Recent hurricanes and typhoons are reflecting the extreme weather that is causing a long-term existential risk. If the US withdraws from the Paris climate accord, expect more frequent, intense, and destructive typhoons in Asia.
By August 23, Typhoon Hato’s eye was over Hong Kong. Two days later, almost 20 people had been killed in Macau and the mainland, tens of thousands of people were evacuated and the total damages were estimated at around US$2 billion.
Almost at the same time, Harvey became the first hurricane in the US to make landfall since Wilma in 2005 and the strongest in Texas since Carla in 1961. According to current estimates, exposed stock with damage to floods is calculated at US$267 billion, which is more costly than Hurricane Katrina and Sandy together.
Despite the intensification of the extreme weather phenomena, efforts to subdue global collateral damage may be eroding. Risks have escalated dramatically since June 1, when President Trump announced his long-anticipated decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement — an international pact intended to reduce the effects of climate change by maintaining global temperatures “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” It is within the US president’s constitutional authority to withdraw from the Paris deal without first receiving congressional or senatorial approval.
What would be the implications in Asia? Since early 2010, it has often been said that China is the “world’s greatest polluter.” But according to research, China contributes barely 10-12 percent of human influence on climate change. That figure has remained fairly steady over the industrial period. By this measure, the UK remains the largest single cause of climate change, followed by the US and Germany.
According to climate scientists, intensity changes in land-falling typhoons are of great concern to East and Southeast Asian countries. Since the 1980s typhoons that strike East and Southeast Asia have intensified by 12–15 percent, with the proportion of storms of categories 4 and 5 having doubled and even tripled.
The increased intensity of land-falling typhoons is said to be due to strengthened intensification rates that are intertwined with locally enhanced ocean surface warming on the rim of East and Southeast Asia.
More challenging future
Hurricane Harvey and Typhoon Hato are glimpses into a far more challenging future when extreme weather phenomena and the associated collateral damage will become the new normal.
According to Global Climate Risk Index, the 10 countries most affected in the past two decades feature mainly emerging economies in Asia (Myanmar, Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam and Thailand). In the absence of mitigation, climate change will pose severe risks in South Asia, due to the unique mix of severe natural hazard and acute vulnerability.
As a wet-bulb temperature of 35°C is considered an upper limit on human survivability, new research suggests that extreme weather is about to test these margins. By late 21st century, heat extremes in South Asia are likely to approach and in a few locations — particularly in densely populated agricultural regions of the Ganges and Indus river basins — exceed a critical threshold under the business-as-usual scenario of future greenhouse gas emissions.
Only four years remain to reverse the likely path into existential disasters. Under the Paris Accord, the earliest effective date of the US withdrawal is November 2020 — the last month of the Trump presidency.
Dr Dan Steinbock is the founder of Difference Group and has served as research director at the India, China and America Institute (USA) and visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore). For more, see http://www.differencegroup.net/ Shanghai Daily condensed the article.