There’s no such thing as ‘freak’ weather anymore – and 2023 already looks like a disaster movie John Vidal

tThe 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow was based on the idea that the North Atlantic main current could slow and then reverse, superstorms would freeze the northern hemisphere and a new ice age would suddenly descend. It was dismissed as “extremely absurd”, a “ridiculous thriller” based on “lousy science”, and some scholars have argued that it depicts meteorological phenomena “as occurring over days, rather than decades or centuries”.

Storm Elliott, the “bomb hurricane” that hit the US over the holidays, should have made some of these critics uncomfortable. Temperatures dropped in some places within a few minutes as one of North America’s greatest storms ever swept from the Arctic into Mexico, sometimes at hurricane speed. It has brought death, chaos and misery to tens of millions of people.

Severe Christmas storms and bomb tornadoes are not unusual in the United States, but Elliott was notable mainly for its continental extent and lightning speed and intensity. Scientists have yet to calculate the degree to which it could be linked to human actions and increased carbon dioxide levels, but it clearly fits the IPCC’s widely predicted pattern of climate intensification, unprecedented global heat, cold and atmospheric turbulence.

The catastrophic Christmas floods in the Philippines and Brazil were less noticeable than Storm Elliot, but likely just as important, and the alarmingly warm holiday period that has passed across much of Europe in the past 10 days. Temperatures of more than 26°C have been recorded in France, Spain and Italy, with many ski resorts in the Alps closing due to a lack of snow as it rains and temperatures rise 15° above normal. Traditionally, Australians are the ones who spend Christmas on the beach. Soon it might be anyone.

Footage depicting how severe cold weather is in the US right now – video report

The hurricane concluded the year that rewrote climate history. Not only has this been one of the hottest years on record, but also one of the driest in many countries, with some new climate-related disaster occurring almost every week. Starting with Storm Eunice in February, which devastated northern Europe, massive floods, droughts and storms have hit Pakistan, India, China, Australia, South Africa and the United States. Crops failed in unprecedented heatwaves and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced in both rich and poor countries. Temperature records dating back hundreds of years have been broken in the UK, Italy, France and Spain.

Meteorologists widely expect next year to lead to more of the same intensification of weather. The Met Office says 2022 will be the warmest year on record. It has been discovered that glaciers in Greenland are melting much faster than previously thought, heat waves are becoming more common and storms are expected to become more powerful as the oceans continue to warm.

But while 2022 may have been the year that more people experienced what used to be called “freak” weather, it was another wasted year when it comes to governments acting. What Storm Elliott and all the droughts, floods, and extreme weather events show is that we are physically, mentally, and financially unprepared for what is sure to happen. Christian Aid estimated this week that the 10 worst climate disasters in 2022 alone cost more than $165 billion, but that would likely be nothing if action was not taken to urgently adapt our infrastructure and economies.

Even with Hurricane Elliott ravaging parts of the United States, many governments in the wealthy northern hemisphere must have guessed that the climate crisis is helping to increase weather rates and that something similar or worse could easily happen in their own countries.

But the rich world has completely failed to adapt to the changes that are taking place, and it will now cost far more than it needs. Only a handful of countries – most of them on the front line of climate chaos like Bangladesh – are beginning to try to adapt to the approaching chaos and tragedies. Cop27 in Egypt may finally have launched a global loss and damage fund to help poor countries adapt, but no money has been pledged and, based on experience, likely to come soon.

All we know is that major bad weather events like Elliott’s are likely to grow in number, scope, and frequency. This means that big decisions must be made now about how we adapt our investment, housing, agriculture, food, transportation, health and energy systems.

Governments cannot avoid the climate crisis any longer. We must get used to this new reality and be prepared. We have no choice now. Everything must change.

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