The World Above 1.5°C: Flooding Disasters from Libya to Hong Kong
Global temperatures have slightly decreased after a summer with 36 consecutive days above any previous record, a phenomenon not seen in at least 125,000 years. However, the two consecutive months above 1.5C provided a glimpse into future warming that will soon be commonplace if we do not cut emissions urgently. The Paris Accords were designed to safeguard the conditions for human survival—that is, to keep us within life-sustaining planetary boundaries, including the key warming threshold of 1.5C above preindustrial levels.
However, just two months above +1.5C has unleashed a cascade of global disasters, highlighting that even the widely accepted limit set in the Paris Agreement is not a universally safe space for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
In early September, Storm Daniel struck Libya, triggering the deadliest flooding event in Africa since 1900. According to the WHO, 3,958 people are confirmed dead with as many as 9,000 still missing. The torrential rains that struck Libya were only one facet of the deadly impact of the climate crisis and highlight the cascading consequences of extreme weather. A year’s worth of rain within 24 hours caused two already weakened dams to collapse, precipitating the flooding. The country’s low-lying coast makes it vulnerable to flooding, but its weak infrastructure and fragmented disaster preparation and response systems heighten community risk.
Libya is just one area in the world that saw catastrophic flooding recently. Ten regions saw devastating flooding in just 12 days. Before hitting Libya, Storm Daniel became one of the strongest systems to touch down in Greece, according to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Streets turned into rivers; cars were washed into the sea. Nearby, people died in flooding in Türkiye, Bulgaria and Spain. In Asia, typhoons Haikui and Saola washed through southern China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, flooding metro systems and trapping drivers in their vehicles.
In the United States, a hyperactive Atlantic cyclone season and jet stream blocks have brought flooding to parts of the East Coast, including New England and New York. In the west, Nevada’s Burning Man festival was turned into a giant mud pit. In South America, flooding in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul earlier in September was the state’s worst natural disaster in 40 years.
These global parallels are not random. We know that for each degree (centigrade) that the atmosphere warms, it can hold seven percent more moisture. We know that unprecedented ocean temperatures are driving storms. Many of these global weather patterns are influenced by the warming Arctic, which can alter precipitation and jet stream patterns. Like the flooding in Libya, which swept so many people away whilst asleep, those who bear the brunt of the climate crisis have often contributed the least to the global emissions responsible for it. Learn more about how global risks are associated with Arctic climate change here.