Cli­mate change is a threat to rich and poor alike

Business World - - OPINION - By Achim Steiner, Pa­tri­cia Espinosa and Robert Glasser ACHIM STEINER is Ad­min­is­tra­tor of the United Na­tions Devel­op­ment Pro­gramme. PA­TRI­CIA ESPINOSA is Ex­ec­u­tive Sec­re­tary of UN Cli­mate Change. www.un­ ROBERT GLASSER is the UN Se­cret

FROM Miami and Puerto Rico to Bar­buda and Ha­vana, the dev­as­ta­tion of this year’s hur­ri­cane sea­son across Latin Amer­ica and the Caribbean serves as a re­minder that the im­pacts of cli­mate change know no bor­ders.

In re­cent weeks, Cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­canes have brought nor­mal life to a stand­still for mil­lions in the Caribbean and on the Amer­i­can main­land. Har­vey, Irma, and Maria have been par­tic­u­larly dam­ag­ing. The 3.4 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants of Puerto Rico have been scram­bling for ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties in­clud­ing food and wa­ter, the is­land of Bar­buda has been ren­dered un­in­hab­it­able, and dozens of peo­ple are miss­ing or dead on the UNESCO world her­itage is­land of Do­minica.

The im­pact is not con­fined to this re­gion.

The record floods across Bangladesh, In­dia and Nepal have made life mis­er­able for some 40 mil­lion peo­ple. More than 1,200 peo­ple have died and many peo­ple have lost their homes, crops have been de­stroyed, and many work­places have been inundated. Mean­while, in Africa, over the last 18 months 20 coun­tries have de­clared drought emer­gen­cies, with ma­jor dis­place­ment tak­ing place across the Horn re­gion.

For those coun­tries that are least de­vel­oped the im­pact of dis­as­ters can be se­vere, strip­ping away liveli­hoods and progress on health and ed­u­ca­tion; for de­vel­oped and mid­dle-in­come coun­tries the eco­nomic losses from in­fra­struc­ture alone can be mas­sive; for both, these events re­it­er­ate the need to act on a chang­ing cli­mate that threat­ens only more fre­quent and more se­vere dis­as­ters.


The ef­fects of a warmer cli­mate on these re­cent weather events, both their sever­ity and their fre­quency, has been rev­e­la­tory for many, even the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity that ac­cept the sci­ence is set­tled on hu­man-caused global warm­ing.

While the silent catas­tro­phe of 4.2 mil­lion peo­ple dy­ing pre­ma­turely each year from am­bi­ent pol­lu­tion, mostly re­lated to the use of fos­sil fu­els, gets rel­a­tively lit­tle me­dia at­ten­tion, the ef­fect of heat- trap­ping green­house gases on ex­treme weather events is com­ing into sharper fo­cus.

It could not be oth­er­wise when the im­pacts of these weather events are so pro­found. Dur­ing the last two years over 40 mil­lion peo­ple, mainly in coun­tries which con­trib­ute least to global warm­ing, were forced ei­ther per­ma­nently or tem­po­rar­ily from their homes by dis­as­ters.

There is clear con­sen­sus: ris­ing tem­per­a­tures are in­creas­ing the amount of wa­ter va­por in the at­mos­phere, lead­ing to more in­tense rain­fall and flood­ing in some places, and drought in oth­ers. Some ar­eas ex­pe­ri­ence both, as was the case this year in Cal­i­for­nia, where record floods fol­lowed years of in­tense drought.

TOPEX/ Po­sei­don, the first satel­lite to pre­cisely mea­sure ris­ing sea lev­els, was launched two weeks be­fore hur­ri­cane An­drew made land­fall in Florida 25 years ago. Those mea­sure­ments have ob­served a global in­crease of 3.4 mil­lime­ters per year since then; that’s a total of 85 mil­lime­ters over 25 years, or 3.34 inches.

Ris­ing and warm­ing seas are con­tribut­ing to the in­ten­sity of trop­i­cal storms world­wide. We will con­tinue to live with the ab­nor­mal and of­ten un­fore­seen con­se­quences of ex­ist­ing lev­els of green­house gases in the at­mos­phere, for many, many years to come.

In 2009, Swiss Re pub­lished a case study fo­cused on Mi­amiDade, Broward and Palm Beach Coun­ties, which en­vis­aged a mod­er­ate sea level rise sce­nario for the 2030s which matches what has al­ready taken place to­day. If a storm on the scale of An­drew had hit this wealthy cor­ner of the US to­day, the eco­nomic dam­age would range from $100 bil­lion to $300 bil­lion. Now the es­ti­mates sug­gest that the eco­nomic losses from Har­vey, Irma and Maria could sur­pass those num­bers.


Miami is work­ing hard on ex­pand­ing its flood pro­tec­tion pro­gram; $400 mil­lion is ear­marked to fi­nance sea pumps, im­proved roads, and sea­walls. Yet, this level of ex­pen­di­ture is be­yond the reach of most low and mid­dle-in­come coun­tries that stand to lose large chunks of their GDP ev­ery time they are hit by floods and storms.

While the Paris Agree­ment has set the world on a long-term path to­wards a low-car­bon fu­ture, it is a windy path that re­flects prag­ma­tism and re­al­i­ties in each in­di­vid­ual coun­try.

Thus, while car­bon emis­sions are ex­pected to drop as coun­tries meet their self-de­clared tar­gets, the im­pacts of cli­mate change may be felt for some time, leav­ing the world with lit­tle choice but to in­vest, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, in efforts to adapt to cli­mate change and re­duce dis­as­ter risk. The ben­e­fits of do­ing so makes eco­nomic sense when com­pared to the cost of re­build­ing.

This will re­quire in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion on a pre­vi­ously un­prece­dented scale as we tackle the crit­i­cal task of mak­ing the planet a more re­silient place to the lag­ging ef­fects of green­house gas emis­sions that we will ex­pe­ri­ence for years to come. Restor­ing the eco­log­i­cal balance be­tween emis­sions and the nat­u­ral ab­sorp­tive ca­pac­ity of the planet is the long-term goal. It is crit­i­cal to re­mem­ber that the long-term re­duc­tion of emis­sions is THE most im­por­tant risk re­duc­tion tac­tic we have, and we must de­liver on that am­bi­tion.

The Novem­ber UN Cli­mate Con­fer­ence in Bonn presided over by the small is­land of Fiji, pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to not only ac­cel­er­ate emis­sion re­duc­tions but to also boost the se­ri­ous work of en­sur­ing that the man­age­ment of cli­mate risk is in­te­grated into dis­as­ter risk man­age­ment as a whole.

Poverty, rapid ur­ban­iza­tion, poor land use, ecosys­tems de­cline and other risk fac­tors will am­plify the im­pacts of cli­mate change.

To­day on In­ter­na­tional Day for Dis­as­ter Re­duc­tion, we call for them to be ad­dressed in a holis­tic way.

Restor­ing the eco­log­i­cal balance be­tween emis­sions and the nat­u­ral ab­sorp­tive ca­pac­ity of the planet is the long-term goal.

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