“ISN’T it funny that the end of the world as we know it goes by such a harmless name – I mean, Sandy, mild little Sandy?” said someone in an online forum.
Well, just because it affected New York doesn’t mean it’s the apocalypse. But over the past couple of decades, the end of the world as we know it has been quietly sneaking up on us. And at damage of upwards of $20bn, Hurricane Sandy provides one example of how the change will affect us – in cold, hard cash (or should that be hot, hard cash?).
In a press release on October 17, when Sandy wasn’t even a twinkle in the thunder-god’s eye, short-term insurance giant Munich Re pointed out that, aside from 30 000-odd deaths, severe weather in North America had cost $1 060bn (in 2011 values) from 1980 to 2011, with insured losses amounting to $510bn.
The company added: “Climate change particularly affects formation of heat waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run most probably also tropical cyclone intensity. The view that weather extremes are becoming more frequent and intense in various regions due to global warming is in keeping with current scientific findings.”
Swiss Re has also made strong statements about climate change, and was very involved in Climate Week 2012, held (ironically) in New York in September 2012.
Reinsurance companies are among the most conservative (small c) creatures around.
They don’t make unconsidered statements or policy commitments. They are the insurers who insure other insurers, so when events like Katrina and Sandy happen, they are in it up to their necks.
With around $30bn-plus in gross written premiums, Swiss Re and Munich Re are far and away the biggest. If they’re seriously concerned about the impact on their bottom line, you can bet your bottom dollar the rest of us should be, too.
The ghost of the term "global warming" haunts this topic (since what’s happening raises overall temperatures but also causes severe cold at certain times and in certain places, climate change is a more useful term); as a result, most people seem to think of the phenomenon as little more than a smooth and rather benign rise from, say, a warm summer day of around 25º to a toasty one of about 28º.
But this increased heat pumps energy into the system which triggers or worsens disastrous and costly events (like hurricanes, hailstorms and heat spikes).
A scientist working with farmers in Limpopo recently told me that although they now have to plant crops significantly earlier, thanks to higher average temperatures, the worst impact for them is the increasingly common sudden, violent storm, which hammers seedlings, or a sustained, serious spike in temperatures, which just makes the young plants lie down and die.
At COP17 in December 2011, I spoke to farmers from all over Africa, and they all had similar stories to tell. A woman farmer from Zambia said that over a few years, several crops had been washed away by unusually heavy storms, and pointed out that after planting twice in one season, she simply didn’t have the bucks to buy more seed.
Storms later in the season also strip fruiting plants of blossom, a disaster I now truly appreciate after having my plum tree ravaged by huge hailstones – few surviving blossoms mean few fruit this season. And higher temperatures have made double cropping impossible for some farmers in East Africa.
Think about what all of this means for food security – and add this for good measure: research by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre has shown that the longer maize is exposed to temperatures of 30º and more, the lower the yield. (And note this: Dr François Engelbrecht of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research points out that, thanks to peculiarities of local climate systems, southern Africa is tracking global temperature increases at double the rate of the rest of the world – if they get 1º, we get 2º, if they get 2º, we get 4º.)
Sustained heat triggers drought, so the rise in extreme heat events is scary: in a study published May this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies said while extreme heat used to affect 0.1–0.2% of the globe, in recent years “the portion of global land area covered by summer temperature anomalies [...] has averaged about 10%, an increase by more than an order of magnitude compared to the base period”.
Drought, as in a 2011 severe drought in Mexico, the worst since records began 70 years back, caused at least a 40% drop in agricultural production.
Drought added fuel to poor Portugal’s woes this year – the country lost half its olive crop, and cereals were hit hard. The recent drought which affected more than half of the USA is expected to push up food prices over the next year. And so the litany goes on.
These facts represent hot, hard cash indeed. And possibly hot, hard times, with a dollop of unrest (think 2008, when high food prices caused riots in 28 countries).
So even if you don’t give a hoot about losing the fynbos or coral reefs, surely this enormous economic impact – already affecting us all – will make any thinking human being serious about working to curb climate change.
*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.