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FEATURE: Ten key messages of the IPCC Special Report on Extreme Events

Kampala, Uganda, 18th November 2011

By Dr. Tom Mitchell, Overseas Development Institute and Dr. Maarten van Aalst, Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre 

On 18th November 2011, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) launched its ‘Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation’ (SREX). The findings were approved by 194 governments following a four-day meeting in Kampala, Uganda in which the Report’s Summary for Policy Makers was agreed line by line. Written over two and a half years by over 200 hundred authors, reviewed by many hundreds more and involving academics, practitioners and policy makers from Fiji to Senegal and from Russia to Chile, the report presents a dramatic and precise set of findings.

Launched against a backdrop of famine in Somalia, unseasonably heavy snowfall in the US, floods in Thailand and a national drought emergency in Tuvalu; the report includes clear but typically subtle and conservative assessments that foresee a world of ever more frequent disasters in a warming world. It also gives a sense of hope, however, in its inclusionInclusion in relation to climate change promotes social inclusion as a co-benefit of adaptation, and also fair conditions to bridge the divide between developed and developing countries.'Inclusion is a sense of belonging: feeling respected, valued for who you are; feeling a level of supportive ... of a catalogue of measures at local, national and international level that successfully reduce disaster risk. It suggests that such measures will need to be significantly scaled up, alongside deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissionsGreenhouse gas emissions cause dangerous anthropogenic climate change. Emissions include CO2, fluoridated gases, methane which are emitted by human activity such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels, and water vapour., if countries and communities are to avoid the worst disasters in a changing climate. The report is also clear that in some cases upgrading existing approachesCore to livelihoods approaches are a set of principles that underpin best practice in any development intervention: *People-centred *Responsive and participatory *Multi-level *Conducted in partnership * Sustainable *Dynamic will not be enough and more systemic transformations will be required.

Key messages of SREX are as follows:

1.       Even without taking climate changeClimate change is a lasting change in weather patterns over long periods of time. It can be a natural phenomena and and has occurred on Earth even before people inhabited it. Quite different is a current situation that is also referred to as climate change, anthropogenic climate change, or ... into account, disaster risk will continue to increase in many countries as more vulnerable people and assets are exposed to weatherWeather refers to the state of the atmosphere with regard to temperature, cloudiness, rainfall, wind, and other meteorological conditions. (UKCIP) extremes.

2.       Evidence suggests that climate change has changed the magnitude and frequency of some extreme weather and climate events (‘climate extremes’) in some regions already.

3.       Climate change will have significant impacts on the severity and magnitude of climate extremes in the future. For the coming two or three decades, the expected increase in climate extremes will probably be relatively small compared to the normal year-to-year variations in such extremes. However, as climate change becomes more dramatic, its effect on a range of climate extremes will become increasingly important and will play a more significant role in disaster impacts.

4.       There is better information on what is expected in terms of changes in extremes in various regions and sub-regions, rather than just globally; though for some regions and some extremes uncertaintyUncertainty is a fact of climate change research, and includes the physical science like climate projections as well as the impacts of climate change. To communicate this range of possibilities is part of providing responsible climate information. remains high. Climate extremes are essentially becoming more unpredictable.

5.       High levels of vulnerabilityVulnerability. Refers to the magnitude of harm that would result from a particular hazardous event. The concept recognises, for example, that different sub-types of a receptor may differ in their sensitivity to a particular level of hazard. Therefore climate vulnerability defines the extent to ..., combined with more severe and frequent weather and climate extremes, may result in some places, such as atolls, being increasingly difficult places in which to live and work.

6.       A new balance needs to be struck between measures to reduce risk, transfer risk (e.g. through insuranceduplicate so link later) and effectively prepare for and manage disaster impact in a changing climate. This balance will require a stronger emphasis on anticipation and risk reductionReduction of the likelihood over a specified time period of severe alterations in the normal functioning of a community or a society due to hazardous physical events interacting with vulnerable social conditions, leading to widespread adverse human, material, economic, or environmental effects ....

