Climate change is a threat to rich and poor alike
by Achim Steiner, Patricia Espinosa, Robert Glasser
11 October 2017
From Miami and Puerto Rico to Barbuda and Havana, the devastation of this year’s hurricane season across Latin America and the Caribbean serves as a reminder that the impacts of climate change know no borders.
In recent weeks, Category 5 hurricanes have brought normal life to a standstill for millions in the Caribbean and on the American mainland. Harvey, Irma and Maria have been particularly damaging. The 3.4 million inhabitants of Puerto Rico have been scrambling for basic necessities including food and water, the island of Barbuda has been rendered uninhabitable, and dozens of people are missing or dead on the island of Dominica.
The impact is not confined to this region. The record floods across Bangladesh, India and Nepal have made life miserable for some 40 million people. More than 1,200 people have died and many people have lost their homes, crops have been destroyed, and many workplaces have been inundated. Meanwhile, in Africa, over the last 18 months 20 countries have declared drought emergencies, with major displacement taking place across the Horn region.
For those countries that are least developed the impact of disasters can be severe, stripping away livelihoods and progress on health and education; for developed and middle-income countries the economic losses from infrastructure alone can be massive; for both, these events reiterate the need to act on a changing climate that threatens only more frequent and more severe disasters.
A shocking sign of things to come?
The effects of a warmer climate on these recent weather events, both their severity and their frequency, has been revelatory for many, even the overwhelming majority that accept the science is settled on human-caused global warming.
While the silent catastrophe of 4.2 million people dying prematurely each year from ambient pollution, mostly related to the use of fossil fuels, gets relatively little media attention, the effect of heat-trapping greenhouse gases on extreme weather events is coming into sharper focus.
It could not be otherwise when the impacts of these weather events are so profound. During the last two years over 40 million people, mainly in countries which contribute least to global warming, were forced either permanently or temporarily from their homes by disasters.
There is clear consensus: rising temperatures are increasing the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, leading to more intense rainfall and flooding in some places, and drought in others. Some areas experience both, as was the case this year in California, where record floods followed years of intense drought.
Topex/Poseidon, the first satellite to precisely measure rising sea levels, was launched two weeks before Hurricane Andrew made landfall in Florida 25 years ago. Those measurements have observed a global increase of 3.4 millimeters per year since then; that’s a total of 85 millimeters over 25 years, or 3.34 inches.
Rising and warming seas are contributing to the intensity of tropical storms worldwide. We will continue to live with the abnormal and often unforeseen consequences of existing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, for many, many years to come.
In 2009, Swiss Re published a case study focused on Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, which envisaged a moderate sea level rise scenario for the 2030s which matches what has already taken place today. If a storm on the scale of Andrew had hit this wealthy corner of the US today, the economic damage would range from US$100 billion to US$300 billion. Now the estimates suggest that the economic losses from Harvey, Irma and Maria could surpass those numbers.
Reduce disaster risk now; tackle climate change in the long-term
Miami is working hard on expanding its flood protection programme; US$ 400 million is earmarked to finance sea pumps, improved roads and seawalls. Yet, this level of expenditure is beyond the reach of most low and middle-income countries that stand to lose large chunks of their GDP every time they are hit by floods and storms.
While the Paris Agreement has set the world on a long-term path towards a low-carbon future, it is a windy path that reflects pragmatism and realities in each individual country. Thus, while carbon emissions are hoped to drop as countries meet their self-declared targets, the impacts of climate change may be felt for some time, leaving the world with little choice but to invest, simultaneously, in efforts to adapt to climate change and reduce disaster risk. The benefits of doing so makes economic sense when compared to the cost of rebuilding.
This will require international cooperation on a previously unprecedented scale as we tackle the critical task of making the planet a more resilient place to the lagging effects of greenhouse gas emissions that we will experience for years to come.
Restoring the ecological balance between emissions and the natural absorptive capacity of the planet is the long-term goal. It is critical to remember that the long-term reduction of emissions is THE most important risk reduction tactic we have, and we must deliver on that ambition.
The November UN Climate Conference in Bonn presided over by the small island of Fiji, provides an opportunity to not only accelerate emission reductions but to also boost the serious work of ensuring that the management of climate risk is integrated into disaster risk management as a whole.
Poverty, rapid urbanization, poor land use, ecosystems decline and other risk factors will amplify the impacts of climate change. Today on International Day for Disaster Reduction, we call for them to be addressed in a holistic way. http://tmsnrt.rs/2zgPMlV
* Achim Steiner is Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme http://www.undp.org Patricia Espinosa is Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change http://www.unfccc.int Robert Glasser is the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction and head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction http://www.unisdr.org http://bit.ly/2xAG1S1 http://bit.ly/2ykNrHX http://bit.ly/2gfkOWE
Climate Change is Key Driver of Disasters
by Robert Glasser
Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction
8 Sep 2017
Huge Volume of Extreme Weather Events pose Major Threat to Peace and Security of Vulnerable Communities, reports United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR)
The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Mr. Robert Glasser, today expressed his deep concern at the volume of extreme weather events unfolding across the world and the implications for future loss of life and economic damage to the world economy.
Mr. Glasser said: “There can be little doubt that 2017 is turning into a year of historic significance in the struggle against climate change and all the other risks that put human life in danger and threaten the peace and security of exposed and vulnerable communities around the world who find themselves in harm’s way from hurricanes, floods and earthquakes.
