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Can We Halt the Climbing Cost of Natural Disasters?

We can halt the climbing cost of natural disasters, if we are ready to unite science and society to find a path towards a more sustainable use of the natural resources we rely on.

We are operating in a world of unprecedented risk. The London insurance market recently heard that the cost of global disasters has risen from an annual average of around $50billion in the 1980s to almost $200billion over the past decade.

Minimising exposure to unnecessary risk is a fundamental part of doing good business. So why, as a global community, are we not doing more to minimise exposure to extreme weather events that are occurring with greater frequency, and cost us billions each year?

The Risky Business report released earlier this month by a group of US political heavyweights has caused a stir by putting a price tag on the cost of inaction on climate change in the United States. Hurricanes and coastal storms combined with rising sea levels and storm surges could cost upwards of $35 billion per year over the next 15 years in the US alone.

A New Long-term Reality

But it's not just sudden events that pose a threat. Increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns also constitute long-term, 'slow-drip' climate risks. The same report suggests that - if no adaptation measures are taken - farmers in some regions of the US could see a decline in crop yields of over 10% in the next five to 10 years. Whilst it has been possible to overlook shrinking forests and water reserves, a shrinking food supply cannot be ignored.

Let's not forget the human cost. Recent climate-related extreme events, such as the 2012 drought in West Africa's Sahel region, or the 2008 cyclone in the Irrawaddy River Delta in Myanmar, have resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and widespread destruction of livelihoods.

A new report just released by the World Meteorological Organization found that hazards such as droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, tropical cyclones and related health epidemics were responsible for 8835 disasters, 1.94 million deaths, and US$ 2.4 trillion of economic losses were reported globally between 1970 and 2012.

If costs were rising, yields were declining, and lives were in danger, any business would go back to the drawing board and radically overhaul its strategy. It is time we did the same with the way we govern our earth's natural resources.

In short, we need a new approach to thinking about climate risk and responsibility, and the way this risk is distributed, managed and governed.

Humankind's Impact

Increased risks, and the disasters that can result from them, are often the outcomes of human decisions and actions. Indeed, 250 years after the industrial revolution, humans have disrupted the face of the earth so drastically that a new term has been coined to refer to this "new geological era" - we are now living in the Anthropocene.

The natural processes of the planet - and the risks and resources on it - are being shaped by society in countless ways. It is now time for science and society to work together to govern natural resources and manage risk for a transformation towards sustainability.

Putting humanitarian assistance in place once disasters have occurred is not enough. Reducing risk means uniting scientific research across subject areas from meteorology to public health and international law. It means communicating the latest evidence in accessible, easy-to-understand ways - like the Jakarta Flood Alert (Siaga Banjir) mobile phone app, which allows users to monitor changes in water levels at sluice gates, then share risk alerts via social networks and instant messaging. It means acting on existing and emerging hazards before disasters occur - like the Climate Smart Village initiative in Western Kenya, where pioneering local farmers are developing new methods of rain water collection and irrigation to deal with changing rainfall patterns.

Most importantly, reducing risks means learning from the ways in which development has in the past created conditions for disasters. Extraction activities on many of the world's river deltas have led to subsidence, leading to increased flooding and threats to local populations. Today, improved satellite technology means we have better data to assess changes, and predict what might happen next. These data need to be made more widely available as useful knowledge to vulnerable communities.

Some decisions to build resilience may not be popular, and may increase costs over the short term. But if they improve long-term sustainability for people, surely they are sound investments.

A Novel Approach: Earth System Governance

Leading scientists met earlier this month to discuss strategies for steering societies onto sustainable and just development pathways, through what is termed an 'Earth System Governance' approach to understanding the challenges posed by global environmental change, and to identifying possible solutions. At the heart of this approach is an attempt to understand the formal and informal 'rules' and structures that determine how our planetary resources are used, and how our social systems are governed.

A 'governance' approach means moving away from the idea that only a few people have the power to steer societies towards sustainable development. Instead, it moves towards the idea that many people - from individual citizens to businesses both big and small - have a role in governing the social systems in a way that prevents further disruption of the Earth's resources.

Today's reality is that the problems of climate change, from air pollution to soil degradation and water scarcity, are global, highly connected, and have the potential to affect everyone. Scientific research must align itself to the scale of the problem it is looking to solve. By uniting the world's leading scientists through one global research platform - Future Earth - an important step has been made towards this. Bringing together the work of over 50,000 scientists, the global science community for the first time can piece together a "big picture" of the challenges we face, and identify the opportunities to solve them. Partner initiatives, like the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR) programme also have much to add.

We can halt the climbing cost of natural disasters, if we are ready to unite science and society to find a path towards a more sustainable use of the natural resources we rely on.

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