The weather’s getting worse, and we did it



If you thought that damaging floods were happening more often, you were right. Weather and climate-related disasters are becoming more common — and major flooding is the biggest contributor to the increase — according to a new report from the World Meteorological Organisation.

Five times as many major disasters were recorded worldwide in the first decade of this century compared with the 1970s, according to the WMO’s new Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes 1970-2012 (pdf). Introducing the report WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said:

“Disasters caused by weather, climate, and water-related hazards are on the rise worldwide. Both industrialised and non-industrialised countries are bearing the burden of repeated floods, droughts, temperature extremes and storms. Improved early warning systems and disaster management are helping to prevent loss of life. But the socio-economic impact of disasters is escalating because of their increasing frequency and severity and the growing vulnerability of human societies.”

The report notes that “from 1970 to 2012, 8,835 disasters, 1.94 million deaths, and US$ 2.4 trillion of economic losses were reported globally as a result of hazards such as droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, tropical cyclones and related health epidemics.” As a result economic and social development in the worst hit regions has been set back “years, if not decades.”

The picture’s clear enough:

The blue segments represent floods, green storms, and dark red heatwaves — and all three have increased significantly since the 1970s. (See more graphs from the report at the Guardian.)

For those of us who have been suffering from extreme weather events — and to the list I wrote about a month ago we must now add the extreme flooding and road damage in Northland over last weekend — the WMO report will come as confirmation of what we have suspected: as the climate warms, so the weather’s getting worse.

The reason is simple enough to understand. As greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere they trap more energy in the ocean and atmosphere. Temperatures go up, ice melts and sea level rises. As the oceans and atmosphere warm, the amount of water vapour in the air increases, providing the raw material for more energetic storms and heavier rain. It’s a bit like watching a kettle boil. As the water heats, you can see movement in the water, and as it approaches the boil bubbles begin to rise and burst at the surface. More energy means more motion, and that’s what we’re seeing in the weather.

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New Zealand is particularly vulnerable because it is poised between the expanding tropics and a still cold Antarctic ocean. That contrast drives the weather systems that barrel into the country from the west.

The challenge for governments is to recognise what’s happening and to prepare for the worst. There’s no way — even if we could somehow halt all global emissions tomorrow — that we can avoid at least another 30 years of things getting worse, because that’s how long it will take the atmosphere and ocean to come into equilibrium with current greenhouse gas levels.

We have to prepare to adapt to more floods, more storms, and more droughts because they are inevitable. We also have to cut emissions as soon as possible to stop making things worse. But too often the focus is on the emissions side of the equation, as if implementing some emissions cuts is going to magically going to make climate change go away. The reality is that climate change is here, now, and we’re living with it, and that brings with it a whole set of new requirements to build resilient communities and infrastructure that can cope with the everything our new man-made weather will deliver. We need policy innovations in those areas just as much as we do on emissions.


  1. Here is the latest angle is from the right.They now agree that climate change exists and that we have been major contributors. (Small progress is better than none I suppose). However they declare that another ice age is coming up sometime in the next few thousand years and that if we wait long enough everything will go back to being a happy carbon neutral planet again. That nearly all marine life, the Amazon jungles, the polar ice caps and hundreds of coastal cities around the world will all be extinguished in the mean time seems to have slipped their notice.

    • Anyone hoping for salvation from an impending ice age is delusional. A “few” may be 10-20 thousand years, more than long enough for business as usual to render the planet uninhabitable let only wrecking civilization.

  2. Two obvious things :
    1. A dedicated Minister for Climate Change Issues – this is a more than full time job.
    2. Establish a Climate Change Commission that works with government agencies, ministries, local government, private businesses and agribusiness to lower emissions and develop responses to the myriad issues that are here and approaching. Abdicating this responsibility to local government is inadequate and a copout.

    • “However, we found this was largely due to the effect of age, as older households were much more likely to agree with this statement, and also had lower energy consumption.”

      Your link clearly disproves its own thesis.

  3. A common method of presenting statistics to deceive people is to select a period that appears to support a predetermined conclusion. Selecting weather patterns over a 30 year period on a planet that is billions of years old shouldn’t fool anyone. But of course it will.

      • I did. You see you are drawing an extremely long bow. Your premise is that our weather is getting worse, and that is being caused by climate change and that that climate change is being caused primarily by man’s activities.

        You then set about to ‘prove’ that by citing a 30 year data set for a planet that is billions of years old. That is quite simply a flawed argument that wouldn’t pass a year 10 statistics class.

        • The planet is very old, but human civilisation isn’t, and our current lifestyle very recent indeed. On timescales relevant to an ordinary human being, the weather is getting worse. Whether there was a worse whatever event in the past is irrelevant. What matters is now, and what will happen in the future, and as others have noted the situation is clear enough.

