East Meets West ｜ Chao Qingchen: Can the Earth’s “Fever” be Reduced as Extreme Weather Recurs?
This year, the world has been experiencing extreme weather, with unusual heat waves hitting India and Pakistan in March, sustained heat in the United States since June putting around 90 million people under heat alerts, and temperatures in many European countries exceeding historical extremes in July, among which Portugal experienced a high temperature of 47°C. In China, since the flood season arrived, rainfall has broken historical records in many parts of the south. A heatwave in the north has pushed temperatures above 40°C, with 245 national meteorological stations across the country experiencing daily high temperatures that have exceeded historical July extremes. Mountain fires and droughts are common in the northern hemisphere due to the heat, and the maximum electricity load in many places has set new historical records.
What has happened to the Earth in 2022? Why are extreme weather events becoming more frequent? Can humans still control climate change? Chao Qingchen, Director of the National Climate Centre of China, shared her thoughts on these issues in an exclusive interview with “East Meets West” of China News Service.
Chao Qingchen is the Director, Party Secretary, and researcher of the National Climate Centre of China, with a doctoral degree in science. She is the Co-Chair of the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) Research Group and a member of the Steering Committee; Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change and Low Carbon Economy of the Chinese Meteorological Society (CMS), and Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Meteorological Economy of the CMS, etc. As a member of the Chinese delegation, she has long participated in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Her research interests include climate system analysis and interactions, climate risk management and climate change policy. She has chaired more than ten projects, including the Key Research and Development Programme of the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, the National Science and Technology Support Programme, projects under the China Clean Development Mechanism Fund, the National Development and Reform Commission, and the China Meteorological Administration, as well as other international cooperation projects. She has published more than 60 articles and co-authored nine books.
CNS: Since the flood season arrived, many parts of southern China have been hit by continuous heavy rainfall, which has caused severe flooding; recently, heavy rainfall has also started to increase in the north. At the same time, this summer has seen persistently high temperatures in most parts of China, with many places breaking their temperature extremes. What are the causes of these extreme weather events? Has there been an increasing trend of extreme weather and climate events in China in recent years?
Chao: Since June, most of China has been under the control of warm anticyclones, and the subsidence was prevailing, with mainly sunny and cloudless weather and strong solar radiation, making it easy to develop persistent high-temperature weather. In addition, in the context of global warming, average temperatures are rising, and hot weather events are becoming more frequent. Global warming will indirectly affect global hot weather by changing atmospheric circulation and ocean and surface conditions.
People travelled with protection from the sun in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, on 8 August 2022.
Photo by Yang Bo, China News Service
Overall, China has had a relatively unusual climate this year. This year’s pre-flood period in southern China was 16 days earlier than normal, with a long duration, high cumulative precipitation, and precipitation extremes. Since the start of the pre-flood period in southern China, the national meteorological stations in Fujian, Guangdong, Guizhou, and Hainan have seen their daily precipitation break previously recorded extremes for the month. From 1 March to 31 July, precipitation in the Pearl River basin was 86.4mm higher than normal for the same period.
In recent years, extreme weather and climate events have been frequent in China. 2021 saw an average of 12.02 days of high temperatures in China, 2.95 days more than the yearly average. So far this year (1 January to 31 July 2022), the national average number of high-temperature days is 9.32 days, 3.38 days more than the same period in history (5.94 days), the most since 1961.
CNS: Across the globe, extreme heat has been frequent in the northern hemisphere this summer, with high temperatures raging in many European countries and the western United States, setting new records in some areas. What are the reasons for the frequent occurrence of extreme weather worldwide? What are the characteristics of global climate change? What impacts and hazards has global warming caused to the global economy and society?
Chao: Global warming is the climate context for the frequent occurrence of heat waves in the northern hemisphere, while atmospheric circulation anomalies have been the direct cause of the frequent occurrence of heat waves in many parts of the world since June.
The increase in extreme weather and climate events in recent years is closely related to the context of warming. Warming changes the global oceanic and atmospheric circulation and further influences the local climate through ocean-atmosphere and land-atmosphere interactions. Warming increases the instability of the climate system and makes it more susceptible to extreme weather and climate events.
In the context of global warming, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather and climate events have increased, including extreme heat, heavy precipitation events, droughts, and fires on the land and in the oceans, causing severe disruptions to social production and daily life, as well as massive loss of life and property. According to the latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), about 10% of the global population has been affected by extreme precipitation increases. Since the 1950s, around 4 billion people worldwide have experienced severe water shortages for at least one month each year. Droughts, floods, and marine heatwaves have led to reduced food supplies and higher food prices, threatening the food security, nutrition, and livelihoods of millions of people. In addition, global warming can lead to economic inequality between countries, increasing the risk of armed conflict and involuntary population movements.
