The Pandemic Worsened Climate Misery for Millions Last Year

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The Covid-19 pandemic did little to slow the rise of greenhouse-gas pollution in 2020—and much to complicate responses to humanitarian disasters, according to the World Meteorological Organization's State of the Global Climate 2020 report.

The report is filled with evidence of an often-repeated projection: Climate change will deliver the greatest suffering to people who had the least to do with causing it. More than 50 million people were “doubly hit” by climate-related disasters and Covid-19 restrictions, the WMO authors write. 

One of the South Pacific’s most powerful storms ever, Cyclone Harold, pushed 100,000 people from their homes in island nations in April, with humanitarian response times slowed by pandemic-related delays in moving equipment and sending help. A month later, 180,000 people evacuated their homes in the Philippines before Cyclone Vongfong, an effort slowed considerably by social distancing measures that limited capacity for transportation and shelters.

The numbers of displaced in some parts of the world swelled into the millions. Cyclone Amphan in May forced nearly 5 million people from their homes in eastern India and Bangladesh, with more than half them facing homelessness. Summer flooding and landslides in China forced 2.2 million people to evacuate, destroying 29,000 homes.

More than 2,000 people died in monsoon-related flooding in South and Central Asia.

Developed nations suffered extraordinary losses, as well, even as infrastructure and wealth likely protected them from worse. Record fires burned California and other Western U.S. states. The U.S. Southwest saw its hottest and driest July-to-September period ever, fueling the record blazes.

Drought and extreme heat brought devastating fires to Australia early in the year. More than 90% of the building stock in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was damaged in a violent wind-and-thunderstorm event called a derecho in August. The North Atlantic hurricane season saw a record 30 named storms. Twelve of them affected the U.S., with five hitting the state of Louisiana. 

Last year was among the top three hottest on record across all five temperature datasets—about 1.2 degrees Celsius hotter than pre-industrial times. That number moves the world perilously close to the global goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C, a topic drawing national leaders to Zoom this week for a virtual climate summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden.

The hottest temperature ever measured in the Arctic Circle came in June, when Verkhoyansk, Russia, hit 38°C (100°F). Concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, which are three of the most important greenhouse gases, rose. Eighty percent of the ocean experienced a marine heatwave. Sea-level rise increased with continued melt in Greenland and West Antarctica. 

“This is truly a pivotal year for humanity’s future,” said António Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, the WMO’s parent organization. “Climate disruption is here. I urge everyone to take the message of this report to heart.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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