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Climate Change on International Disaster Talks Agenda

It may be nine months until pivotal climate negotiations get underway in Paris, but climate change is very much on the international agenda this week in Sendai, Japan. Countries from the around world have convened there at the behest of the United Nations for the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction with the goal of updating a 10-year-old agreement.

In that decade, much has changed including an expanded look at how climate change can influence disasters and what can be done to address its impact head-on. When the 2005 agreement, dubbed the Hyogo Framework, was signed, climate change was viewed as a distant, future threat. But the impacts of climate change have become more pressing and clear in the intervening years and the costs of not addressing it could be in the trillions.

Assessing damage in the wake of Cyclone Pam.
Credit: ECHO/Flickr

Cyclone Pam, which recently decimated the small island nation of Vanuatu, has raised the profile of climate risks at the talks, even if the role of climate change in the devastation is nuanced.

“We’re in a very different territory than 10 years ago,” Maarten van Aalst, head of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center, said. “Better managing climate and weather extremes is much bigger than 10 years ago and that’s a good thing.”

Part of what’s driven that new outlook is the staggering losses driven by climate- and weather-related extreme events since the last disaster agreement was forged. The world has seen roughly $1.4 trillion in financial losses from disasters over that period, 90 percent of which were driven by storms, floods, droughts and heat waves.

“Although risk information for planning, early warning systems and other measures have contributed to significant reductions in lives lost, economic losses are still growing,” Maxx Dilley, the director of the World Meteorological Organization’s Climate Prediction and Adaptation Branch, said in an email. “Climate change is posing new challenges — such as more frequent heat waves and other extreme events — that will require stepped-up action as well.”

Rising seas, more intense cyclones, hotter heat waves and more intense downpours and droughts are all projected climate change impacts. The myriad impacts has helped drive the discussion at Sendai toward warning systems that can address multiple hazards as well as how to rebuild better after disasters.

“With disasters comes opportunity,” Peter Schultz, a consultant with ICF International, said. “We see this opportunity for transformational adaptation, adaptation that creates a fundamentally different set of infrastructure and ways of operating. This might sound a little like ambulance chasing, but there is a massive opportunity.”

Schultz pointed to coastal development in New York in the wake of Sandy as one example. Sea level rise increased the damage wrought by Sandy’s surge by $2 billion and Schultz said that constructing dunes in Brooklyn and Queens, and proposed flood protections for Manhattan are effective responses to deal with present and future risk from the twin threats of storm surge and sea level rise.

Other policy solutions haven’t been quite as effective, including the federal government continuing to offer below market rate flood insurance and not taking future sea level rise into consideration for flood zones and rates. Justin Ginnetti, a senior advisor at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, said that basically amounted to creating a policy that locks in greater risk by giving more people incentive to build along the coast. Those choices underscore the need to think about not just current risks but future ones as well.

Ginnetti co-authored a recent report on displacement risks due to disasters. The findings show that since 1970, disaster-related displacement has quadrupled, driven in large part by growth in vulnerable areas. The report’s findings show that climate change and continued development in hazardous areas are likely to displace even more people.

Workers in Niger construct berms to collect rain when it falls, helping to reduce drought risk and encourage new vegetation growth in the semi-arid region.
Credit: Oxfam International/Flickr

There are some low-cost options to reduce risks from disasters and climate change that are available to developing countries and poorer cities. But some solutions, like those available to resource-rich New York City might not be an option for cash-strapped parts of the world. Vanuatu, for example, faces a massive rebuild in the wake of Cyclone Pam but is hindered by limited available financial resources. Rising seas could eventually swallow the tiny nation or make its islands uninhabitable, rendering any defenses moot and forcing Vanuatu’s 260,000 citizens to relocate. 

And that gets at what one of two things that could bog down talks at Sendai as well as Paris: money, particularly who should pay to reduce the impacts of climate-related disasters and displacement.

Financing climate adaptation for poor countries — which have had low carbon dioxide emissions but are expected to bear the brunt of climate change impacts — has been a major sticking point in international climate talks.

Some of the “more toxic elements of discussion about the road to Paris are entering the Sendai negotiations,” van Aalst said. “These are opening shots for negotiations to be carried on throughout the year.”

In other words, what happens in Sendai doesn’t stay in Sendai and could have negotiators from developed countries edgy to cede too much ground ahead of Paris (and another major meeting about sustainable development goals set for July in New York).

That ties into the second problem of a lack of political will. In some cases, it could be electoral gridlock, which has notably affected climate progress in the U.S. In other cases, it could be the “din” of everyday needs like sanitation and water that drown out climate and disaster planning. But the daily noise, climate and disaster planning aren’t mutually exclusive, especially if they’re approached in a manner that doesn’t weigh climate above everything else.

“We really advocate asking development questions rather than saying we’ve got a climate hammer, let’s look for a climate nail,” Schultz said.

Ultimately, the answer may be not getting stuck on the semantics of whether it’s climate adaptation or disaster risk reduction (or any other UN-sanctioned term for that matter).

“Let’s not get too hung up on the name, let’s focus on what we need to do in our communities that’s going to work in 5, 10, 50 years,” Ginnetti said. “The risks are well-known. It’s a matter of making them relevant and recognizing the common objectives, common time horizons. That’s how we can get some traction.”

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