Simultaneous climate hazards are supercharging global systemic risk
20 Sep 2022|

Leaders from across the region are convening in Brisbane this week at the Asia–Pacific Ministerial Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction. The meeting, co-hosted by Australia and the United Nations, will discuss ways to accelerate international efforts to reduce disaster risk. They have their work cut out for them.

The year so far has brought a string of headline-grabbing environmental catastrophes. Flooding from relentless monsoon rains in July and August left a third of Pakistan under water and 33 million people in need of assistance. The record heatwave that ravaged China for more than 70 days affected around 900 million people in at least 17 provinces.

More than 400,000 Japanese evacuated their homes due to this year’s record floods. And in Europe, thousands of people in 21 countries died from the extreme heat.

These events have been appalling enough for the levels of destruction and loss of life they have caused. What makes them considerably more worrisome is the growing climatological evidence that they are becoming routine and the clear signs that, when they occur simultaneously across wide geographic regions, they will cause global disruptions to food supplies, trade and energy.

This is why Australia needs to develop a strategy to manage the profound threat posed by global systemic disruptions that includes plans to secure our critical supply chains and build national self-reliance and resilience.

The scale and simultaneity of events in the northern hemisphere have already caused cascading social and economic impacts. Disruptions to hydropower closed Chinese factories and wiped US$400 million off the country’s economy in July alone. Europe’s river shipping and hydropower have suffered, causing major economic damage.

The American Farm Bureau estimates that production of several US crops could be down by a third. Sindh Province in Pakistan produces a quarter of the country’s agriculture. Floods and other extreme events devasted its crops, including a 45% loss in cotton and 31% loss in rice. India suffered a 10% to 35% reduction in crop yields in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab from the record heatwave alone. The full implications of these reductions for global food security, amplified by the disruptions caused by the continuing war in the Ukraine, have yet to play out.

These large-scale, record-setting events are not yet annual occurrences, but there’s growing evidence to suggest that climate change is altering the northern hemisphere jet stream in ways that could trigger simultaneous weather catastrophes across multiple regions: in Asia, North America and Europe.

This jet stream is a narrow band of strong winds, blowing from west to east, thousands of feet above the earth’s surface. It’s powered by the difference in heat between the northern polar region and warmer air to the south and has major impacts on weather.

We saw the effects of alterations to the jet stream in 2010 when an atmospheric blocking event contributed to record temperatures that killed more than 50,000 Russians and record floods that affected 20 million Pakistanis. In 2018, a similar blocking event caused unprecedented heatwaves and drought in East Asia and Northern Europe, the worst fire season in California’s recorded history, and Japan’s deadliest floods since 1982. Similar examples emerged in 2003, 2006 and 2015.

These jet stream patterns are, it appears, becoming more common and more extreme, leaving countries less time to recover from the previous year’s disaster before the next climate hazards strike.  The resilience of communities and the capacities of states will rapidly erode and the humanitarian, economic and political impacts will mushroom with cascading global consequences for food, trade, economic development and security.

A recent analysis found a 20-fold increase in the risk of simultaneous heatwaves in major crop-producing regions when these jet stream disruptions are in place.

Recurring natural phenomena, such as El Niño and La Niña events, will exacerbate the consequences. During El Niños, the likelihood of drought increases across India, Indonesia and Australia and a large part of the Amazon, and the southern US tends to see more precipitation, while the pattern, in effect, reverses in the case of La Niñas. And they, too, will be affected by climate change. Scientists project that climate change is increasing the frequency of severe El Niños and La Niñas, with extreme El Niños expected to double under 1.5°C of warming (for which we are on track in less than a decade).

The extreme events triggered by changes to the jet stream and more extreme El Niños and La Niñas will also coincide with slow-onset hazards that are already undermining community resilience and contributing to more frequent and severe extreme events. For example, the steadily warming temperature is not only harming global agricultural productivity (Australian farms have lost on average almost $30,000 each a year in profits over the past 20 years), but also increasing the frequency and severity of bushfires.

Steadily warming temperatures and rising sea levels are eroding coastlines at significant economic cost and dramatically increasing the likelihood of extreme flooding from cyclones. In many parts of the tropics, for example, just a 10-centimetre rise in sea level turns what was previously a one in 100-year extreme flooding event into a one in 10-year event. These once rare catastrophic events will soon become annual occurrences in many parts of the world.

The Australian government has already taken an important first step towards building a national strategy by directing the Office of National Intelligence to coordinate the development of the country’s first climate and security risk assessment.

Once the assessment is completed (probably before the end of the year), the government will need to develop a strategy to address the threats identified. An important first step should be to launch a national conversation, drawing upon a declassified version of the assessment, to raise the awareness of the Australian public, civil society, the private sector and other segments of society about the scale of the challenges ahead and to collect ideas on how to address the risks and find possible opportunities.

Ideally, this should be a bipartisan effort.

Bolstering climate resilience will require the Commonwealth and the states and territories to take every opportunity following disasters to build back better. They will need to incorporate climate and disaster risk in core economic and social investments across governments and to reverse the current untenable situation in which funding for mitigation of disaster risk is only about 3% of what the Australian government spends on post-disaster response.

We are also in a powerful position—and have a powerful incentive—to build regional resilience. Climate disruptions to our near neighbours will have major consequences for our national security. Through our aid program, defence cooperation, scientific exchanges, private investment, and in numerous other ways, Australia can help strengthen regional resilience.

Clearly, reducing greenhouse gases globally as rapidly as possible is the single most urgent climate and disaster risk reduction measure. However, because the inertia in the climate system already commits us to significant additional warming, we need to simultaneously marshal our resources to address the now inevitable increase in global, regional and national climate disruptions.

Indigenous Australians and Australians living in remote parts of the country have always had to be resourceful, self-reliant and resilient to survive the harsh climate. We now need to infuse these qualities across every segment of society.