Biodiversity crisis is about to put humanity at risk, UN scientists to warn

‘We are in trouble if we don’t act,’ say experts, with up to 1m species at risk of annihilation

The world’s leading scientists will warn the planet’s life-support systems are approaching a danger zone for humanity when they release the results of the most comprehensive study of life on Earth ever undertaken.

Up to 1m species are at risk of annihilation, many within decades, according to a leaked draft of the global assessment report, which has been compiled over three years by the UN’s leading research body on nature.

The 1,800-page study will show people living today, as well as wildlife and future generations, are at risk unless urgent action is taken to reverse the loss of plants, insects and other creatures on which humanity depends for food, pollination, clean water and a stable climate.

The final wording of the summary for policymakers is being finalised in Paris by a gathering of experts and government representatives before the launch on Monday, but the overall message is already clear, according to Robert Watson, the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

“There is no question we are losing biodiversity at a truly unsustainable rate that will affect human wellbeing both for current and future generations,” he said. “We are in trouble if we don’t act, but there are a range of actions that can be taken to protect nature and meet human goals for health and development.”

The authors hope the first global assessment of biodiversity in almost 15 years will push the nature crisis into the global spotlight in the same way climate breakdown has surged up the political agenda since the 1.5C report last year by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Like its predecessor, the report is a compilation of reams of academic studies, in this case on subjects ranging from ocean plankton and subterranean bacteria to honey bees and Amazonian botany. Following previous findings on the decimation of wildlife, the overview of the state of the world’s nature is expected to provide evidence that the world is facing a sixth wave of extinction. Unlike the past five, this one is human-driven.

Mike Barrett, WWF’s executive director of conservation and science, said: “All of our ecosystems are in trouble. This is the most comprehensive report on the state of the environment. It irrefutably confirms that nature is in steep decline.”

Barrett said this posed an environmental emergency for humanity, which is threatened by a triple challenge of climate, nature and food production. “There is no time to despair,” he said. “We should be hopeful that we have a window of opportunity to do something about it over these two years.”

The report will sketch out possible future scenarios that will vary depending on the decisions taken by governments, businesses and individuals. The next year and a half is likely to be crucial because world leaders will agree rescue plans for nature and the climate at two big conferences at the end of 2020.

That is when China will host the UN framework convention on biodiversity gathering in Kunming, which will establish new 20-year targets to replace those agreed in Aichi, Japan, in 2010. Soon after, the UN framework convention on climate change will revise Paris agreement commitments at a meeting in either the UK, Italy, Belgium or Turkey.

Watson, a British professor who has headed both of the UN’s leading scientific panels, said the forthcoming report will delve more deeply than anything before into the causes of nature collapse, chief among which is the conversion of forests, wetlands and other wild landscapes into ploughed fields, dam reservoirs and concrete cities. Three-quarters of the world’s land surface has been severely altered, according to the leaked draft. Humanity is also decimating the living systems on which we depend by emitting carbon dioxide and spreading invasive species.

Watson said the authors have learned from attribution science, which has transformed the debate on the climate crisis by showing how much more likely hurricanes, droughts and floods have become as a result of global heating.

The goal is to persuade an audience beyond the usual green NGOs and government departments. “We need to appeal not just to environment ministers, but to those in charge of agriculture, transport and energy because they are the ones responsible for the drivers of biodiversity loss,” he said.

A focus will be to move away from protection of individual species and areas, and to look at systemic drivers of change, including consumption and trade.

The political environment is changing in some countries due to overwhelming scientific evidence and increasing public concern about the twin crises of nature and climate, which have prompted more than 1 million students to strike from school and led to street protests by Extinction Rebellion activists in more than a dozen countries.

The UK parliament declared a climate emergency this week and the government’s chief climate advisory body recommended an accelerated plan to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Until now, however, the nature crisis has been treated as far less of a priority. “Where are the headlines? Where are the emergency meetings?” asked the school strike founder, Greta Thunberg, in a recent tweet on the subject.

Extinction Rebellion activists said protests that blocked several London streets last month were as much aimed at the defence of nature as stabilising the climate. “They are two sides of the same destructive coin,” said Farhana Yamin, a coordinator of the movement who is also an environmental lawyer and formerly a lead author of the IPCC report.