In August 2020, multiple mountain fires burned across the land in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA. The blaze, consisting of 22 fires, burned at least 4,000 hectares and forced the evacuation of more than 22,000 people. The picture is an officer involved in fighting the fires using a walkie-talkie to communicate with his colleagues.
Photo by Liu Guanguan, China News Service
Global warming has also led to an increase in extreme events. Disaster losses from extreme events are also on the rise, with an average of one extreme event per day globally over the past 50 years, causing an average of 115 deaths and $202 million in damage per day.
CNS: Recently, UN Secretary-General Guterres warned at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue that “we must either act together or commit suicide together”. Is global climate change currently out of control?
Chao: The newly released IPCC assessment does point out that human activity has already caused unprecedented changes to the climate system. For example, the 50 years since 1970 have been the warmest 50 years in the last 2,000 years; the global average sea level rose by 0.2 metres between 1901 and 2018, rising faster than in any century in the last 3,000 years; the global concentration of CO2 in 2019 reached 410 ppm, the highest in the last 2 million years; the frequency of extreme weather events is also increasing, with the number of extreme weather disasters increasing fivefold and the damage sevenfold in the last 50 years. Some scientists predict that by 2100, more than half of the coastal areas could experience a once-in-a-century extreme sea level event.
These figures all point to unprecedented changes in the global climate system under the influence of human activity. If humans do not act now, climate models suggest that, based on current global greenhouse gas emissions, global warming will be between 2.2 and 3.5°C by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial times, with a significant increase in the intensity, probability of occurrence, duration, and damage of extreme events, which could have many irreversible consequences. Therefore, immediate action is needed to combat climate change, and global warming will be less severe if humans keep it under control.
A teenager skateboards in Corona Park in July 2020 as hot weather arrived in New York.
Photo by Liao Pan, China News Service
CNS: What are the main challenges in the current global fight against climate change? How should humanity respond to climate change? What efforts has China made in relevant areas?
Chao: Currently, there are challenges being faced in implementing global policies and measures to address climate change in national-level planning. Different countries are at different stages of development, have different national conditions, and face different threats from climate change, so global climate action, policies, and plans often encounter significant challenges when they are implemented in different countries. In addition, developing countries need a lot of financial, technological, and policy support in addressing climate change. Although some progress has been made in these areas with the Paris Agreement, the Glasgow Climate Pact, and other international agreements, they are still far from what is actually needed.
Mitigation and adaptation are the two main strategies for addressing climate change, and they are mutually reinforcing. Mitigation is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through longer-term adjustments in economic systems such as energy, industry, and transport, and in natural ecosystems. Adaptation is the adjustment of natural and human systems in response to climate change that has already occurred and is expected to occur, in order to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change on socio-economic development and ecosystems and to take full advantage of some of the opportunities that climate change brings.
At present, there is a global tendency to emphasise mitigation over adaptation. China has always put equal emphasis on mitigation and adaptation, and has implemented a national strategy to actively address climate change. For mitigation, China has proposed a double carbon target, actively promoting industrial restructuring and energy structure optimisation, which has achieved remarkable results in carbon emission reduction. In 2020, China’s carbon emission intensity dropped by 18.8% compared to 2015 and 48.4% compared to 2005, exceeding the 40%-45% reduction committed to the international community. China has been promoting green and low-carbon development, with the production and sales scale of new energy vehicles ranking first in the world, and the manufacturing of wind power and photovoltaic power generation equipment forming the most complete industrial chain in the world. In June, China issued The National Strategy for Climate Change Adaptation 2035, an important document that outlines China’s strategy for building a global model for climate change adaptation with policies and actions to be taken.
An aerial photograph of the photovoltaic modules on the roof of Hangzhou West Station in April 2022. The photovoltaic power generation project at Hangzhou West Station covers an area of 15,000 square meters. It is expected to generate an average of 2.31 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year after completion, saving more than 830 tons of standard coal and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by more than 2,300 tons per year.
Photo by Wang Gang, China News Service
The goal of carbon neutrality cannot be achieved effortlessly, we can neither wait nor rush, and must respect the objective law, plan scientifically, turn pressure into motivation, stand on the present moment, solve specific problems one step at a time, and promote the implementation of the goals in hand.
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