The year 2021 is drawing to a close. But it has left in its wake a series of extreme weather events that startled the world. These were not one-time aberrations either.

No one can predict with certainty what lies ahead. But everyone is agreed that it is imperative to look back and decipher the signals and patterns that emerged in 2021. This will not only help governments and citizens tackle emergencies but also soften the blow of climate events and mitigate environmental degradation, which has been identified as the root cause of drastic weather changes.

The prognosis is rather alarming. Last fortnight The Guardian reported a meeting of ice scientists in New Orleans to discuss the huge cracks in the Thwaites glacier in the Antarctic. The Thwaites, one of the world’s largest glaciers, already contributes four per cent to global sea-level rise. It is estimated that the loss of even a small section of the Thwaites would increase the severity of the storm surges that we have seen in the past year.

At the COP-26 climate conference in Glasgow, the cracking of the 300-metre-thick and 50-mile-wide Thwaites was cited as a significant reason to address global warming. Climate and weather extremes seen in India and around the world are also linked to increased carbon dioxide emissions, rampant deforestation, construction of mega dams, destruction of mangroves, and relentless construction and urbanisation.

Nature’s ferocious reply

The past year saw several weather events in India, including cyclones and unprecedented rain. Uttarakhand in the northern Himalayan valley was witness to severe flash floods due to the collapse of a hanging glacier in February. It caused massive flooding in Chamoli district, impacting the Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers as well as the major headstream of the Ganga — Alaknanda. Over 200 people were reported killed or missing. Most of the dead were workers at the Tapovan dam site. It is estimated that around 10,000 glaciers in the Himalayas are receding at the rate of 30–60 metres per decade with rising global temperatures. This was not the first such disaster in Uttarakhand. In 2013, flash floods claimed 6,000 lives.

Three major cyclones between May and September — cyclone Tauktae, Yaas and Gulab — lashed coastal states. Besides claiming lives, they caused widespread destruction, rainfall and flash floods in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, and Kerala. Cyclones are becoming increasingly frequent along India’s coast. Meteorologists attribute the cyclogenesis to the seas being warmer this year due to climate change.

November saw unprecedented rainfall in south India with Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala bearing the brunt. Experts felt that the excessive northeast monsoon rains were a manifestation of climate change and extreme weather. In fact, in October, Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) had, in its study ‘Mapping India’s Climate Vulnerability’, noted that the country’s southern regions were the most susceptible to weather events. India has also been identified by international experts as the country seventh-most vulnerable to climate extremes.

Global siege

Across the world, the impact of climate change manifested in deadly floods, wildfires, record-breaking rainfall, and extreme temperatures, which impacted, among others, the US, Greece, Indonesia, Australia and China.

There were snowstorms across Spain and unusually heavy rainfall followed by snow in the UK, which disrupted life. Temperatures plunged to -13 degrees Celsius in Texas, causing widespread and prolonged power cuts. In March, China witnessed its worst sandstorm in a decade, which grounded flights and shut down schools.

At the other end of the spectrum, there was a heatwave in June in parts of Canada, with temperatures almost touching 50 degrees Celsius. California recorded a scorching 54.4 degrees Celsius and Sicily in Italy recorded 48.8 Celsius. There was heavy rain and floods in Germany, and wildfires in Greece, California, the Amazon forests and Australia. Add to that the hurricanes that hit the US and various countries in the Far East and you had a year full of natural calamities.

But all is not lost. The lesson from 2021 is that climate change can, in the long run, impact food security, displace populations, and harm ecosystems unless we act now and cut carbon emissions and embrace clean technology. But this can happen only if funding is in place.

In a new report by Christian Aid, ‘Counting the Cost 2021’, Dr Anjal Prakash of the Indian School of Business makes a pertinent point: “It is the industrialised north that has contributed to much of the climate change we see today. Those countries had agreed to mobilise $100 billion of climate finance per year by 2020 but failed to meet this goal… As this new report documents, India is one of the countries which is greatly disadvantaged by climate change-induced disasters. Adhering to the principles of climate justice, the countries of the global south must call for technology transfer and adaptation finance for the countries that have not contributed historically to climate change but are bearing the brunt.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, too, stated at COP26: “The door is open; the solutions are there. COP26 must be a turning point. We must act now — with ambition and solidarity — to safeguard our future and save humanity,”