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A Summer of Climate Disasters

Heat waves in the U.S., wildfires in Europe, floods in Asia: This summer has shown how the climate crisis has made extreme weather a part of everyday life.

Some of the worst recent damage has taken place in Pakistan. Floods have submerged more than a third of the country and killed at least 1,300 people.

Scientists can’t say yet with certainty that climate change caused the flooding, but experts told me that it was most likely a contributor. As The Times explained, climate change is making severe floods likelier and more intense. “These off-the-charts events are going to happen more often, and this is just one of those examples,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center.

The floods followed a brutal heat wave in Pakistan earlier this year that led to temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists have already concluded that global warming made that heat wave much likelier.

Climate disasters also hit many other parts of the world this year:

  • In the U.S., a heat wave on the West Coast has sent temperatures soaring above 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the past few days. About 100 million Americans across the country suffered another heat wave earlier this summer. And floods have ravaged parts of the U.S., including Kentucky and Missouri.

  • The earlier heat wave that hit Pakistan reached India, too. A severe drought also struck parts of India this summer, reducing the country’s food exports. And floods in Bengaluru, India’s tech capital, forced workers to ride boats and tractors to get to the office.

  • A heat wave and drought in China dried up rivers, disabling hydroelectric dams and cutting off ships carrying supplies.

  • Another heat wave in Europe sent temperatures in Britain to a record 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Droughts across the continent dried up rivers, exposing sunken ships from World War II and disrupting the river cruise industry. And wildfires in Europe have burned nearly three times as much land so far this year as the 2006-2021 average.

  • In April, heavy rainfall caused floods and mudslides in South Africa that killed at least 45 people.

“Some of these events have no historical comparisons from 200 years ago,” my colleague Raymond Zhong, who covers climate change, told me.

Why? Rising temperatures create the circumstances for more frequent and more intense heat waves. Prolonged heat causes more frequent and more intense droughts and wildfires. And as it gets warmer, more water evaporates from the oceans — leading to more moisture in the air, and then heavier rainfall, floods and mudslides.

In my conversations with experts, I referred to the summer’s extreme weather as a “new normal.” But the experts pushed back on that characterization. They argued that calling it normal suggested we had reached some sort of plateau.

“It’s very much getting worse,” said Kim Cobb, the director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. Humanity has emitted greenhouse gases through industrialization for more than a century. Those gases are already in the atmosphere, causing warming and extreme weather. Past and future emissions will continue to heat up the planet over the next couple of decades, leading to even more disasters.

That doesn’t mean the world is helpless, experts said. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as Democrats’ new spending law aims to do, can still lower the risk of climate disasters over the medium term. In the short term, humans can mitigate disasters through adaptation — using better forest management to reduce wildfire risk, for example, or building infrastructure that is more resilient to heavy rainfall and flooding.

(And each year will not automatically be worse than the year before. Factors unrelated to climate change also affect the weather, including seasonal patterns like El Niño and La Niña.)

But poorer countries, like Pakistan, lack the resources to adapt without outside aid. A rapidly changing climate can also upend their plans: After historic floods in 2010, Pakistan rebuilt a destroyed bridge 16 feet higher. In this year’s floods, the bridge was inundated again.

It’s in many ways unfair. Poorer countries have contributed to climate change much less because they have emitted less greenhouse gas than wealthier nations, as I’ve explained before. Yet some, like Pakistan, are now suffering the worst consequences of global warming.

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