          • Gareth why do you continue to censor debate? Is it because your position is so weak, or your personality so insecure?

            • I refuse to publish much of your stuff because it is not a contribution to any debate but an attempt to derail one. TDB is not a platform for you to misrepresent the facts in service of whatever peculiar ideology it is you subscribe to.

            • The “debate” when “debating” the science and questioning is climate change happening and man-made is well over as a scientific debate. The Greenhouse Effect was postulated and observed over 150 years ago – as a science, it’s older than Genetics.
              The “scientific debate” is now a proxy for what is a political and philosophical debate. The Cultural Cognition project at Yale identifies the factors that lead to climate change denial in the face of near 100% scientific consensus. Deniers tend to be Hierarchic Individualists, people who believe society is best ordered but with focus on individual rights – roughly, the right (but not so much the libertarian right).
              Given that the science is substantially settled, IV’s position says more about his position than it being any probing critique of the science – the critiques have been long debunked.
              I can see why the denial is so intransigent as AGW undermines the right-wing political philosophy – the natural (real) world doesn’t sustain bands of individuals going about their own business without wider considerations of people and planet. That is the really inconvenient truth.

    • I’d agree with Gareth. 30 years may sound like a cherry-picked time frame against a backdrop of billions of years but the climate is changing at a rate only exceeded by cometary impacts. All the ‘normal’ mechanisms for climate change operate over 1000’s or tens of thousands of years, we are doing it in a century or so.

        • By extending the baseline out beyond the couple of centuries of direct measurements to 1000’s of years using proxies. Combine that with measurements of the heat trapping qualities of GHGs, the rising levels of GHGs, the measurements of actual temperatures from land, ocean and satellites plus observations of a multitude of botanists, glaciologists, zoologists, marine biologists, etc etc. We’ve got a very good knowledge of what has happened in the past and why it happened and the changes in progress today.

  4. Actually 30 years is a good period to assess the variability of extreme weather. 30 years is exactly the minimum period required for the human caused global warming signature to be statistically meaningful above the background noise of natural variability. (From the IPCC peer reviewed science reports).

    • So explain how you know the changes in this 30 years are NOT part of natural variability experienced frequently over eons?

      • Until around 1780 the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere never exceeded 280ppm. Indeed, for the past 800,000 years prior to the Industrial Revolution the CO2 content of the atmosphere averaged about 230ppm.

        The current CO2 concentration is around 400ppm, about 170ppm above normal. There is nothing natural about that.

        • Yes, good comment, and the problem is, such persons as IV will never get it, they just do not like to hear the truth. No matter how much evidence is presented, they stubbornly carry their blinkers, like sadly too many in the public also.

          The challenge is to make it clear to people, what is going on, and that the effect and cause do not always easily seem to be “connected”. It takes a certain level of intelligence, reason and open mindedness, to understand the truth. Humanity though has a history full of ignorant doing ignorant things, sadly.

      • Intrinsicvalue. There is no natural explanation for recent global warming. Solar irradiance has been flat over the last thirty years. Global warming is driven by greenhouse gases.

        Basic meteorology explains how a warming atmosphere would cause more extreme weather, and this has been confirmed by observation.

        Thirty years is an adequate period as for the reasons I explained, the global warming signal has strong significance at 30 years. The fact that the planet is old is a red herring argument of no validity.

  5. The weather in Northland over the last week has certainly been remarkable. Bear in mind that this was not a cyclone, the winds along the coast reached gusts of over 150km/h.

    The rain was also an eye-opener. We ‘only’ got 360mm over 3 days at my place, but in nearby Kaikohe they got over half a metre of rain in 3-4 days!

    Now it might take some time for a storm of that nature to re-occur but, with the atmosphere continuing to warm and hold more moisture, flooding is only going to grow worse in time.

    Surveying the damage up here, it’s a real concern.

  6. Well it’s obvious what needs to be done.

    1. Build more roads.

    2 Keep the price of fossil fuels artificially low.

    3. Convert as much limestone as possible into concrete, and cover as much pasture and horticultural land as possible in concrete and asphalt.

    4. Ensure imports of leaf-blowers, patio heaters and oversized vehicles are not interrupted.

    5. Build an economy based on tourism.

    6. Discourage the planting of trees.

    7. Discourage ordinary folk from getting involved in permaculture.

    8. Give tax breaks or other incentives to corporation that extract sequestered carbon.

    9. Give tax breaks or other incentives to corporation that burn carbon.

    10. Ensure that all local government plans for the future ignore everything that will determine the future, especially peak oil and climate chaos.

    I think National is on to all of that. And Labour would be if they ever got another chance at governance.

    There are a few other things the government is doing to exacerbate climate chaos and bring forward near term human extinction, particularly the policies focused on promoting perpetual economic growth on finite planet. And if Labour ever gets another chance at governance, I’m sure they will stick with whatever National implements.

