We tend to think of climate change as a long-term and linear problem. Temperature slowly rising along with sea levels, weather events getting slowly worse, glaciers slowly melting, crop yields slowly getting worse, tropical diseases slowly spreading farther and farther, etc.
In reality, the cost–in both money and human suffering–comes not gradually, but with unexpected and disastrous starts and stops. We build our infrastructure and society to withstand a certain level of environmental stress. When that stress is exceeded, the consequences can be severe.
Sadly, we saw the deadly results of a storm that was made worse by climate change, right here in Denmark on New Year’s Day. Eight people died and dozens more were injured when a passenger train car was struck by loose cargo from an adjacent freight heading in the opposite direction. The accident was caused by extremely high winds that were associated with a storm that set windspeed records across the Nordic region. While the region is used to dealing with arctic blasts and extreme weather, there is a limit to the infrastructure’s capacity to deal with it. There are some claims that this was more a case of human error (the freight may have not been tied down properly), but that rather underplays the impact of the extreme weather. Human error is a constant. But in this case human error, paired with extreme wind, was deadly.
This incident, tragically, fits with so many others we’ve seen: a slight change or increase in the severity of an extreme weather event resulting in consequences that are unexpectedly and disproportionately worse than would be otherwise expected.
While the change in severity due to climate change for any single storm might be difficult to prove, we can see these effects nonetheless. These changes are especially noticeable with storm patterns and flooding. More and more, we’re seeing extreme weather events stall because of weakened jet streams, therefore maximizing the destructive capabilities of a storm system. It means more flooding, more wind damage, less predictability, and higher adaptation costs the world over.
Part of the problem is how we perceive the problem of climate change. Humans think of change as linear. 1º C warmer means…1º C warmer. 18 cm of sea-level rise is…18 cm of sea-level rise. In our heads, we think “it’s 7º C now, so it would be 8º with climate change.” Or, “the high tide comes to here on the beach, so I’ll just add 18 cm to that.” The reality is far more complex, and with far worse outcomes.
All infrastructure has a breaking point. A structure that was designed to withstand a gust of 30 meters per second, might break apart at 31 meters per second. That slight difference can be the difference between no damage, and heavy damage. Perhaps even between a normal train ride, and death.
Of course, it’s not just wind. As we have seen in recent years, crops can only take so much rain (or lack thereof) before failing. As we saw in New Orleans, levees can only hold back so much water before breaking. And as we saw in Syria, society can only take so much climate-related strain before descending into chaos. In all of these examples, the costs were unpredictable, and quite devastating.
We often talk about the cost of climate change in dollars and cents (or, perhaps kroner). But there is also the human cost to consider. People’s livelihoods, and even lives, can be ended by one extreme weather event (whether it is a single storm, or a multi-year drought). As these events intensify, in strength, intensity, and duration, our ability to counteract them comes into question. And when human lives are at stake, no amount of money thrown at adaptation costs can make up for what is already lost.