NEW YORK • The hits came in rapid succession this past week: A cyclone slammed into the Indian megacity of Kolkata, pounding rains breached two dams in the Midwestern US, and last Thursday came warning that the Atlantic hurricane season could be severe.
It all served as a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 344,000 people so far, is colliding with another menace: a fast-heating planet that acutely threatens millions of people, especially the world’s poor.
Climate change makes extreme weather events more frequent and intense. Now, because of the pandemic, they come at a time when national economies are crashing and ordinary people are stretched to their limits.
Relief groups in eastern India and Bangladesh, for instance, say the coronavirus lockdown had already forced people to rely on food aid by the time Cyclone Amphan, hit. The high winds and heavy rains ruined newly sown crops that were meant to feed communities through next season. “People have nothing to fall back on,” Mr Pankaj Anand, a director at Oxfam India, said in a statement last Thursday.
The worst may be yet to come.
Several other climate hazards are looming, as the coronavirus unspools its long tail around the world. They include the prospect of heatwaves in Europe and South Asia, wildfires from the western United States to Europe to Australia, and water scarcity in South America and southern Africa, where a persistent drought is already deepening hunger.
And then there are the locusts.
Abnormally heavy rains last year, which scientists say were made more likely by the long-term warming of the Indian Ocean, a hallmark of climate change, have exacerbated a locust infestation across eastern Africa. Higher temperatures make it more inviting for locusts to spread to places where the climate was not as suitable before – and in turn, destroy vast swathes of farmland and pastures for some of the poorest people on the planet.
While the risks are different from region to region, taken together, “they should be seen as a sobering signal of what lies ahead for countries all over the world”, a group of scientists and economists warned earlier this month in an opinion piece in Nature Climate Change.
The impacts will not be equal, though, they added. They stand to exacerbate longstanding inequities and “put specific populations at heightened risk and compromise recovery”.
All those extreme weather hazards are made more frequent and intense by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which drives up temperatures on land and in the sea.
The impact of the accumulated warming is already felt by those who were in the eye of Cyclone Amphan last week: those who live in the delta regions of eastern India and Bangladesh, and who are at the mercy of intensifying heat waves, sea level rise, storm surges and super cyclones like this one.
The slow burn of climate change has increasingly made it tough for many to make a living farming and fishing, as generations had before them. Many rural dwellers had migrated to urban areas to earn a living. But the lockdown has put an end to that coping strategy. Migrant workers in India, having lost jobs in the cities, are heading home in droves.
Traditional ways of coping during storms are now more dangerous, too. Evacuating people to cyclone shelters has saved hundreds of thousands of lives in past storms, but aid workers now worry that the virus could spread quickly in shelters.
The extreme weather events of the past few days, coming on top of the coronavirus pandemic, throw into sharp relief the perils of underestimating the impact of compounding risks, said Dr Corinne Le Quere, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in England.
Economic recovery policies that governments enact after the pandemic lifts, she said, would impact the trajectory of emissions for decades to come.