“The work of IPBES is as crucial as the work done by the IPCC on the 1.5-degree report. That is why Extinction Rebellion is demanding an end [to] biodiversity loss and a net-zero phaseout by 2020. We can’t save humanity by only tackling climate change or only caring about biodiversity.”

How could a changing climate affect human fertility?

Human adaptation to climate change may include changes in fertility, according to a new study by an international group of researchers.

They found that, through its economic effects, climate change could have a substantial impact on fertility, as people decide how much time and money they devote to child-rearing, and whether to use those resources to have more children or invest more in the future of each child.

Their study, published today in Environmental Research Letters, examined the economic channels through which climate change could affect fertility, including sectoral reallocation, the gender wage gap, longevity, and child mortality.

They used a quantitative model that combined standard economic-demographic theory with existing estimate of the economic consequences of climate change. The model examined two example economies, Colombia and Switzerland. It focused on how the demographic impacts of climate change might differ across locations and between richer and poorer countries.

The team's model follows individuals through two stages of life, childhood and adulthood. In the model, parents must decide how to divide limited resources between supporting current family consumption, having children, and paying for each child's education. Children's future income depends on parental decisions.

Dr Gregory Casey, from Williams College, Massachusetts, USA, is the study's lead author. He said: "Increases in global temperature affect agricultural and non-agricultural sectors differently. Near the equator, where many poorer countries are, climate change has a larger negative effect on agriculture.

"This leads to scarcity of agricultural goods, higher agricultural prices and wages and ultimately, a labour reallocation. Because agriculture makes less use of skilled labour, our model showed that climate change decreases the return on acquiring skills, leading parents to invest fewer resources in the education of each child, and to increase fertility."

However, the researchers found these patterns reversed at higher latitudes.

Co-author Dr Soheil Shayegh, from Bocconi University, Milan, Italy, said: "Our model suggests climate change may worsen inequalities by reducing fertility and increasing education in richer northern countries, while increasing fertility and reducing education in tropical countries.

"This is particularly poignant, because those richer countries have disproportionately benefited from the natural resource use that has driven climate change."

Dr Casey added: "Our model only deals with a single economic channel, so it is not intended to give a complete quantitative account of the impact of climate change on demographic outcomes. Further work is needed on other economic channels, especially those related to health."

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Climate change erosion feeding deep ocean trash dump

There are growing concerns that increasing coastal and river-bank erosion is carrying millions of tonnes of long-buried rubbish into deep ocean canyons, where toxic waste and plastics will remain for decades. 

The warning comes after heavy flooding on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island washed part of a disused landfill into the ocean on March 26, scattering thousands of tonnes of plastic along 50km of normally pristine coastline. 

The once in a hundred years flood - which saw 1,000mm of rain fall in less than 48 hours - is believed to have swept thousands more tonnes of trash out to sea, depositing some of it into a 4km-deep underwater canyon off the coast.

"We know rubbish has ended up along a wide stretch of the coastline," Joshu Mountjoy, a marine geoscientist at New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, told Al Jazeera.

Flooding washed part of the disused Fox River landfill into the ocean [South Westland Coastal Cleanup/Facebook]

"It is likely that a component of the Fox River landfill waste will end up out of sight in the deep ocean by the same processes."

The floods prompted a large-scale beach clean-up [South Westland Coastal Cleanup/Facebook]

Marine litter is known to have a major impact on marine life. Plastics can be especially insidious as they break down to microplastics that can be ingested.

"Submarine canyons are exceptional environments for focusing marine life and can be badly impacted," said Mountjoy.

Along with plastics, toxic materials from the waste can also be incorporated into the food chain.

"Fish can absorb toxic substances in waste [and] store it in their bodies," Jeff Seadon, a Built Environment engineer at Auckland University of Technology, told Al Jazeera.

"These substances proceed up the food chain till humans eat the fish and we can absorb those chemicals, which can affect our health."

Global issue

As climate change results in more extreme weather events and sea level rise, there are fears similar flooding could see many more landfills around the world exposed in the same way.

Last month, the United Nations Environment Programme published a report looking into waste management practices in Small Island Developing States.

It identified coastal dumpsites and those close to rivers as a major issue.

"This is also applicable to many of the 11,000 other inhabited islands around the world and many mainland dumpsites," said Seadon.

"Given the opportunity, waste - including hazardous waste - that can poison marine life and affect humans, will wash into the sea," he said.

