Monday, November 24, 2014
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Safer Climate Disasters

NEW YORK – Too often, participants in the climate-change debate make an erroneous distinction between protecting ourselves from the longer-term impact of global warming and better preparing ourselves against today’s extreme weather events. Recent reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have sought to break down this artificial divide. While seeking to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, we must work toward more effective disaster-risk management.

Adaptation to climate change is typically associated with the “hardware” of major development projects. It aims to build resilience against the long-term impact of global warming – that is, rising sea levels, harsher winters, hotter summers, worsening drought, heavier rainfall and storms, and more.

But what is often overlooked is the “software” of disaster-risk management – our societies’ level of preparedness, including early-warning systems, education, and effective communication with the most vulnerable populations. Indeed, this aspect of climate change has recorded some remarkable successes in recent years, notably a marked decline in weather-related deaths.

The IPCC reports remind governments and the general public that climate-change adaptation involves more than planning for changes in average temperature, sea level, and precipitation. It also requires us to reduce or manage the risks associated with changing climate activity. Much of the danger lies not just in the frequent, severe, and unpredictable weather events themselves, but also in the deadly ways that these events interact with other, man-made risks.

Humans have always been prey to nature’s force, especially along exposed coastlines, riverbanks, or hillsides. But climate change has made the floods, storms, earthquakes, heat waves, cold snaps, droughts, and landslides that mankind has come to expect much more potent. It is this vital point that the IPCC’s latest updates address in calling for disaster managers to reassess their action plans.

For example, the data for major disaster events in 2013 suggest that for the first time in many years, more people were affected by storms than by floods. Though it is too early to draw definitive conclusions, in the long run storms may contribute more significantly to the global costs of disasters, which already exceed $100 billion annually.

However, we cannot simply look to past climate events to predict future patterns. Since 2008, for example, more than 150 million people worldwide have been displaced by disasters that few predicted. And worse disasters will surely occur as the changing climate interacts with other social ills such as poverty, environmental degradation, population growth, urbanization, and poor land use.

The reality of what we face was demonstrated in two major storms last year. In October 2013, Cyclone Phailin struck India’s Odisha coastline. When a similar disaster struck in 1999, 10,000 lives were lost. Fortunately, this time the authorities and local communities were well-prepared: though 12 million people were affected by Phailin, the evacuation of one million people kept the death toll down to double digits.

Contrast that with Typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful storm ever to make landfall in the Philippines. The warming of the Pacific Ocean contributed to unprecedented seven-meter-high tidal surges. But uncertainty and inaction over Haiyan’s potential impact resulted in a death toll of nearly 6,000.

The lesson to be drawn from this tragedy is that climate change has forced us to change fundamentally the way we analyze disaster risk management. In fact, climate change essentially is about managing risk. Though the ideal long-term response would be for the world to eliminate all greenhouse-gas emissions by the end of the century, we must confront the immediate challenges of protecting the planet’s most vulnerable populations. With open discussion and a bit of ingenuity, these threats can surely be addressed.

Fortunately, the IPCC reports have generated a debate about how we should update the UN’s 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action, agreed in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. We hope that this ongoing work will inform a new approach to disaster-risk management in the run-up to the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction to be held in Sendai, Japan, next March.

The Sendai Conference must be the international focal point for future policy, and it must complement the post-2015 development agenda, which will include new Sustainable Development Goals and a global agreement on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

It is clear that the world is not ready for the unpleasant surprises that climate change will force upon it. But, with some 70 developing countries still lacking the means to provide their citizens with basic information, such as how climate change can affect agriculture and local weather patterns, there is plenty more that we can do to reduce the risks.

Indeed, it is a matter of global urgency that all societies, rich and poor, understand how disaster-risk management operates across the full spectrum of potential threats. It is not just our future prosperity that is at stake; the world could lose the hard-won gains made in poverty reduction in recent decades.

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    1. CommentedHarriet Truman

      I'm concerned that climate has become this trendy, easy to latch onto issue for slactivists. The Haiti earthquake and 2006 tsunami were arguably the worst natural disasters in the last 10 years in terms of lives lost and total destruction, yet they can't be easily blamed on climate change so no one bothers to examine how we all bungled the response. Haiti's outlook especially is still as dismal as ever. With climate change as the constant boogeyman, we never have to examine anything else. Even our own failed assistance in the face of the worst natural disasters.

    2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I agree with the writers that first of we need to concentrate on the "software" of disaster/risk management.
      But I would focus on our inner software first of all, the compatibility of the human being and nature.

      If we truly trace all the cause and effect chains behind any aspect of our deepening and seemingly unsolvable global crisis we would find that the root cause of it is our incompatibility with nature system, its laws.

      All cells, and complex organisms in the vast natural system instinctively follow the basic laws and principles safeguarding general balance and homeostasis. But not the human being.

      Despite us evolving from and still within this system, despite our whole biological and mental makeup being comprised by the same natural elements and systems as any other living organism, our inner software, the human behavior, attitude towards other part of the system and the attitude towards the system itself is totally incompatible, unnatural.

      The ruthlessly competitive, exploitative behavior of the human being towards other parts of the system including other human beings, and our behavior within the system resembles the behavior of cancer or viruses.
      And today, as other advanced cancers we reached the point of imminent self-destruction.

      It does not mean we are causing all the natural catastrophes or adverse events, but since we are incompatible, and since perception is based in equivalence of form we do not even have a chance to understand nature's forces, its behavior, to adequately warn against forthcoming events, to protect ourselves.

      If we achieved adaptation, equivalence of form we could naturally sense nature, its forces, its movement and the forces of evolution, we would know where to build, where not to build, what to use safely and what not to use, how far we could expand and extract from the system and how we could become benevolent partners achieving unprecedented and safe and sustainable lifestyle.

      Our difficulty is that contrary to other organisms achieving this compatibility instinctively, we have to achieve it against our inherent nature in a conscious and pro-active manner. But only a human being has the unique mind and capacity to achieve such a feat and this is what makes us the qualitatively most advanced creature in reality.

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