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OPINION: Strike first, before the next climate disaster


By Mairi Dupar, Global Public Affairs Coordinator, CDKN

This article first appeared on ThomsonReuters Alertnet.

Disaster galvanises action. Floods, cyclones, droughts jolt leaders into planning for future extreme weather events in a way that scientists’ projections about climate change – which might seem too hypothetical – often fail to do. What we need is the same flurry, but before the fact.

A new report by the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organisation, The Global Climate 2001-2010, finds that the first decade of the 21st century was the warmest since records began around 1850. It also provides a cast-iron case for policy-makers to prepare for climate disasters before they strike.

The WMO finds that the sweltering decade 2001- 2010 forms part of a trend of rapidly accelerating global warming since around 1970. Not only did mean temperatures increase, but the WMO found that national meteorological offices reported more, record-breaking hot days than ever before.

2001-2010 also happens to be the second wettest decade on record – and a decade characterised by intense and destructive droughts and storms. With this year’s Atlantic Hurricane season under way and forecast to be very active, it is instructive to note that the last decade was the ‘most active decade since 1855 for tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic Basin.’

The good news nested in the WMO’s otherwise deeply sobering report is that disaster preparedness pays off: storm- and flood-related deaths are down (16% and 43% respectively) thanks to better early warning systems and disaster preparedness. That’s in spite of larger populations living in harm’s way: on exposed coasts and flood plains.

The release of The Global Climate 2001-2010 comes just as the Caribbean community of nations (CARICOM), a particularly susceptible area, prepares to launch a decision-making tool that will screen investment proposals for climate risk. Before examining this state-of-the-art approach, here are a few thoughts on the role of disasters in motivating climate action.

Disasters – a great motivator

The WMO findings on the recent prevalence of climate extremes and disasters strike me as a grim but fitting conclusion to a decade of weather that was not only warm – at a global level – but also disruptive. It was a decade where extreme weather (including excessive rainfall and intense storms) were the prompting factors for political action on climate change in many affected countries.

Importantly, as the WMO report acknowledges, single weather disasters can’t automatically be attributed to climate change and especially to the anthropogenic element of climate change (although this scientific frontier is steadily advancing, as ODI disaster risk expert Tom Mitchell describes). Rather, such temperature extremes and disasters take place against a larger backdrop: rising greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity are chiefly to blame for the rapid rise in global temperatures since the middle of the 20th century (WMO) and overall global temperatures are set to rise up to 4 degrees above preindustrial levels this century (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

The Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), an alliance of organisations including ODI, recently assessed the Drivers and Challenges of Climate Compatible Development. The assessment by Ali Cambray together with ODI researchers Karen Ellis and Alberto Lemma, found that ‘extreme weather events and disasters can focus political attention and catalyse action.’

CDKN assists developing countries to embrace climate compatible development; in our three years of operation, we’ve seen weather disasters motivate developing country governments to re-think their investments. They have begun to design policies for new transport, energy, housing and health infrastructure with climate resilience in mind, thinking, ‘how can this infrastructure endure greater extremes of heat or rainfall?’  And in some cases, they have set about reconstructing settlements that were destroyed by storms and floods, with an eye to reducing vulnerability the next time disaster strikes.

It happened in El Salvador, where Tropical Storm Agatha (2010) caused 11 deaths and US$112 million in damage (United Nations). Here, the government began work on better mainstreaming climate adaptation into development of the agriculture, water, health, education and infrastructure sectors, with CDKN assistance. In the same year in Pakistan, devastating floods in Punjab province affected 20 million people, 11 million of whom were left homeless. CDKN was asked to support the Punjab Disaster Management Authority to integrate climate change and vulnerability assessments into post-disaster reconstruction guidelines. We are now working with the National Disaster Management Authority on a risk insurance framework for the climate-vulnerable poor. These are hugely positive measures. Can even more be done to anticipate and reduce the impacts of disasters?

Seeing investment through a disaster risk lens

To build climate resilience, one of the most progressive steps governments can take is to invest in strategies, plans and systems that hard-wire disaster risk management into economic and fiscal planning (see the ODI-CDKN report on Tackling Exposure for more). Put simply, disaster risk management should play a role from the strategic to the project level, before the first spadeful of dirt is dug on new investments in climate-vulnerable sectors. Tomorrow, the nations of the Caribbean community (CARICOM) launch a decision support tool to do this. They will provide a leading-edge example from which others can learn.

The Caribbean nations are highly exposed to droughts and storms, along with sea level rise (another insidious climate impact noted in the WMO report). It’s this climate vulnerability – together with their economic dependence on imported oil and the multiple benefits of weaning off fossil fuels – that encouraged governments of the regional organisation to develop a framework for tackling climate change, followed by an implementation plan. The launch of the Caribbean Climate Online Risk and Adaptation tool (CCORAL) tomorrow is a key component of that plan.

CCORAL is an online, interactive support system and screening tool for more climate resilient decision-making in the Caribbean. The tool is geared towards national and regional agencies with responsibility for development, planning and finance, the private sector and non-governmental organisations. It will be available to all member countries through an open source online platform.

The Caribbean region’s history of assessing climate vulnerability, and developing a strategy and action plan to tackle it, enhanced by a tool that guides decision-makers step by step through project-specific choices, is a sophisticated evolution in understanding and climate risk management.  It’s by no means an end point: it’s just a new chapter in testing our political and economic systems to deal with the challenges the global climate presents us. But it’s a highly significant chapter nonetheless.

With the WMO’s latest, substantive addition to the case for climate action, decision-makers are faced with a choice. Will it take flooded river waters or rising sea levels lapping at their doors to catalyse transformation in decision-making systems and investments, toward a more climate compatible development future?

Or will they take the kind of leap the CARICOM community has taken? Will they embrace a new ethos of climate risk management to anticipate climate disasters before they strike?

 

Image copyright Panos

 

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