Of concern is hazardous waste coming from small-scale industrial processes such as leather tanning, electroplating of metals or photofinishing.

"Although they are often disposed of in small quantities, they can spread through landfills and contaminate large quantities of other waste," said Seadon.

Larger industries are also responsible, producing toxic waste including paint, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, detergents, batteries, print cartridges and electronics.

While modern facilities separate hazardous waste and can treat them to render them harmless, legacy landfills pose a much more significant environmental threat.

"They often have no way of keeping toxic leachate confined to the landfills. As a result, this can seep into surrounding soils, streams, lakes, underground aquifers and into the marine environment," said Seadon.

"This seepage can affect soil productivity, make the water unusable for humans, or kill marine life."

Deepsea trash dumps

Many deep ocean canyons around the globe are believed to be affected, including some of the planet's deepest.

A recent study of canyons in the Mediterranean Sea off Sicily found huge amounts of rubbish in water depths up to 1,000 metres, transported there by flash floods.

This included bottles, cups, toys, gutter pipes, garden hoses, car tyres, bricks, cement piles and foam padding.

"It shows what a huge problem erosion of municipal waste in big flood events can be," said Mountjoy.

"If anyone had any doubt that the rubbish we discard can end up way down in the deep ocean here is the proof," he added.

Once the rubbish is on the ocean floor it is believed to gradually sink to the deepest regions.

"The long-term fate of sediment entering large submarine canyons is the deep ocean floor hundreds of kilometres offshore and several kilometres deep," said Mountjoy.

It is here that the rubbish, including plastics, becomes a layer of sediment.

"The endgame for all plastic pollution in the world's oceans is sedimentation, either on a coastline or in the deep sea," Marcus Eriksen, director of research for the 5 Gyres Institute, told Al Jazeera.

"There will forever be a geological layer filled with microplastic that represents this time in human civilisation, circa 1950 to 2050," he said.

Action needed

While New Zealand's government is looking at what can be done to secure around 100 other old landfills it has identified as vulnerable, Mountjoy says "more needs to be done to understand how rubbish moves through the natural environment and where it is concentrated so we can gauge the impact it is having on marine life."

Stopping the rubbish at source is also suggested as a way of reducing the problem.

"If we do not make waste in the first place, then we do not need to deal with the consequences," said Seadon.

With the volume of new plastic expected to increase five-fold over the next 30 years, there are concerns that landfills will not be able to keep pace with the rubbish.

"Whether they are modern or not, [landfills] cannot absorb the volumes of trash expected to be created in the decades ahead. There is simply no place to put all that trash," said Eriksen.

Warming Arctic permafrost releasing large amounts of potent greenhouse gas

About one fourth of the Northern Hemisphere is covered in permafrost. Now, these permanently frozen beds of soil, rock, and sediment are actually not so permanent: They're thawing at an increasing rate.

Human-induced climate change is warming these lands, melting the ice, and loosening the soil. This may sound like any benign Spring thaw, but the floundering permafrost can cause severe damage: Forests are falling; roads are collapsing; and, in an ironic twist, the warmer soil is releasing even more greenhouse gases, which could exacerbate the effects of climate change.

From the first signs of thaw, scientists rushed to monitor emissions of the two most influential anthropogenic (human-generated) greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane). But until recently, the threat of the third largest (nitrous oxide) has largely been ignored.

In the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) most recent report (from 2010), the agency rates these emissions as "negligible." Perhaps because the gas is hard to measure, few studies counter this claim.

Now, a recent paper shows that nitrous oxide emissions from thawing Alaskan permafrost are about twelve times higher than previously assumed. "Much smaller increases in nitrous oxide would entail the same kind of climate change that a large plume of CO2 would cause" says Jordan Wilkerson, first author and graduate student in the lab of James G. Anderson, the Philip S. Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at Harvard.

Since nitrous oxide is about 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, this revelation could mean that the Arctic -- and our global climate -- are in more danger than we thought.

In August 2013, members of the Anderson lab (pre-Wilkerson) and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) traveled to the North Slope of Alaska. They brought along a plane just big enough for one (small) pilot.

Flying low, no higher than 50 meters above the ground, the plane collected data on four different greenhouse gases over about 310 square kilometers, an area 90 times larger than Central Park. Using the eddy-covariance technique -- which measures vertical windspeed and the concentration of trace gases in the atmosphere -- the team could determine whether more gas went up than down.

