Extreme weather has already displaced 7 million people this year
Following Hurricane Dorian, large parts of the Bahamas have been left in a state of ruin, made unlivable to the hundreds of thousands of people who have called the islands their home. Those citizens of the devastated nation will just be the latest in a growing number of people who have been displaced as a result of extreme weather events. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), in the first six months of 2019, more than seven million people were forced to leave their homes by floods, landslides, tornadoes and other natural disasters.
The IDMC, which has been publishing annual reports on displacement since 2003, says the amount of displacement that has already taken place in 2019 puts it on pace to be one of the most disastrous years in recent memory. The seven million people who have faced at least temporary displacement because of weather events is the highest mid-year mark on record — and that's before taking into account any of the movement that will result from the damage caused by Hurricane Dorian. The organization projects that there could be as many as 22 million people who have been displaced by the end of the year.
The fact that most of these displacements are caused by weather-related disasters — by comparison, about half as many people have been forced to move due to regional conflict and violence — is troubling, as most indicators suggest that we will only have more of these extreme weather events going forward. Global temperatures have been rising since 1880, with nearly two-thirds of the increases in Earth's temperature occurring since 1975, according to NASA's Earth Observatory program. That spike in temperature occurring in the last four decades or so corresponds to a similar uptick in the number of extreme weather events that have taken place. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the number of extreme storms increasing significantly starting in the 1970s after remaining relatively consistent prior. That includes events like large fires becoming five times more common than they were just 40 years ago and a 70 percent increase in the amount of intense rainstorms in the last 50 years, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
It's difficult to separate these occurrences from human-caused climate change. We know that as the earth's temperature rises, it doesn't necessarily mean that we will only experience hotter weather — a common misconception, and the primary reason that many scientists have moved away from the term "global warming" in favor of climate change. It means that we will experience more extreme weather events of all kinds. That means more heatwaves, more cold fronts, more droughts, more storms — just about everything that we would normally experience, but with an amplified intensity. That said, it's also difficult to tie any single extreme weather event to climate change. While no one natural disaster can be completely attributed to the massive amount of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere by humans, there have been efforts to track just how much worse we have made these disasters. Environment-focused publication Carbon Brief reported that, in a study of more than 230 extreme weather events, as many as 68 percent of them were made more severe by human-caused climate change.
If there is good news associated with the massive amount of displacement being caused by these types of events — including many that scientists believe we have only made worse through climate change — it is that the number is so high because we've gotten quite good at getting people out of the way of deadly storms. Previously, a significant portion of those seven million people forced to leave their home would have instead been killed by storms. The New York Times specifically pointed out the 3.4 million people who were evacuated from regions of India and Bangladesh earlier this year when Cyclone Fani was threatening the region. The weather event resulted in fewer than 100 fatalities — a number that could have been much higher without proper preparation and action taken by governments. Those skills will be imperative as we face more and more extreme weather events in the future — just as imperative as actually taking collective action to combat the human-caused climate change that is exacerbating these events.