dynamic interactions between climate-related hazards and the exposure and vulnerability of the affected human or ecological system to the hazards. Climate-related risks are created by a range of hazards. Some are slow in their onset (such as changes in temperature and precipitation leading to droughts, or agricultural losses), while others happen more suddenly (such as tropical storms and floods)

Climate risks are often grouped into two categories: physical and transition risks

  • Physical risks are the risks associated with the physical effects of climate change. Physical risks resulting from climate change can be event-driven (acute) or longer-term shifts (chronic) in climate patterns. Acute physical risks refer to those that are event-driven, for example, cyclones, hurricanes, or floods while chronic physical risks refer to longer-term shifts in climate patterns (e.g., sustained higher temperatures) that may cause sea level rise or chronic heat waves.
  • Transition risks are the risks associated with the transition to a low-carbon economy. They may include social or market risk that may result from extensive policy, legal, technology, and market changes to address mitigation and adaptation requirements related to climate change.

Impact of Climate Change

As awareness about climate risk has increased, a lot of people (including former USA president Donald Trump) have started asking the question regarding the severity of climate risk. The former US president has constantly made statements, saying “Climate change is a hoax; false propaganda spread by China and other countries to stop US growth”

To be fair, the earth’s climate has changed throughout history. It is a natural phenomenon. So why is it significant now? Is climate change a real risk? And how significant are they? Well to answer these questions let us take a look at a few of the recent trends.

Currently, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is a whole-time high resulting in unprecedented global warming. The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit (1.18 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, with the seven most recent years being the warmest. The years 2016 and 2020 are tied for the warmest year on record. Recently we witnessed a massive heatwave in North America, causing hundreds of deaths, and almost destroying the marine ecosystem along the Canadian pacific coast. We are also witnessing an increased frequency of wildfires, cyclones, storms, etc. These various extreme weather conditions and phenomena together could result in mass extinction. A few of the climate risks that are caused due to unsustainable human activities and are already causing large huge loss of life, as well as money, are:

  • Shrinking Ice cover: The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost an average of 279 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2019, while Antarctica lost about 148 billion tons of ice per year. Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska, and Africa. Shrinking ice cover acts as a positive feedback mechanism, and increases the rate of global warming due to the reduced albedo effect.
  • Rise of Sea level: as per NOAA, the global sea level rose about 8 inches (20 cm) in the last century. The rate in the last two decades, however, is nearly double that of the last century and accelerating slightly every year. From 2018 to 2019, the global sea level rose 0.24 inches (6mm) and is projected to rise another 1 to 8 feet by 2100. The rising sea level has left billions of people at risk as they live in low-altitude areas, which are at risk of being permanently submerged.
  • Warming up of oceans: The Ocean absorbs most of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions, leading to rising ocean temperatures. Unlike life on the surface, life inside water is highly sensitive to temperature change. Even a change of 1-2°C can destroy over half of the marine ecosystem.
  • Increase in risk of wildfire: According to a study done by the scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA), Met Office Hadley Centre, University of Exeter, and Imperial College London, There is a link between climate change and increased frequency or severity of fire weather — periods with a high fire risk due to a combination of high temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall, and often high winds. Fire weather seasons have lengthened across approximately 25 percent of the Earth’s vegetated surface, resulting in about a 20 percent increase in the global mean length of the fire weather season
  • Extreme heatwaves: The number of record high-temperature events in the world has been increasing. Most recently we witnessed a record heatwave in Canada. The temperature there reached 49.6°C and caused over 300 deaths in one week period. Also, more than 1 million marine animals along Canada’s Pacific coast are likely to have died from this heatwave.
  • Change in Rain cycle: Global warming has caused an increase in the rate of evaporation worldwide. More evaporation is causing more precipitation. Higher evaporation and precipitation rates are not evenly distributed around the world. Some areas may experience heavier than normal precipitation, and other areas may become prone to droughts. We are already seeing the impacts of higher evaporation and precipitation rates in the form of flash floods and extended droughts. These impacts are expected to increase over this century as the climate warms.

Fight against Climate Change

We are at the brink of a climate crisis, but the important thing to remember is that we are still away from the tipping point. We haven’t lost our planet yet, we can still mitigate the climate impact, but we need to act today. Because if we do not wake up today, and take drastic measures towards sustainability, we will cross that tipping point soon.

We have already caused a 1°C rise in average global temperature, and a 20cm rise in sea level, but as per many scientific predictions, if we can keep that rise below 1.5°C, and reach net zero by 2050, we still have the chance. Luckily, all the major economies have joined the fight against climate change. UNDP has set up 17 Sustainable development Goals to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. If we all start acting sensibly, then and only then can we win this fight.

  • Physical risks are the risks associated with the physical effects of climate change. Physical risks resulting from climate change can be event-driven (acute) or longer-term shifts (chronic) in climate patterns. Acute physical risks refer to those that are event-driven, for example; cyclones, hurricanes, or floods while chronic physical risks refer to longer-term shifts in climate patterns (e.g., sustained higher temperatures) that may cause sea level rise or chronic heat waves.
  • Transition risks are the risks associated with the transition to a low-carbon economy. They may include social or market risk that may result due to extensive policy, legal, technology, and market changes to address mitigation and adaptation requirements related to climate change.