In this case, what goes up, does not always come down: Greenhouse gases rise into the atmosphere where they trap heat and warm the planet. And, nitrous oxide poses a second, special threat: Up in the stratosphere, sunlight and oxygen team up to convert the gas into nitrogen oxides, which eat at the ozone. According to the EPA, atmospheric levels of the gas are rising, and the molecules can stay in the atmosphere for up to 114 years.

In Alaska, Anderson's field team focused on carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor (a natural greenhouse gas). But, their little plane picked up nitrous oxide levels, too.

When Wilkerson joined the lab in 2013, the nitrous oxide data was still raw, untouched. So, he asked if he could analyze the numbers as a side-project. Sure, Anderson said, go right ahead. Both of them expected the data to confirm what everyone already seemed to know: Nitrous oxide is not a credible threat from permafrost.

Wilkerson ran the calculations. He checked his data. He sent it to Ronald Dobosy, the paper's second author, an Atmospheric Scientist and eddy-covariance expert at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) at NOAA. "I was skeptical that anything would come of it," Dobosy says.

After triple checks, Wilkerson had to admit: "This is widespread, pretty high emissions." In just one month, the plane recorded enough nitrous oxide to fulfill the expected cap for an entire year.

Still, the study only collected data on emissions during August. And, even though their plane covered more ground than any previous study, the data represents just 310 of the 14.5 million square kilometers in the Arctic, like using a Rhode Island-sized plot to represent the entire United States.

Even so, a few recent studies corroborate Wilkerson's findings. Other researchers have used chambers -- covered, pie plate-sized containers planted into tundra -- to monitor gas emissions over months and even years.

Other studies extract cylindrical "cores" from the permafrost. Back in a lab, the researchers warm the cores inside a controlled environment and measure how much gas the peat releases. The more they heated the soil, the more nitrous oxide leaked out.

Both chambers and cores cover even less ground (no more than 50 square meters) than Anderson's airborne system. But together, all three point to the same conclusion: Permafrost is emitting far more nitrous oxide than previously expected. "It makes those findings quite a bit more serious," Wilkerson says.

Wilkerson hopes this new data will inspire further research. "We don't know how much more it's going to increase," he says, "and we didn't know it was significant at all until this study came out."

Right now, eddy-covariance towers -- the same technology the Anderson crew used in their plane -- monitor both carbon dioxide and methane emissions across the Arctic. Anderson was the first to use airborne eddy-covariance to collect data on the region's nitrous oxide levels. And, apart from the small-scale but significant chamber and core studies, no one is watching for the most potent greenhouse gas.

Since the Arctic is warming at almost twice the rate of the rest of the planet, the permafrost is predicted to thaw at an ever-increasing rate. These warm temperatures could also bring more vegetation to the region. Since plants eat nitrogen, they could help decrease future nitrous oxide levels. But, to understand how plants might mitigate the risk, researchers need more data on the risk itself.

In his place, Wilkerson hopes researchers hurry up and collect this data, whether by plane, tower, chamber, or core. Or better yet, all four. "This needs to be taken more seriously than it is right now," he says.

The permafrost may be stuck in a perpetual climate change cycle: As the planet warms, permafrost melts, warming the planet, melting the frost, and on and on. To figure out how to slow the cycle, we first need to know just how bad the situation is.

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Arctic warming contributes to drought

When the Arctic warmed after the ice age 10,000 years ago, it created perfect conditions for drought.

According to new research led by a University of Wyoming scientist, similar changes could be in store today because a warming Arctic weakens the temperature difference between the tropics and the poles. This, in turn, results in less precipitation, weaker cyclones and weaker mid-latitude westerly wind flow -- a recipe for prolonged drought.

The temperature difference between the tropics and the poles drives a lot of weather. When those opposite temperatures are wider, the result is more precipitation, stronger cyclones and more robust wind flow. However, due to the Arctic ice melting and warming up the poles, those disparate temperatures are becoming closer.

"Our analysis shows that, when the Arctic is warmer, the jet stream and other wind patterns tend to be weaker," says Bryan Shuman, a UW professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. "The temperature difference in the Arctic and the tropics is less steep. The change brings less precipitation to the mid-latitudes."

