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Driven by warming in the Pacific Ocean and human action, climate change has led to increasingly extreme weather patterns with devastating consequences.
The frequency and intensity of climate-related events are increasing substantially. In the last decade, we’ve faced more category 4 and 5 storms, more record-breaking heatwaves, more heavy rains and extreme droughts, and many other events with equally harsh impacts. At Concern, we see these impacts every day in each of the 25 countries where we work.
Climate change is a topic that can be tough to wrap your head around, especially if you aren’t a dedicated scientist. It’s also one surrounded by a lot of myth and misinformation. Here are seven key climate change facts to know, along with the data that makes a difference.
1. We’re past the point of “undoing” the effects of climate change
In 2021, sensors that have tracked carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere for over six decades detected CO2 concentrations of more than 417 parts per million (ppm). This is 50% higher than pre-industrial levels of 278 ppm, and Wired notes that the last time the Earth’s atmosphere contained this much CO2 was over 3 million years ago, when trees grew at the South Pole.
2. The seven warmest years on record have all taken place since 2015
Since the 1980s, every decade has grown steadily warmer in response to global warming. In fact, the seven warmest years on record have been the last seven years (2015 through 2021, inclusive). The three hottest were 2016, 2019, and 2020. While 2021 was somewhat cooled by La Niña conditions, it also had its share of extreme events, according to the World Meteorological Organisation:
- The global annual mean temperature was around 1.11°C above the pre-industrial average.
- Ocean levels have increased at an average of 4.5 mm every year between 2013 and 2021, more than double the rate of growth between 1993 and 2002.
- In China’s Henan province, flooding cost approximately $17.7 billion (€16.8bn) in damages. Western Europe experienced some of the most severe flooding on record in July of 2021, with loss of assets, homes, and lives in the area around Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
- Extreme drought was felt around the world, especially in the Horn of Africa, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey. In Eastern Africa, areas of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia are experiencing the worst drought in 40 years.
- Last year, the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica exceeded the size of Africa.
3. The effects of climate change are threat multipliers for poverty, conflict, and gender inequality
Some of the most direct effects of climate change are environmental: droughts, floods, land degradation, and loss of biodiversity. However, the most serious global environmental threat is also a multiplier for poverty and many related issues. Climate change is a key driver of migration and displacement, which in turn has made it a significant factor in many conflicts.
Women are disproportionately affected by climate change and related disasters. Gender inequality in many of the countries hit hardest by climate change limits their access to resources and opportunities to participate in the decision-making processes in both preparing for and responding to disasters.
4. One of the top causes of our current global hunger crisis is climate change
Hunger and malnutrition, especially in children under the age of five, is most severe in countries that are highly exposed to climate extremes. This is because many of these countries, which also typically tend to be low-income and have limited infrastructural support, are overly dependent on vulnerable agricultural systems. In fact, 75% of people living below the poverty line rely on agriculture and other natural resources to make a living. Climate change therefore reduces harvests, compromising both a family’s ability to eat and earn income.
Changes in climate are already undermining the viability of major crops such as wheat, rice, and maize in tropical and temperate regions. While a changing climate may render some crops more viable than others, the opportunities that this can provide are limited as the most vulnerable families often have little to no safety net that would allow them to pivot in their work and benefit from these alternatives. According to figures from the World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organisation:
- Nearly a quarter of the world's farmable lands are degraded.
- Climate events in 2017 had the biggest impact on hunger and malnutrition in Africa, affecting 59 million people in 24 countries.
- Climate change could push 122 million more people, mainly farmers, into extreme poverty by 2030.
- Water scarcity affects 40% of the world’s population. For every 1°C rise, 500 million additional people will face a 20% loss in renewable water resources.
- By 2050, climate change is expected to increase cereal prices by 29% by 2050.
5. More than 80% of all natural disasters in the last decade were related to climate change
The influences on climate are changing the patterns of weather, creating more frequent flooding and drought. A once-in-a-decade event has become more frequent, while previously-predictable rainfall patterns are either delayed or more intense. In fact, in the past 10 years, 83% of all disasters triggered by natural hazards were caused by events relating to the extreme weather and other effects of climate change.
Compared to the period between 1960 and 2010, the average number of floods over the last decade have increased by more than 75%. The prevalence of wildfires has doubled, and the average number of droughts each year since 2010 has increased by 57%. In 2019, the number of climate-related disasters was 237. The annual average between 1960 and 2010 was 146.
6. Climate change has adversely affected physical and mental health around the world
This year’s IPCC report points to the physical and mental tolls that climate change takes on people, particularly those in regions hit hardest by the effects of global warming. Climate change leads to higher rates of food- and water-borne disease, as well as vector-borne diseases including malaria, yellow fever and dengue.
While diarrheal diseases have decreased globally, higher temperatures, increased rain and flooding are still the cause behind many of the existing cases of cholera and other gastrointestinal infections. Overall, extreme heat events have led to higher mortality and morbidity rates, and higher rates of wildfires are also linked to higher incidences of cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.
The latest report also notes the mental health challenges associated with increasing temperatures and climate events, including trauma brought on by natural disasters and loss of livelihoods and other assets. What’s more, the available health services — especially in more remote areas — are also compromised by many of these events, meaning that people searching for medical assistance in any specialisation are often left with fewer resources or support.
7. None of this means we can’t still take action
“Global warming, reaching 1.5°C in the near-term, would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans,” write the authors of this year’s IPCC report. However, they also note that “near-term actions that limit global warming to close to 1.5°C would substantially reduce projected losses and damages.”
This is important to keep in mind: The climate crisis is an existential threat for humankind. For those of us who aren’t climatologists, it’s also a difficult concept for many of us to grasp. The biggest climate change fact we want you to take away from this piece, however, is that there is still time for us to act — and action is crucial, especially from institutions and governments.
Climate change: Your concern in action
Concern is clear that the climate crisis constitutes the most serious global environmental threat and is a significant poverty multiplier. The majority of people Concern works with are involved in some way with farming and food production. Many of these communities are also on the frontlines of climate change. We work with rural communities to promote Climate Smart Agriculture, an approach that helps families adapt to better crops, growing techniques, and soil improvement practices in response to the changing — and often unpredictable — environment. We also work to strengthen links with the private sector to facilitate access to supplies and equipment.
We also do a lot of work around disaster risk reduction (DRR), which protects the lives and livelihoods of communities and individuals who are most vulnerable to disasters or emergencies. Whether the crisis is caused by nature or humans (or a combination of both), DRR limits its negative impact on those who stand to lose the most. In some cases, we can reduce the size of a disaster, its strength, or even how frequently it occurs. In tandem with this, we can also make sure that those who are most exposed to these hazards are able to better anticipate, survive, and recover.
Our climate response is unique to the circumstances of each community where we work, but one key theme for us is prioritising indigenous knowledge and nature-based responses. We find solutions that protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems to address societal challenges. Nature-based solutions not only help to offset the immediate land degradation caused by climate change, but also address challenges like food security, water security, public health, and social and economic development.
East Africa is experiencing one of its most severe droughts in recent history. The situation is dire.