“We must realise that these disaster events are not natural phenomena but are a result of a built environment which is not fit for purpose and a failure to understand how we are intensifying the cocktail of disaster risk by not adequately addressing poverty, land use, building codes, environmental degradation, population growth in exposed in vulnerable settings and, most fundamentally, greenhouse gas emissions.
“The floods and monsoon rains across South Asia, deadly landslides and drought in Africa, the impact of four major Atlantic hurricanes, a major earthquake in Mexico with a tsunami threat to central America vividly demonstrate that we need to redouble our efforts to reduce the impact of such events in the future. They are a reminder to us all that the worst disasters which could happen have not happened yet.
“If we do not succeed in understanding what it takes to make our societies more resilient to disasters then we will pay an increasingly high price in terms of lost lives and livelihoods.”
UN chief says natural disasters have quadrupled since 1970. (Associated Press)
Natural disasters have nearly quadrupled in number since 1970 and the United States has experienced the most disasters since 1995, followed by China and India, the United Nations chief said this week.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters that in recent days the world has seen the "dramatic aggravation" of climate change with "unprecedented events" caused by storms and flooding from Texas to Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sierra Leone.
In the last two months, more than 1,000 people have been killed in flooding events across India, southern Nepal and northern Bangladesh and some 40 million have seen their homes, businesses or crops destroyed. Last month, more than 1,000 people died from a mudslide and flood that hit Sierra Leone''s capital Freetown. And last week, Hurricane Harvey dumped almost a year''s worth of rainfall on Houston, America''s fourth-largest city. It destroyed some 7,000 homes and damaged more than 37,000 others in Texas and is blamed for at least 60 deaths.
Guterres said last year 24.2 million people were displaced by sudden disasters - "three times as many as by conflict and violence."
He noted that scientists caution about linking any single weather event with climate change. "But they are equally clear that such extreme weather is precisely what their models predict will be the new normal of a warming world," Guterres said.
Climate Change is Key Driver of Disasters, by Robert Glasser.
Until recently it has been well understood that the main drivers of weather-related disasters were increased exposure and vulnerability due to poverty, the breakneck pace of urbanization in low and middle income countries, population growth, the destruction of protective eco-systems and low institutional capacity to manage disaster risk.
It is generally accepted that climate change is in the mix, but it is often difficult to pinpoint the role it plays in specific disaster events. Over the last 20 years, some 90 percent of major recorded disaster events have been weather-related.
The Emergency Events Database maintained by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, based at the University of Louvain, Belgium, recorded 6,457 weather-related disasters between 1995 and 2015. There has been a doubling of such events yearly over the last decade.
About 89 percent of the 606,000 lives lost in these events occurred not in Europe but in lower income countries where under-recording of disaster-related mortality remains an issue.
Now comes research published in The Lancet, which focusses on the possible impact of climate change in Europe and finds that weather-related disasters could affect about two-thirds of the European population annually by the year 2100 leaving as many as 351 million people exposed per year compared with 25 million people exposed per year during the reference period of 1981 to 2010.
It is a comprehensive investigation of climate and demographic changes focused on natural hazards which cause the most mortality and affect the highest numbers of people including heatwaves and cold waves, wildfires, droughts, river and coastal floods, and windstorms in a “business-as-usual scenario of greenhouse gas emissions.”
A key finding is that there could be a 50-fold increase in mortality annually, 3,000 deaths, by the year 2100. In southern Europe, currently suffering the ravages of the so-called Lucifer heatwave and associated wildfires, premature mortality linked to weather extremes could become the greatest environmental risk factor.
According to The Lancet, “The projected changes are dominated by global warming (accounting for more than 90 percent of the risk to human beings), mainly through a rise in the frequency of heatwaves (about 2,700 heat-related fatalities per year during the reference period vs 151,500 during the period 2071-100).”
Those numbers are quite staggering. The implications of the findings are profound for the rest of the world, particularly low and middle income countries which do not have access to the kind of resources which Europe has for adaptation to climate change and reducing the risk posed by extreme weather events.
Many low-income countries are still struggling to put in place the most rudimentary of climate risk early warning systems that is now the objective of a global initiative backed by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the World Bank and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) in an effort to meet a key target of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction adopted two years by UN Member States.
The Lancet findings underline the size of the challenge facing many countries in regions of the world where weather-related extreme events pose an even greater threat than in Europe. The Sendai Framework sets targets for substantial reductions in disaster mortality, the numbers of disaster affected people, economic losses and damage to critical infrastructure by 2030.
This research throws into stark relief how difficult it will be to reduce disaster losses and alleviate the impact on human health if there is not a major ramping up of mitigation, climate adaptation and risk reduction efforts in the immediate future.
As the authors point out the results are particularly relevant to a key priority for action in the Sendai Framework, “Understanding disaster risk.”
A key element of developing this understanding at national and local level is the promotion of the collection, analysis, management and use of relevant data and to ensure its dissemination so that it can be acted on.
As we move towards the Sendai Framework’s 2020 deadline for a substantial increase in the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies, we need to have a much more developed understanding of what the implications are for disaster risk management of climate change and population growth.
These latest research findings are a welcome addition to our understanding of disaster risk in Europe but should also encourage similar investigations of the consequences of climate change in other parts of the world likely to suffer the worsening impacts of weather-related disasters in the future. http://www.unisdr.org/archive
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