Shuman is a co-author of a new study that is highlighted in a paper, titled "Mid-Latitude Net Precipitation Decreased With Arctic Warming During the Holocene," published today (March 27) online in Nature, an international weekly science journal. The print version of the article will be published April 4.

Researchers from Northern Arizona University; Universite Catholique de Louvain in Louvain-In-Neuve, Belgium; the Florence Bascom Geoscience Center in Reston, Va.; and Cornell University also contributed to the paper.

"The Nature paper takes a global approach and relates the history of severe dry periods of temperature changes. Importantly, when temperatures have changed in similar ways to today (warming of the Arctic), the mid-latitudes -- particularly places like Wyoming and other parts of central North America -- dried out," Shuman explains. "Climate models anticipate similar changes in the future."

Currently, the northern high latitudes are warming at rates that are double the global average. This will decrease the equator-to-pole temperature gradient to values comparable with the early to middle Holocene Period, according to the paper.

Shuman says his research contribution, using geological evidence, was helping to estimate how dry conditions have been in the past 10,000 years. His research included three water bodies in Wyoming: Lake of the Woods, located above Dubois; Little Windy Hill Pond in the Snowy Range; and Rainbow Lake in the Beartooth Mountains.

"Lakes are these natural recorders of wet and dry conditions," Shuman says. "When lakes rise or lower, it leaves geological evidence behind."

The researchers' Holocene temperature analysis included 236 records from 219 sites. During the past 10,000 years, many of the lakes studied were lower earlier in history than today, Shuman says.

"Wyoming had several thousand years where a number of lakes dried up, and sand dunes were active where they now have vegetation," Shuman says. "Expanding to the East Coast, it is a wet landscape today. But 10,000 years ago, the East Coast was nearly as dry as the Great Plains."

The research group looked at the evolution of the tropic-to-pole temperature difference from three time periods: 100 years ago, 2,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago. For the last 100 years, many atmospheric records facilitated the analysis but, for the past 2,000 years or 10,000 years, there were fewer records available. Tree rings can help to expand studies to measure temperatures over the past 2,000 years, but lake deposits, cave deposits and glacier ice were studied to record prior temperatures and precipitation.

"This information creates a test for climate models," Shuman says. "If you want to use a computer to make a forecast of the future, then it's useful to test that computer's ability to make a forecast for some other time period. The geological evidence provides an excellent test."

The research was funded by the Science Foundation Arizona Bisgrove Scholar Award, the National Science Foundation and the state of Arizona's Technology and Research Initiative Fund administered by the Arizona Board of Regents.

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Tropical storms likely to become more deadly as climate changes

Tropical storms are likely to become more deadly under climate change, leaving people in developing countries, where there may be a lack of resources or poor infrastructure, at increased risk, new research from Oregon State University shows.

Under most climate models, tropical storm-related deaths would increase up to 52 percent as the climate changes, said Todd Pugatch, an associate professor of economics in the College of Liberal Arts at OSU and the study's author.

"Tropical storms can strike quickly, leaving little opportunity to escape their path, and the impact on developing countries is significant," Pugatch said. "Understanding the effects of these storms, and how those effects may change as the climate changes, can help governments and people better prepare in the future, and hopefully save lives."

The findings were published recently in the journal World Development.

Pugatch's research focuses on international economic development. Climate change will likely have the greatest impact on vulnerable populations in the developing world. Mortality risk is the most basic form of vulnerability to natural disasters, so Pugatch wanted to better understand how mortality and climate change might be linked.

His first step was to attempt to quantify the effects of tropical storms on mortality in Mexico from 1990 to 2011. He used meteorological data to measure storm strength and death records to estimate storm-related mortality.

If deaths in a Mexican state exceeded historical norms for a particular month, the model attributed those deaths to the storm. This methodology has the ability to avert the subjectivity of official death counts and get to a more authentic number, Pugatch said.

He found that tropical storms killed approximately 1,600 people during the study period.

"Whether a particular death is caused by a storm isn't always obvious," he said. "There may also be political motivations to alter counts. Officials might overstate counts to draw more aid money or understate the number of deaths to make the government appear more competent."

The next step for his research was to simulate how the number of storm-related deaths would be impacted by climate change. He used climate modeling scenarios to see how increased weather volatility due to climate change might have impacted deaths during the study period of 1990 to 2011.

In five of six scenarios modeling climate change impacts on storm frequency and windspeed, a measure of storm intensity, deaths would have increased, with the highest projection showing a 52 percent increase.

