The climate risk you may not be thinking about

McKinsey 08 Oct 2019 12:00

Much of the world today — where we live, what we eat, what we do — is built on the basic assumption of a stable climate. However, our physical, social and economic systems all assume historical climate parameters that are increasingly outdated in the face of rising temperatures and more extreme weather events.

That means the most significant risk from climate change in the near term is not from a future of extreme weather — we know it is coming — but whether we have adapted to an increasingly volatile present.

Take a snapshot of the past few months: A heatwave in Europe, severe drought followed by monsoonal flooding in India and another devastating hurricane in the Caribbean. These are acute or extreme climate events. But the world is also increasingly contending with the chronic impact of climate change, long-term shifts in averages like an increase or decrease in the average annual amount of rainfall for a specific region.

Hotter summers and warmer winters drive changes in rain and snowfall, increasing risks at both ends of the spectrum — severe drought and extreme flooding. Rising temperatures are increasing the risk of heat stress, causing sea-level rise via the thermal expansion of water and melting of land-ice, driving changes in ocean current patterns (which affect the way the ocean moves and stores both heat and atmospheric CO2), as well as increasing tropical storm severity.

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