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Illustration by Security Management

UN Report Finds Climate Disasters, Higher Temperatures Driving Risk in 2020

2020 is breaking records—but not in a good way. A year already defined by a pandemic, political instability, civil unrest, and economic turmoil also featured another challenge: extreme weather driven by higher temperatures. By the time it ends, 2020 will go down as one of the three hottest years on record.

The United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said in its State of the Global Climate report today that extremes linked to human-caused climate change intensified this year, despite COVID-19-connected shutdowns. The report found that worsening global warming is being seen in all seven key climate indicators—surface temperature, ocean heat, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), ocean acidification, sea level, glaciers, and artic and Antarctic sea ice extent, The Associated Press reported.

In particular, ocean heat is at record levels, and 80 percent of the global ocean experienced a marine heatwave at some point in 2020, the report said. In addition, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continues to rise. Despite La Niña conditions—which should result in a cooling effect—this year has shown near record heat comparable to the current 2016 record.

“In 2020, over 50 million people have been doubly hit: by climate-related disasters (floods, droughts, and storms) and the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report said. “Countries in Central America are suffering from the triple impact of hurricanes Eta and Iota, COVID-19, and preexisting humanitarian crises.” Nearly 53,000 hectares of cropland—mainly beans, rice, and sugarcane—were washed away, according to the Government of Honduras.

In addition to a particularly active Atlantic hurricane season—with a whopping 30 named storms, more than double the long-term average—severe flooding affected millions of people in East Africa, South Asia, China, and Vietnam. India experienced one of the two wettest monsoon seasons since 1994, and extreme flooding along the Yangtze River in China resulted in 279 deaths and more than $15 billion in reported economic losses.

Severe heat and drought in South America and the West Coast of the United States brought severe wildfire activity. Australia broke heat records in early 2020, including the highest observed temperatures in an Australian metropolitan area—48.9˚ C (120˚ F) in Penrith on 4 January.

As a result of climate disasters, approximately 10 million people were displaced in the first half of 2020. According to WMO, “The COVID-19 pandemic has added also another layer of risk to evacuation, recovery, and relief operations related to high-impact events.  In the Philippines, for example, although over 180 000 people were pre-emptively evacuated ahead of Tropical Cyclone Vongfong (Ambo) in mid-May, the need for social distancing measures meant that residents could not be transported in large numbers and evacuation centres could only be used at half capacity.”

The pandemic, conflicts, economic slowdowns, and recent climate disasters have left nearly 690 million people—9 percent of the world population—undernourished. The increased food insecurity could lead to further destabilization of currently endangered regions and populations.