7.       In this context, existing risk management measures need to be improved as many countries are poorly adapted to current extremes and risks, let alone those projected for the future.  This would include a wide range of measures such as early warning systems, land use planning, development and enforcement of building codes, improvements to health surveillance, or ecosystemA system of living organisms interacting with each other and their physical environment. The boundaries of what could be called an ecosystem are somewhat arbitrary, depending on the focus of interest or study. Thus, the extent of an ecosystem may range from very small spatial scales to, ... management and restoration.

8.       Countries’ capacity to meet the challenges of observed and projected trends in disaster risk is determined by the effectiveness of their national risk management system. Such systems include national and sub-national governments, the private sector, research bodies, and civil society including community-based organisations.

9.       Where vulnerability and exposure are high, capacity is low and weather and climate extremes are changing, more fundamental adjustments may be required to avoid the worst disaster losses and avoid tipping points.

10.   Any delay in greenhouse gasGreenhouse gas emissions cause dangerous anthropogenic climate change. Emissions include CO2, fluoridated gases, methane which are emitted by human activity such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels, and water vapour. mitigationMitigation refers to actions that reduce our contribution to the causes of climate change. This means reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), through energy efficiency and using alternative forms of transport and energy.(UKCIP) is likely to lead to more severe and frequent climate extremes in the future.

Implications of the Report

SREX represents a significant step forward for the integration and harmonisation of the climate change adaptationAdjustments in human and natural systems, in response to actual or expected climate stimuli or their effects, that moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. (IPPC), disaster risk managementProcesses for designing, implementing, and evaluating strategies, policies, and measures to improve the understanding of disaster risk, foster disaster risk reduction and transfer, and promote continuous improvement in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery practices, with the explicit ... and climate science communities. Definitional divisions have largely been closed, with the report producing a joint definition of vulnerability and exposure for example, which represents a departure from the definition used in the IPCC fourth assessment report.

Politically, while the report does not include enough specific information on which one would wish to base wise policy at national or sub-national scale, it does offer a solid basis and a set of findings that can serve to pique the interest of influential policy makers hitherto unfamiliar with the seriousness of this issue. Internationally, the report may help to (i) strengthen the integration of financial mechanisms to support adaptationAdjustments in human and natural systems, in response to actual or expected climate stimuli or their effects, that moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. (IPPC) and disaster risk management, (ii) reveal the importance of changing climate extremes and disaster risk to policy makers working in other policy domains, (iii) add clarity and energy to the development of the UNFCCC Loss and Damage mechanism  (intended to help support developing countries impacted by disasters associated with climate extremes), (iv) focus minds on the importance of mitigating greenhouses gases for avoiding the worst climate extremes.

Certainly the report signals a need for countries to reassess their investments in measures to manage disaster risk. New disaster risk assessments that take climate change into account may require countries and people to refresh their thinking on what levels of risk they are willing and able to accept. This comes into sharper focus when considering that today’s climate extremes will be tomorrow’s ‘normal’ weather and tomorrow’s climate extremes will stretch our imagination and capacity to copeThe ability of people, organizations, and systems, using available skills, resources, and opportunities, to address, manage, and overcome adverse conditions. (IPCC-SREX, 2014) as never before. Smart development and economic policies will need to consider changing disaster risk as a core component unless ever more money, assets and people are to be washed away with the coming floodThe overflowing of the normal confines of a stream or other body of water, or the accumulation of water over areas that are not normally submerged. Floods include river (fluvial) floods, flash floods, urban floods, pluvial floods, sewer floods, coastal floods, and glacial lake outburst floods ....

Want to know more? Read a longer description of the  SREX – Key Messages.

Disclaimer: While both the authors of this blog are Co-ordinating Lead Authors of the IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, and members of the Core Writing Team of the Report’s Summary for Policy Makers, the article does not represent the views of the IPCC or necessarily of either of the author’s host organisations.


Image credit: Oxfam International

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