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OPINION: Recognising the human element in extreme climate events

by Steven Price, Country Program Manager for CDKN Colombia

If and where future extreme climate events cause disasters will depend less on Mother Nature and more on a dynamic mix of economic, social, cultural and governance factors. These are among the findings of the “Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX)”, produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and unveiled to the Latin American and Caribbean region at a workshop last month.

The workshop focused on disseminating the report’s findings, including the expected impacts of extreme climate events in the region and options for managing risk. It became clear that changing our mindset about “natural disasters” will be part of society’s path towards embracing climate-change adaptation. As Vicente Barros, a researcher from the University of Buenos Aires and co-chair of working group that authored the study, argued, “Disasters are not ‘natural’, but rather they are the interaction of natural climate or meteorological events with vulnerability and exposure of society or human groups.”

The disproportionate impact of extreme climate in developing countries underscores Barros’ observation. Between 1970 and 2008, 95% of disasters caused by extreme climate events occurred in developing countries and only 5% in developed countries. With this in mind, one academic at the meeting concluded that the most effective way to increase the resilience of local populations to extreme climate events is to improve the conditions for socioeconomic development. This can be done by improving household income and livelihoods, institutions, popular education, urban planning and development patterns, and community organization.

The meeting highlighted the urgent need for authorities to understand how to incorporate climate-compatible development effectively into mainstream planning; this message confirmed the relevance of CDKN’s efforts to increase the resilience of vulnerable populations in developing countries. Despite the crucial role that social, economic and cultural factors play in climate-related disasters, the meeting identified a lack of social science research on these issues. Several experts in physical sciences at the meeting recognized that research efforts in the social sciences must be bolstered to meet this challenge.

Jointly sponsored by Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Climate and Pollution Agency, CDKN and the IPCC, the workshop was hosted by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in São Paulo, Brazil. Given this setting, the report and its implications were frequently discussed in the context of Brazil’s climate scenarios, its recent experience with extreme climate events and disasters (such as the heavy rains and landslides in Rio de Janeiro in early 2011), and the specific challenges it faces in its regions and cities.

Many of these issues were strikingly similar to those being addressed in other parts of Central and South America, such as Cartagena, Quito and El Salvador. For example, the predicted rise of daily temperatures in cities such as Salvador de Bahia and Cartagena is expected to threaten urban infrastructure and lead to increased mortality rates from diseases. The report and many of these specific adaptation issues will undoubtedly provide grist for the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report due in 2014.

In the meantime, this meeting highlighted the immediate opportunities and imperative for countries in the region and around the globe to redouble research efforts (especially in the social sciences) and share experiences, lessons and innovations on adaptation strategies and on disaster prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

Image credit: AVN

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