The post-Idia flood situation near the port city of Beira in the Sofala province of Mozambique on Tuesday, March 19, 2019 – by ESA Copernicus Sentinel
For hundreds of millions of people across the developing world, Cyclone Idai is a terrifying portent of the future. In a warming world, extreme weather events such as Idai will become more common and more devastating.
The cyclone made landfall on March 14th, smashing the port city of Beira in Mozambique with wind speeds of over 105 miles per hour. Some 90% of the buildings in a city with half a million inhabitants are believed to be damaged or destroyed.
The storm has brought flooding to a huge swathe of Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Towns and villages have been swamped and cut off; roads and bridges have been washed away; more than a thousand people are thought to have died – and the death toll is likely to rise much higher. Heart-rending images show people clinging to trees, stranded on rooftops, desperate for help.
The storm has triggered a humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes, and urgently need food, clean water and healthcare. More than 2.6 million people are believed to have been affected by the cyclone. The immediate priority is an international relief effort, with aid groups active in the region raising funds to help survivors.
But the cyclone – and other recent weather disasters, such as Typhoon Mangkhut last year, and Hurricane Harvey in 2017 – raises profound questions about our changing climate, and about how we can make the world’s most vulnerable people more resilient to extreme weather.
Climate change is a factor
Climate scientists have been reluctant to attribute any single extreme weather event to climate change. There have always been cyclones and tropical storms, and the complexity of the climate system makes it difficult to draw a bright line from increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to any individual storm, drought or heatwave.
That reluctance is fading. As our understanding of the science of climate change improves, scientists are stating with growing confidence that manmade warming is making extreme weather more extreme – and, in some cases, is causing events that otherwise would not have occurred.
Even without finding direct attribution, it is clear that climate change is loading the dice in favour of more devastating extreme weather. Sea-level rise means that the storm surges caused by hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones making landfall result in more flooding, further inland. The warming oceans make storms more intense, while higher air temperatures allow them to hold more water.
Mitigating climate change
Cyclone Idai underscores the urgency of mitigating climate change. The world’s governments need to put the policies and regulations in place to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and put the planet on a trajectory to meet the ambition of the Paris Agreement to hold global warming to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. It is worth noting, of course, that the world’s most vulnerable nations, with their tiny per capita carbon footprint, have done the least to cause the problem of which they are now bearing the brunt.
Adapting to climate change
But it also vividly illustrates the need to help the world’s most vulnerable communities adapt to the inevitable effects of a changing climate, and to build their resilience in the face of global warming. Cyclone Idai has been so devastating because the people of the region do not benefit from the type of infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather.
This is a huge challenge – perhaps no less so than reducing the emissions that are destabilising our climate in the first place. But solidarity with those affected, the economic opportunity presented by investment in a low-carbon, climate-resilient global economy, and preventing the destabilising effects of future waves of climate refugees should provide clear incentive for the world to rise to it.
Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is the leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice. He is based in Lima, Peru.