However, one simulation showed a decrease of up to 10 percent, because in that scenario, the frequency of tropical storms decreases enough to reduce deaths. The other models fell within the two extremes, but death rates rose in all but one.

"If the decrease in storm frequency outweighs the increase in severity, storm-related deaths could fall," Pugatch said. "Most indications are that storms are more likely to become more deadly as the climate changes."

The findings look specifically at Mexico, but similar results are likely to be seen in other developing countries, where natural disasters can be particularly devastating because communities lack essential resources, Pugatch said.

"I wouldn't expect these results to apply to the same extent in developed countries like the U.S.," he said. "But there is some relevance to the U.S. Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey showed that strong storms can lead to tremendous loss of life and physical damage even in the U.S."

More research is needed to understand how climate change may alter storm frequency and severity in the future, Pugatch said. Public policy may also play a role in mitigating or exacerbating the effects of tropical storms, he said.

"The more we understand the mortality effects of storms, the more we can use that information to develop strategies to prepare," Pugatch said. "Investing in strengthened response systems now could avert future deaths."

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Harrison Ford: leaders who deny climate change are 'on the wrong side of history'

Harrison Ford has launched a scorching attack on Donald Trump and other world leaders, for denying science in order to justify doing nothing to face the “moral crisis” of climate change.

The actor best known for fighting off Imperial stormtroopers as Han Solo and writhing in snake pits as Indiana Jones has now taken on the combined might of climate change deniers, with Trump a top target. Though Ford did not mention the US president by name, the subject of his speech at the final day of the World Government Summit in Dubai was beyond doubt.

“Around the world,” he said, “elements of leadership including in my own country to preserve their state and the status quo, deny or denigrate science. They are on the wrong side of history.”

Ford, at 76 four years Trump’s senior, has long been a campaigner for global environmental protection. He prefaced his speech at the summit with a short film, narrated in his trademark lion’s growl, featuring the character of Nature speaking about the future.

“If I’m not kept healthy, humans won’t survive, simple as that,” Nature says. “I could give a damn with or without humans, I’m the ocean. I covered this entire planet once, and I can always cover it again.”

Climate change denial and skepticism about established scientific truth have long been embraced by Trump. He has been propagating conspiracy theories about global warming since at least 2012, when he claimed it was a ruse by China to gain an unfair manufacturing advantage over the US.

In June 2017 Trump withdrew the US from the Paris agreement to limit global pollution levels and control temperature rise. Last November he responded to a dire US climate assessment by 13 government agencies and top scientists with the blunt words: “I don’t believe it.”

Only on Sunday, Trump issued yet another denigrating tweet in which he sought to mock the Democratic senator from Minnesota Amy Klobuchar, who had just launched a 2020 presidential bid, but ended up mocking climate science. He noted that Klobuchar had addressed global warming in her speech as snow fell around her.

“Bad timing,” Trump said.

In an interview with CNN before his Dubai appearance, Ford criticized directly the Trump administration for being “bent on dismantling all of the gains we’ve made in the protection of the environment”.

He lamented the “isolationism, nationalism that’s creeping into governments all across the developed world. The problems require attention on nature’s scale not on the scale of the next election.”

In his address to the summit, Ford called climate change “the greatest moral crisis of our time. We need nature now more than ever because nature doesn’t need people, people need nature.”

From Wildfires To Greenhouse Gases, 2018 Fourth Hottest Year On Record

Ferocious wildfires that consumed entire California neighborhoods. Devastating hurricanes that inundated communities from Florida to North Carolina. Brutal hailstorms in Colorado and Texas. Tornadoes across the Midwest and South. A record deluge in Hawaii.

Those catastrophes and others were among the 14 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters to hit the United States during 2018, according to data released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The disasters killed at least 247 people and cost the nation an estimated $91 billion, the agency said. The bulk of that damage, about $73 billion, was attributable to three events: Hurricanes Michael and Florence and the collection of wildfires that raged across the West.

2018 did not set the record for the most expensive year for such disasters. That distinction belongs to 2017, when Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria combined with devastating Western wildfires and other natural catastrophes to cause $306 billion in total damage. They were part of a historic year, which saw 16 separate events that cost more than $1 billion each.

