Weather extremes could kill hundreds of thousands

By the end of the century, up to 152,000 Europeans could die every year as a result of weather extremes, finds a new study. Extreme heat waves will become unavoidable if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed. Elke Bunge reports.

Two-thirds of Europe’s population could be affected by weather-related disasters by the end of this century. (Image credit: Robert Müller via Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

It was just two years ago that some 2,000 climatologists, economists and environmentalists gathered in Paris. Under the motto Our Common Future Under Climate Change (CFCC15), they came to the conclusion that weather extremes such as heat waves, droughts and even long period of cold will occur more frequently in the future.

“Such heat waves often come with drought and can result in crop losses, wildfires and human mortality. This trend will continue if greenhouse gas emissions go on unabated,” said Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) at the time.

Little has changed since then. A recent study from the Institute for Environment and Sustainability (IES) in Ispra, Italy, which is overseen by the European Commission, lends credence to these forecasts, which were prepared for the Paris climate talks in late December 2015.

Extreme weather conditions to intensify

According to the study, extreme weather conditions in Europe could result in a 50-fold increase in fatalities by the end of the century compared to today.

With 3,000 climate-related deaths per year in the countries of the European Union, Switzerland, Iceland and Norway between the reference years 1981 and 2010, the researchers extrapolate that 152,000 people would die each year by 2100 due to heat waves, flooding and storms.

“Climate change is one of the biggest global threats to human health of the 21st century,” wrote lead author Giovanni Forzieri. “Its peril to society will be increasingly connected to weather-driven hazards.”

Heat causes the most victims

Heatwaves are the most lethal weather-related hazard, causing 99 per cent of all deaths. In the future, this weather phenomenon will primarily affect southern European countries. Responsible for 2,700 of the 3,000 climate-related deaths in the reference year, this figure could climb up to 151,500 deaths per year in the future.

If no measures are taken in time to curb global warming, rising temperatures and climate change could expose some 350 million Europeans to harmful climate extremes every year – two-thirds of the total population in Europe in 2100.

US withdrawal sends wrong message

These results are based on the model that temperatures will increase by 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. The Paris climate accords of 2015, thanks to the extensive preparations at the CFCC15 earlier that year, worked intensively to agree to keep global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The question naturally arises if a 3-degrees scenario can be regarded as speculatively too high. But if current political developments are taken into consideration, especially the U.S. with its official withdrawal from the Paris agreement, the research’s pessimistic approach could become a sad reality.

The Paris agreement provides clear guidelines for how to curb global warming. As the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, the U.S. could make the worst-case scenario a reality, especially if other countries decide to follow suit and leave the crucial climate deal.

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