The Climate Change Solution to Disasters

This year is already on track to be the hottest on record, beating out 2015 for this unfortunate distinction. Every year, if it's not the mercury rising it's the tangible impacts of climate change.
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2016-05-25-1464212707-111647-Climate_gasflaresNOAA.jpg Photo: NOAA

By Robert Glasser and Achim Steiner

This year is already on track to be the hottest on record, beating out 2015 for this unfortunate distinction. Every year, if it's not the mercury rising it's the tangible impacts of climate change.

More and more people are living in harm's way. Some of the most powerful hurricanes and cyclones ever recorded have made landfall in recent years, powered by rising and warming seas. Age-old sources of drinking water are dwindling away because of erratic rainfall patterns. Glacial melt and aquifer depletion threaten a world already overwhelmed with population movements. Disaster preparedness on flood plains and exposed coastal belts will be stretched to the limit in the coming years.

There is no sugar coating the consequences of inaction on climate change and environmental degradation. We are currently in the throes of an epochal shift in our relationship with the planet. This change is one that has been foisted upon us by ourselves.

Unfortunately, regardless of how quickly we move from realization to truly turning the tide, we will live with climate change impacts for some time to come.

But fortunately we are becoming better at dealing with climate disasters, in a twisted way because they are becoming more common. Like a firefighter learning on the job, the more emergencies we encounter, the better equipped we become to respond to a crisis.

And steadily, the international community is improving the way we deal with disasters at the global level.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction was endorsed a year ago by all UN Member States. It aims to reduce mortality, numbers of people affected, economic losses and damage to critical infrastructure from environmental, biological and technological hazards, over the next 15 years.

Early warning systems, tougher regulation for urban planning, enforcement of building codes and environmental protection measures: these are areas where much progress has already been made. And this week at the G7 Summit, Japan has indicated that it will include disaster risk management on the agenda for the first time.

The world cannot do without these efforts. The firefighter will always be necessary. But this tactical response needs to be accompanied by a longer-term strategy to address underlying causes. We have the framework for this in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Paris Agreement points the way to a world that does not suffer from its own obstinacy. For the benefit of all, there is no time to lose in its implementation. Just as many of the negative effects of climate change and environmental degradation can create a vicious circle, improved equity, green economies, and a healthy environment can create a positive feedback loop.

Evidence of these changes is starting to filter through the headlines of disaster. Last year for the first time, investments in renewable energy infrastructure exceeded those in non-renewable. Over the past 25 years, the global deforestation rate has slowed down by more than 50 percent. Today, more than ever before, you are likely to find institutional investors and financial institutions factoring in sustainability concerns in risk. The mere signing of the Paris Agreement is evidence of the shift in public consciousness. The firefighter would see all of this and be cautiously optimistic. But they would be still be extremely impatient.

We are far from out of the woods. Implementation of the Paris Agreement cannot come soon enough.

Over the last two years, the world has experienced the cyclical El Nino weather phenomenon. While itself not specifically related to climate change, El Nino has caused record-breaking cyclone seasons in the Central Pacific and Australia. The lives and livelihoods of 60 million people across the globe face threats to food security from severe droughts associated with the event. In a year rife with talk about the potential devastation that could be wrought by climate change, El Nino has offered a limited preview of what we could be in for without significant efforts to draw down greenhouse gas emissions and create more sustainable societies and economies.

Climate change precipitates crises. Crises precipitate change. Our improving disaster management strategies can continue to help put out fires, but they can't snuff out the match. We need to see that halting climate change is the only way to arrest the ever-increasing global burden of disaster.


Robert Glasser, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction

Achim Steiner, UN Environment Programme Executive Director