Amphan, the super cyclone that hit India in May, and the floods that affected many parts of the country between June and October rank among the 10 most “expensive” extreme climate events the world saw in 2020, as per a recently released study. Put together, these 10 events caused damages of over Rs 10-lakh crore ($141 billion), 322 times higher than the annual budget of India’s environment ministry.
Amphan, one of the strongest storms on record in the Bay of Bengal, with sustained wind speeds of 270 km per hour, hit both India and Bangladesh. The destruction caused by this cyclone cost both the countries – and Sri Lanka – around Rs 95,386 crore ($13 billion) in losses. The cyclone ranked fourth in the 2020 global list of climate disasters that resulted in widespread financial damages. Floods cost India around Rs 73,374 crore ($10 billion) and ranked fifth in the list.
India is among the countries that are most vulnerable to the fallouts of climate change, and in 2020 it was hit by several extreme weather events that are set to multiply in the future. And its poor are at most risk.
The Christian Aid report tracks 15 of the most destructive climate disasters of the year. Most of these estimates are based only on insured losses, and this means that the true financial costs would be higher. Together these climate disasters killed at least 3,471 people while displacing nearly 14 million.
These extreme events highlight the need for urgent climate action, said the report. The Paris Agreement, which set the goal of keeping temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels, has just turned five. It is critical that countries commit to bold new targets ahead of the next climate conference scheduled to be held in Glasgow in November, the report said.
To meet Paris targets, global carbon emissions must be halved in 10 years to 2030. This needs a 7.6% cut in emissions per year between 2019 and 2020, which means countries must up their ambitions by a factor of five, IndiaSpend reported on December 3, 2020. No country – whether rich or poor – is immune from the impacts of a worsening climate crisis, we had reported.
Three worst events
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season (June to November) was record-breaking, with 30 named storms. It caused at least 400 fatalities and a combined loss of Rs 3-lakh crore ($41 billion), ranking as the costliest disaster of 2020 on the Christian Aid list. China’s floods and wildfires in the West Coast of the United States made it to the second and third spots on the list.
China experienced intense floods starting in June. The floods affected more than 35 million people, and left at least 278 dead or missing. The cost of the floods has been estimated at Rs 2.35-lakh crore ($32 billion), the report said.
The 2020 fire season on the west coast of the United States was one of the most destructive on record. Dozens of wildfires across California, Colorado, Arizona, Washington and Oregon burned more than 8 million acres of land and caused damages amounting to Rs 1.46 lakh crore ($20 billion). At least 42 people were killed by the fires, as per the report.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has understandably been a major worry this year,” Kat Kramer, report author and Christian Aid’s climate policy lead said in a statement. “For millions of people in vulnerable parts of the world, climate breakdown has compounded this.” The good news, he pointed out, is that, as in the case of Covid-19, mankind knows how to fix the climate crisis – by keeping fossil fuels in the ground, boosting clean energy investments and helping those suffering at the frontlines.
With sustained wind speeds of 270 km per hour, Amphan was one of the strongest storms recorded in the Bay of Bengal, as we said earlier. It was also the costliest tropical cyclone of the year, with losses amounting to more than Rs 95,386 crore in cities in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The cyclone killed at least 128 people and displaced an estimated 4.9 million.
The strength of the cyclones affecting regions in the northern Indian Ocean has been increasing with rising global temperatures, IndiaSpend reported on May 19. High surface temperatures are “supercharging” these cyclones to increase their intensity, we reported. Although it did not feature in the Christian Aid list, India was hit by another strong cyclone, Nisarga, in June.
“[The year] 2020 was exceptionally warm, as far as the Indian Ocean is concerned. We saw record temperatures in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, straddling between 30 degrees Celsius-33 degrees Celsius,” said Roxy Mathew Koll, climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune. Oceanic high temperatures had the characteristics of marine heatwaves that might have caused rapid intensification of pre-monsoon cyclones such as Amphan and Nisarga, Koll added.
In addition, a warmer atmosphere can hold more water and this is driving extreme rainfall during cyclones, increasing the threat of flooding, the Christian Aid report said. Global sea levels have already increased about 23 cm as a result of human carbon emissions, dramatically increasing the distance that storm surges can reach.
Widespread June-October floods
The monsoon brought extreme rains to India, causing floods and landslides. Between June and October, these caused at least 2,067 deaths and damages amounting to Rs 73,374 crore, said the Christian Aid report.
In Kerala, a single landslide in a tea plantation killed 49 people. And in Assam, floods affected more than 60,000 between May and October, with 149 deaths, the report noted. Hyderabad, where almost 10 million people live, saw record rainfall of 29.8 cm in 24 hours. The floods submerged cars and houses, killing at least 50 people.
This is the second consecutive year that India has experienced abnormally heavy monsoon rains. And over the last 65 years, the country has seen a three-fold increase in such events, said the report.
Climate change is likely one of the causes of frequent flooding, with models showing that high carbon emissions could double their occurrence. The heavily populated basins of the major Himalayan rivers, including the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra, would be the worst hit by these events, IndiaSpend reported on July 2.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.