Opinion: California floods and Chile fires are just the beginning

File photo/Gregory Bull/The Associated Press / Two people walk along Mission Bay during a break in the rain in Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in San Diego, Calif. Heavy rain flooded California roadways and much-needed snow piled up in the mountains as the first of back-to-back atmospheric rivers pummeled the state.
File photo/Gregory Bull/The Associated Press / Two people walk along Mission Bay during a break in the rain in Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in San Diego, Calif. Heavy rain flooded California roadways and much-needed snow piled up in the mountains as the first of back-to-back atmospheric rivers pummeled the state.

After a 2023 filled with climate disasters, 2024 seems in a hurry to top it, with atmospheric rivers in California, wildfires in Chile, drought in Spain and more in just the first weeks.

While Joni Mitchell sang "I've looked at clouds from both sides now" at the Grammy Awards in the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on Sunday night, the clouds outside were dumping more than 4 inches of rain on the city in 24 hours. That's more than the city usually gets in an entire February. Dangerous flooding and landslides were rampant from Santa Barbara to San Diego. More than half a million homes were without power.

All of this was the result of the latest "atmospheric river" to pound California this winter; the West Coast has experienced three in roughly two weeks. These giant firehoses in the sky can hold up to 15 times as much water as the Mississippi. They can be beneficial, as they were a year ago, when a series of them helped rehydrate the parched state. They can also be deadly.

Other places would do anything for an atmospheric river right now. More than 100 people have died, with hundreds more missing, as a result of a wildfire in Chile that has burned more than 16,000 acres so far. Cimate change, along with an El Niño weather pattern in the Eastern Pacific, have contributed to the worst megadrought in the region in a millennium, along with soaring summer temperatures, following record-smashing heat last winter.

It's still winter in Catalonia, but officials last week declared a water emergency for Barcelona and its surrounding area as reservoirs fell to dangerous levels after roughly three years of drought. Once again, climate change is playing a role.

This follows a year of wildfires in Canada, Hawaii and Greece; flooding in Libya and Vermont; a cyclone in Malawi and Myanmar; and much more. Climate-fueled disasters killed at least 12,000 people last year, according to one count.

The financial costs are enormous. Last year, the U.S. alone suffered 28 natural disasters costing $1 billion or more, a record, according to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. Between the atmospheric rivers and brutal polar-vortex incursions — also possibly made more likely by climate change — since the year began, 2024 is on pace to be another historically destructive year.

Earth so far has warmed by only about 1.2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial averages. Every tenth of a degree by which we crank up the global thermostat increases the atmospheric chaos and threatens tipping points that could fuel exponentially more warming and destruction. With this in mind, world leaders at the United Nations climate confab in Paris in 2015 vowed to limit warming to 2C, with a stretch goal of trying to keep it to 1.5C.

At the moment, we're failing: Current policies have the world on pace for about 2.7C of warming by the end of this century. Some observers, including former NASA scientist James Hansen, say limiting warming to 1.5C is hopeless. Some even say 2C is a lost cause.

One such person, the billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, recently claimed, "The world does not end at 2 degrees."

It was perhaps an effort to express the kind of optimism humanity needs to put in the hard hours to avoid true doomsday. And Gates is right in the sense that the world will continue to orbit the sun when it is 2C hotter. It will even continue to host human beings.

But those human beings will be increasingly threatened and miserable. Given how dangerous the world has become at just 1.2C of warming, we can't be nonchalant about inviting even more danger. Every new disaster should be a goad to do all we can to prevent much, much worse.

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