But the most recent numbers continue what some experts call an alarming trend toward an increasing number of billion-dollar disasters, fueled. at least in part, by the warming climate.

Since 1980, the United States has experienced 241 weather and climate disasters where the overall damage reached or exceeded $1 billion, when adjusted for inflation. The total cost for those events exceeded $1.6 trillion. Between 1980 and 2013, according to NOAA, the nation averaged about 6.2 billion-dollar disasters a year. Over the most recent five years, that number has jumped to more than 12.

The trend shows few signs of slowing.

"The recent past is likely prologue," said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has studied the economic impact climate change is likely to have on different parts of the country in the coming decades.

Many factors contribute to the cost of any one disaster. For instance, a hurricane that hits a heavily populated area, such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 or Hurricane Harvey in 2017, is likely to have a far higher economic impact than one that hits a less crowded swath of the country. The nation's growing population, insufficient building codes and the fact that many cities and infrastructure sit near coasts or along rivers also play a role. But increasingly, experts say, so does climate change.

"I look at these numbers every year. There's this knot in your stomach where you know there is some big piece of this that is probably coming from climate change, but at the same time, there are a lot of moving parts," said Solomon Hsiang, a public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who has studied how natural disasters impact societies.

Separately on Wednesday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and NOAA released data that officially made 2018 the fourth-warmest year on record, since 1880. The last four years have been the warmest on record. Analyses from NASA and NOAA also show that in most or all of these years, the Earth was at least 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degree Fahrenheit, warmer than it was in the preindustrial era of the middle to late 1800s.

The agencies' data also showed that 2018 was the wettest in the past 35 years in the United States, and the third wettest since record keeping began in 1895.

Hsiang said that climate models predict that the country can expect more of the most catastrophic and costly events over time - namely, more powerful hurricanes slamming into the East and Gulf coasts and more intense wildfires in the West. Scientists also have predicted that a warming climate will fuel more severe droughts, longer wildfire seasons and more frequent floods.

Climate change has helped to shape the severity of at least some of the natural disasters in recent years, said Kerry Emanuel, a top hurricane expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For instance, Emanuel himself has published research suggesting the enormous rainfall Hurricane Harvey dumped on Houston was made more possible because of climate change.

However, that's different from saying that the overall aggregate damage figures are definitely rising because of climate change. That hasn't been proved to a 95 percent certainty, Emanuel said, but there are reasons to suspect climate change is playing a notable role.

"If you're assessing a risk, a risk you have every reason to think exists, nobody would ever require that certainty," Emanuel continued. "Generals in the battlefield would never wait for 95 percent certainty."

There are also projections that the impact of climate change should soon be making itself felt in the cost of at least some disasters. A 2014 analysis by the Rhodium Group of the costs of climate change, for instance, projected that by 2030, the average damage from hurricanes and nor'easters, to the East and Gulf coasts in particular, should be $3 billion to $ 7.3 billion higher each year. That's if climate change continues unabated.

While it's difficult to pin the rise in billion-dollar disasters solely on climate change or any other factor, such as flood insurance policies or population growth, the trend itself is an unsustainable one, Hsiang said.

"These costs are enormous. If we really continue to sustain costs like this going forward, many elements of the way we've managed resources in society are just not financially sustainable," he said. "We are spending a huge amounts of money on disaster relief . . . We're always responding to a disaster by picking up the pieces after they occur."

The distribution of damages from billion-dollar disasters has long been dominated by hurricanes, which can wreak havoc over multiple large states and millions of people in a matter of hours. Since 1980, hurricanes traditionally have caused more than half the total losses tallied by the government. But the Camp Fire in the fall, which became the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, also fueled a historically damaging wildfire season. NOAA estimated that wildfires accounted for $24 billion of damage last year, well in excess of the record of $18 billion, set in 2017.

While fires and hurricanes are responsible for the bulk of disaster-related damages - and also disaster-related headlines - a number of other events also routinely have surpassed the billion-dollar mark over the years. They include droughts, hailstorms, winter storms and tornadoes. And while calamities have struck nearly every corner of the country, climate change is likely to make the impact disproportionate going forward - not just from hurricanes and other storms, but also from economic losses associated with an ever-growing number of hotter days.

"There's no doubt, the Southwest is the epicenter of negative economic impacts in coming decades," Muro said. "In the big picture, the Southeast and the Gulf Coast are the center of climate harm in the United States."

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