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22 January 2021, Foreign Affairs

As the World Burns

A yawning gap has opened up between what countries know about the risks of climate change and what they are doing to reduce them. In the riskier new era of climate change, the longer countries take to close that gap, the more painful and deadly the outcomes.

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In late August, more than 600 separate wildfires ravaged California, killing seven people. Meanwhile, two tropical cyclones struck the Gulf Coast only days apart: first Tropical Storm Marco and then Hurricane Laura, the latter of which killed 26 people in the United States and tied the record for the strongest storm to hit Louisiana. Extreme events such as these signal a worrying trend. In the coming decades, as temperatures continue to climb, seemingly isolated climate disasters will begin to overlap, their impacts becoming more than additive. Scientists expect to see more intense tropical cyclones and more heat waves. Each disaster could compound the damage of the next, with less and less time for people to recover in between.

Many observers assess the threat of climate change in terms of the frequency or severity of extreme events. They have viewed each crisis—be it a Texas hurricane or a California wildfire—as distinct from others. But consider how people feel on the fourth day of a heat wave as opposed to the first. Their resilience begins to drain away. Viewing weather events as independent occurrences is like trying to understand a movie by looking at a series of brief clips; they are important plot points, but not the whole story. In fact, viewing climate change as the accumulation of individual events underestimates the threat, because such events do not take place in a vacuum. As recent research shows, features of the climate interact with one another—interactions that exacerbate the impact on people and ecosystems.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER is Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton University

This article appeared in the Foreign Affairs 2020 November/December edition. It is republished here with permission.

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