  7. Just do as we did, get hold of some old lands & survey Departments old arial pictures from the last 70yrs taken along parts of our coastline now at DOC Libraries and place them alongside today’s coastline to witness the weather events now causing serious erosion of whole parts of our coastline, but I was already aware our coastline is retreating minimum of at least a metre every year, and that is not rocket science but a physical fact, I invite nonbelievers to go down to the beach and see for yourself and take pictures then come back several years later liked we do and see how much land has been lost.

    You should be worried then.

  8. Today the carbon tax was axed. This is going to reduce my electric bill by 8% and my gas bill by 5%. I’m stoked. I have a solar power unit that provides 3Kw so now my power bill will be around $30.00 a month. Thanks to global warming/climate change.

  9. Cleangreen it’s called erosion. When billions of tones of sea water comes and goes twice a day on any coastline it is bound to change. I lived at Murewai beach for 25 years,the creek that runs over the beach changed every week. The dunes would move many metres in the slightest storm. So comparing 70 year old photos proves time and tide do what they do.

  10. Yes, another good post by Gareth. If only more out there would get the message, and let it sink into their brain cells.

    I despair every day when I go out and about in Auckland, where we continue to have the vast majority drive around in cars, most only having the driver as “passenger”, and pumping more CO2 and other gases into the atmosphere. Despite of all science, and the odd good media report, we get little in the way of change of behaviour out there, it is like a mass drive towards the inevitable cliff, off which the human species will fall and self destroy.

    Also I am furious with Auckland Transport, these jerks, that run the show there. I know that public transport needs incentivising, and we need more using buses and trains. But what do they do, they now have increased cash fares, which still a lot of people pay, increase by close to 20 percent. At the same time they tell people, hey, get an AT card, and “save” up to 20 percent on fares.

    All they are doing is force people to buy cards and do away with cash fares. What about the less frequent users, who do not travel every day, like those on benefits, and what about tourists coming here, who do not want to buy a plastic card, while they may only visit for a day or a few?

    Two stage cash fares went up from $ 3.40 to $ 4.00 now!

    Still they have not brought back day passes and so, which were also popular with beneficiaries and tourists and other visitors, and those traveling only occasionally.

    So it is daylight robbery, and putting more disincentives into the game, rather than making people consider to save and use public transport.

    Even Duncan Garner on Radio Live raised these issues the other week. What asphalt headed idiots run Auckland Transport? They should be sacked altogether, and Len Brown also better wake up, and offer us an incentive to use buses and trains.

    Sending out a free pass for a few citizens to use for 5 days will not cut it, I am afraid, as the fares are too high now!

    So New Zealand and especially Auckland continue to be ill prepared for the future, and this useless government of petrol headed idiots will not address issues either. Shame on them!

  11. It is very simple maths
    400ppm CO2 minus the 30 year time lag equals no humans.
    This is not something that can be argued or ignored, only accepted, I’m give it about another 5 years for the penny to drop.
    I got this published in the local paper, maybe showing the editor is open to the idea?

    Reduce greenhouse emissions June 25

    Generally the information coming out of the IPCC is at best 5 years behind the current thinking, plus they are under political pressure not to frighten the masses, so tend to understate most of their predictions.

    We are currently over 400 parts per million CO2: the last time the environment had this much CO2 floating around it the Earth was 5 degrees Celsius above what it is now, and the oceans were about 26 metres above what they are now. The Earth is still catching up with the effect of past emissions.

    Needless to say, human habitat can not change fast enough to accommodate a 5 degree temperature rise, in what will be an extremely short time, approximately 30 – 40 years, which is the time lag that the melting ice and warming deep seas are giving us.

    The current global climate instability is due to the CO2 emissions from decades ago.
    Then there is methane. The amount of methane – CH4 – and its forcing factor compared to CO2 are rarely taken into account, when in fact methane is way worse than CO2; it is somewhere in the region of 200 – 300 times stronger a greenhouse gas than CO2. And there is something like 10 – 1,000 times more CH4 trapped in the Tundra ans under the sea which is below the fast melting Arctic ice than man has injected into the environment as CO2 in the past 200 years. So the current amount of methane in the environment is equivalent to about 400 ppm CO2, giving us in excess of 800 parts per million CO2/CO2e, We are on the cusp of something that may not have occurred in more than 3 billion years.
    Reducing emissions now will not be noticeable for something like 40 years, way after humans have gone the way of the 200 species we currently send extinct daily.
    If we had the ability to remove the equivalent of 150ppm CO2 within a decade, then I would say we had a chance, doing anything less is futile.

    The Express Way will be ‘our Moi’ – our version of Easter Island statues. If there are any future archaeologists, they will wonder what drove us to this kind of insanity, and what amounts to infanticide..

    N.B. CO2 persists in the atmosphere for around about 1,000 years.

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