Climate change doesn’t care about a country’s GDP. Melting glaciers at expensive ski resorts, deadly flooding in some of the world’s richest cities and wildfires across heavily touristed regions of Europe this summer have made clear that while the developing world and the poorest people are the most vulnerable to climate impacts, the rich world is far from immune.
Discussions about climate impacts often rightly focus on poorer countries as the most vulnerable, but this can give the public the impression that it is only those countries at risk and that climate catastrophes happen only in some distant “elsewhere.” This summer is a clarion call to see the monster just outside the window.
“Even within the U.S. alone, [there is] a recognition that this is not just something that is for the highest-risk locations,” said Katharine Mach, a professor at the University of Miami focused on environmental science and policy and a colead author of the U.N.’s major climate reports. “Whether it’s fire and smoke and drought and flooding, pick your category and there are impacts happening basically nationwide.”
A person with a lot of money can likely avoid the impacts of a given fire, or flood, or heat wave. But the world’s richest countries, from the U.S. to the U.K. to South Korea, have spent the summer watching climate catastrophes hit home. And not everyone can escape.
“There are huge differences in climate risks, both within and across countries,” Mach said.
Earlier in August, for example, Seoul saw some of its worst flooding ever, with an intense rainstorm that climate change can supercharge by making the atmosphere capable of holding more water. At least nine people died in the floods, largely in the South Korean capital’s below-ground apartments made famous by the Oscar-winning movie “Parasite” — a clear demonstration of how even within the richer corners of the world, marginalized people are still at highest risk.
Extreme heat spreading
Discussions about climate impacts often center on the developing world — think Bangladesh and rising sea levels, or the Middle East’s or India’s heat waves. But new research, published Thursday in the journal Communications Earth and Environment, makes clear that many of the extreme events popping up this summer are poised to become commonplace even in parts of the globe that don’t get lumped into those climate clichés.
The study projected out how many days in a given region will exceed a “dangerous” (103 degrees Fahrenheit) or “extremely dangerous” (124 degrees F) heat index in 2050 and 2100 under various warming scenarios. The researchers, led by Harvard University environmental fellow Lucas Vargas Zeppetello, found both that those famously vulnerable regions and the rich world are in for some astonishing extremes under the most likely of climate trajectories.
In the tropics and subtropics, home to much of the developing world, dangerous days accounted for no more than 15 percent of the year in a 1979-to-1998 reference period; by 2050, people in those regions could experience dangerous heat for up to half the year. By 2100, most days will exceed that dangerous threshold, and the extremely dangerous level will occur an average of 15 days every year — something that rarely happened at all in the reference period.
In the mid-latitudes, where countries like the U.S. and much of Europe sit, people will experience from 15 to 90 dangerous heat days by the end of the century — an increase of more than tenfold over 1979 to 1998.
“The sheer numbers that are possible in the likeliest scenario are extremely alarming,” Zeppetello told Grid. “There’s going to be massive adaptations required to prevent a lot of really horrible stuff from happening.”
Zeppetello and his colleagues included a case study of Chicago, where a 1995 extreme heat wave killed hundreds of people. That magnitude of heat wave, where four days exceeded 100 degrees on the heat index, will become 16 times more likely by 2100. In fact, the researchers’ modeling showed 32 such events would likely occur over a 20-year period.
Rich countries, vulnerable people
The list of wealthy-country catastrophes this summer is long. The U.K.’s heat wave in July saw the country break 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees F) for the first time in its recorded history. Heat waves across southern Europe contributed to a deadly glacier collapse in the Italian Alps. Heat warnings and advisories have rolled across the U.S. all summer, at times with more than 100 million people urged to use caution in the dangerous temperatures.
Other research has demonstrated the risks to rich countries as well. A 2019 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research calculated the per capita loss of GDP due to climate change. In a high-warming scenario, rich countries considered together would lose almost 8 percent of GDP per capita by 2100; poor countries would lose 6 percent per capita. The U.S. would lose more than 10 percent, well above the global average.
To be clear, though, the refrain that the world’s poorest — who also happened to have little or nothing to do with causing the problem in the first place — are most at risk is as true as ever.
“People have to realize how close to some really important thermal limits people in the tropics deal with for a really large part of their entire lives,” Zeppetello said.
Many people — though not all — in Chicago or the south of France can escape to the air conditioning when triple-digit temperatures descend, while the extreme heat waves that have hit India, Pakistan and Iraq this year left many with nowhere to go and outdoor jobs that still needed doing. But from melting runways to melting glaciers, the rich world is also in many ways unprepared for the extremes climate change is now starting to unleash.
Mach said there is starting to be more of a focus on some of the variability of risk and exposure even within those richer places, a process that is key to try to reduce the impacts. “There’s an increasing wave of attention to the fact that even within a very, very wealthy country, there is profound inequity in terms of exposure and sensitivity and susceptibility to different climate hazards.”
Zeppetello stressed that adaptation in both developing and developed countries needs to take a clear-eyed approach to what’s on the horizon.
“Planning for a worse scenario than we’re likely to experience is probably what we should be doing, given the fact that this, especially with respect to heat, these impacts are highly nonlinear,” he said. “The difference between a really catastrophic heat wave and something that we can manage is very, very small.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.