The world spent $50 billion dollars per year on weather-related disasters in the 1980s, according to the World Bank. Today, we spend roughly $200 billion annually. Twenty-five extreme weather and climate events in 2011 and 2012 caused more than $188 billion of damages in the United States alone. And yet—despite these escalating costs and risks—the world continues to emit dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases.

It’s time for a climate change reality check.

Perhaps no one understands this better than Dr. Petteri Talaas, director general of the Finnish Meteorological Institute and previous director of the World Meteorological Organization. Dr. Talaas has spent the past 30 years researching weather and its relationship to climatic changes—particularly in the Arctic and Antarctic. Recently, he joined Dr. Andrew Steer, president and CEO of WRI, to discuss the vast risks associated with a warmer world—as well as some potential solutions.

A Snapshot of Climate Change and Disaster Risk

Dr. Talaas and Dr. Steer were joined by Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, at “Climate Change: A Reality Check and the Role of Disaster Risk Reduction.” H.E. Ritva Koukku-Ronde, Finland ambassador to the United States, opened the event, which took place last week at the Embassy of Finland in Washington, D.C.—otherwise known as the “Green Embassy.”

The information shared was truly sobering—even for those of us who work on climate issues every day. “We’re on a pathway to a 5-degree-warmer world,” said Steer. “This would be simply disastrous by any human standard.”

Dr. Talaas expanded on just what this pathway means for communities around the globe. Consider the following factoids he shared:

  • This decade has been the warmest on record in 160 years of monitoring
  • The Arctic currently has less than one-third of the multi-year ice that it had in 1980.
  • We’re seeing a significant increase in extreme weather and climatic events. These events not only damage infrastructure, but take a toll on human welfare. For example, a 2003 heat wave in Europe led to 66,000 deaths, while another in 2010 caused about 50,000 fatalities.
  • If global emissions continue unabated, we’re on track for roughly 5 degrees C of warming—close to 10 degrees in the Arctic.

While climate change affects all communities, the Arctic is one of the most vulnerable regions. “In the Arctic, everything is happening at double-speed compared to the global average,” Dr. Talaas said.

Moving Toward a Climate Solution

Despite the gloom-and-doom statistics, the most salient message from the event is that many of these projections are preventable—if the world acts with urgency.

In fact, Dr. Steer thinks that 2014 may be ripe for momentum on climate action. “We believe we’re on the threshold of an awakening,” he said. “The issue isn’t whether we’re going to do something on climate change. The issue is whether we’re going to do something in time.”

Steer pointed to the buds of change that we’re already seeing. Climate change played a central role in discussions at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, particularly at the event’s first-ever “Climate Day.” In addition, twenty-nine major companies are now incorporating a carbon price in their long-term planning. It’s clear that businesses are starting to wake up to the threats of a warmer world.

An influx of information could help drive this momentum even further. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—which recently released its 5th assessment report—will release two new reports in March and April. One will explore the impacts of climate change, while the other will evaluate policy opportunities for mitigation. Two other forthcoming research reports, Risky Business and the New Climate Economy, will evaluate the economic costs and benefits associated with climate action. These reports will precede a major climate change summit for heads of state, hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. In addition to generating important discussions on mitigation and adaptation, NGOs and businesses are expected to come forward with commitments and actions to help address key climate challenges.

Turning a Reality Check into Action

The sundry data points, charts, and anecdotes shared at last week’s event showcase the fact that we now know more about climate change than we ever have before—about the risks and potential solutions. But information can only get you so far. Statistics and analysis are ineffectual unless they’re turned into tangible action.

“We’re heading to a place that would be very grim,” said Dr. Steer. “Our grandchildren will never forgive us unless we do something.”