Water levels on the Rhine, a critical artery for the German economy, ran so low during this summer’s drought that access for cargo ships was severely reduced.

At around the same time, thousands of miles away, a monsoon in Pakistan resulted in one of the worst floods in the country’s history, as nearly eight times the average amount of rainfall washed away farmland, livestock and livelihoods.

While climate scientists continue to examine the extent to which rising temperatures influence extreme weather events, the increased frequency and severity of floods, fires and storms is cause for concern.

In 2022 alone, governments have spent billions on protecting their countries against, and dealing with the aftermath of, natural disasters — from wildfires in Spain to the continuing droughts in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

Transport vessels cruise past the partially dried riverbed of the Rhine river in Bingen, Germany
The Rhine runs low in Bingen, Germany. Water levels dropped so low this summer that access for cargo ships had to be restricted © Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

A report last year from reinsurance group Swiss Re predicted that, by 2050, global warming could cut annual global economic output by as much as 14 per cent, or $23tn.

As economies suffer, so do millions of people, especially in low-income nations. The drought-stricken Horn of Africa, for instance, is expected to face its fifth consecutive failed rainy season, worsening the hunger crisis.

A girl looks on as she sits on the shore of the Shabelle river in the city of Gode, Ethiopia
A girl sits by a river in drought-stricken Gode, Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa is expected to face its fifth consecutive failed rainy season, worsening the hunger crisis © Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

“The world needs to act now to protect the most vulnerable communities from the threat of widespread famine in the Horn of Africa,” says David Beasley, executive director at the UN’s World Food Programme. “We must get the resources needed to save lives and stop people plunging into catastrophic levels of hunger and starvation.”

The prolonged lack of rainfall has led to at least 1.1mn people being forced from their homes and into crowded humanitarian camps across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

herder armed with a gun, protecting his cattle
A herder protects his cattle in south Sudan. Violent disagreements between farmers and herders may worsen as both groups struggle to feed their communities © Media Drum World/Alamy

Historically, farmers and herders across Africa have clashed over territory and natural resources, but scientists say these often violent disagreements are being exacerbated by the changing climate, as both groups struggle to feed their communities.

In the past 50 years, drought-related hazards in the continent have claimed the lives of more than half a million people and led to economic losses of more than $70bn, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Climate change is about more than statistics, say campaigners. “It’s more than data points. It’s more than net zero targets. It’s about the people . . . who are being impacted right now,” says Vanessa Nakate, a 25-year-old activist from Uganda.

Environmental activists
Vanessa Nakate, climate activist: ‘It’s about the people . . . who are being impacted right now’ © Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images

In other parts of the world, hurricanes and cyclones are among the most costly disasters caused by weather systems, and the consensus among scientists is that they are becoming stronger and more frequent because of climate change.

Displaced people wade through flooding in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan, in August © Hussain Ali/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Earlier this year, two category four hurricanes — the second most powerful kind in the scale used by meteorologists — pummelled the Caribbean and the south-eastern coast of the US, causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage and claiming hundreds of lives.

In the past 22 months, the US has suffered 35 climate-related disasters that have each caused over $1bn of damage. One was a drought and heatwave in the western US, during which water levels in the largest man-made reservoir in the country, Lake Mead, which supplies 25mn people across seven states, reached record lows. In all they have dropped 170ft since 2000, making agricultural production in the area harder.

Lake Mead in Nevada, July 2002 . . .

. . . compared to July 2022

An international group of scientists concluded in October that the droughts across Europe, China and North America this year were made at least 20 times more likely by human-driven climate change, and that summer droughts are likely to become more intense and more frequent.

In the US, President Joe Biden remarked last month that fires in the west and south-west had burnt an area greater than the state of New Jersey. “The reservoirs out west are down to almost zero,” he added. “We’re in a situation where the Colorado River looks more like a stream.”

A resident walks past debris on Pine Island Road following Hurricane Ian in Matlacha Isles, Florida
The aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Florida. Scientists say hurricanes and cyclones are becoming stronger and more frequent because of climate change © Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg

Across Europe too wildfires blazed, scorching hundreds of thousands of hectares, including farmland. Nearly 300,000 hectares in Spain went up in flames this year — four and a half times the annual average for the previous 15 years and amounting to $2.9bn in damage.

And, although wildfires across the Mediterranean are not unusual, with some of them started by human activity, climate scientists say they are becoming more intense because of drier and warmer weather, which creates ideal conditions for still more fires in future.

A helicopter drops water as fires rage in Navalmoral de la Sierra near Avila at center of Spain
A wildfire near Avila, Spain. Nearly 300,000 hectares across the country went up in flames this year © Cesar Manso/AFP via Getty Images

Further north, the UK experienced record temperatures this summer, reaching a sweltering 40C, which caused fires in London and disrupted roads and railways.

“The sad reality is this is what the future for London and the UK is likely to look like if we don’t take strong action now on the climate crisis,” said London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Passersby walk towards an LED sign saying “18 -19 July extreme heat only travel if essential”
The UK recorded its highest temperature on record in July of this year © Sebastian Gollnow/dpa

As the shocks pile up and the urgency of cutting carbon emissions becomes more apparent, the world’s wealthiest countries face pressure from poorer nations to provide funding for loss and damage caused by climate change.

Activists and campaigners have called for an end to “empty promises” and for more action, emphasising that the costs of climate change go beyond money and physical damage.

“For many of us, reducing and avoiding [carbon emissions] is not enough,” Nakate said at COP26 in Glasgow last year. “You cannot adapt to lost cultures, you cannot adapt to lost traditions, you cannot adapt to lost history, you cannot adapt to starvation. You cannot adapt to extinction.”

Satellite image: Earth Observatory/NASA

Climate Capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here.

Are you curious about the FT’s environmental sustainability commitments? Find out more about our science-based targets here

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article