Dissonance and disaster

These numbers simply don’t make sense

By David Salt

“It’s baffling,” says Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction. She simply doesn’t understand why nations are continuing to knowingly “sow the seeds of our own destruction, despite the science and evidence that we are turning our only home into an uninhabitable hell for millions of people”.

That’s a pretty strong statement but Mami has a special insight on the topic being the Chief of the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. She’s seen the numbers (and was talking about them on Disaster Risk Reduction Day earlier this month).

In the last two decades there have been 7,348 recorded disaster events worldwide. By comparison, the previous 20-year period (1980 to 1999) saw 4,212 reported disasters from natural hazards. And the science is clear as to why, the rise in climate-related emergencies was the main reason for the spike. (‘Spike’ is the word used in the UN press release but I feel its use is quite inappropriate here. The word ‘spike’ suggests to me a sudden deviation from some ‘normal’ state. Once you’ve passed the spike you return to normal but that’s not what’s happening here. There’s no return to normal in any historical timeframe.)

Here are some other numbers that should chill you. From 1980 to 1999, natural hazards killed 1.19 million people, resulted in economic losses totalling $1.63 trillion and impacted more than three billion people.

From 2000 to 2019, natural hazards killed 1.23 million people, resulted in economic losses of $2.97 trillion, and impacted more than four billion people.

Rationalise this

A rationalist might suggest these numbers are suggesting we’re doing better at ‘disaster’. We had almost twice the number of disasters in these last two decades but roughly only a quarter more deaths and a only a third more people impacted (mind you, economic losses almost doubled). In other words, on average each disaster is killing fewer people.

But such a rationalisation only works if you believe we have a better handle on preventing disasters as we sail into the future. The trend, regrettably, is ever upwards; just as it is with carbon emissions, global temperatures and sea level. Of course, that’s no coincidence, as climate change is at the core of most of these disasters.

Indeed the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction reported that the increase in disasters from natural hazards is a direct result of climate change: “This is clear evidence that in a world where the global average temperature in 2019 was 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period, the impacts are being felt in the increased frequency of extreme weather events including heatwaves, droughts, flooding, winter storms, hurricanes and wildfires.”

Floods accounted for more than 40% of disasters – affecting 1.65 billion people, storms 28%, and extreme temperatures 6%.

If human activity (associated with unbounded economic growth) is the driving problem here, it makes you wonder about the label ‘natural’ when we talk about disasters caused by ‘natural’ hazards.

Dissonance

And this is where Mami Mizutori admits to being “baffled”. The science is clear, and has been since the 1970s, but now the evidence of what’s happening (that this science has long predicted) is rolling in like a killer hurricane. Species are going extinct and ecosystems are collapsing before our eyes. Coral reefs are withering while forests at unprecedented scales are going up in flames.

Maybe we can insulate ourselves from such evidence by closing the blinds and turning the air con up. But when the roofs and walls are ripped from our homes by cyclonic wind, and floodwaters tear through our accumulated economic capital, surely we begin to do something about it. And this is what these disaster statistics are telling us. Climate change is beginning to rip apart the human world as much as it is destroying the natural world.

Now when it comes to disaster management, it has to be said some folks in some places are doing it better. The UNDRR report indicates that there has been some success in protecting vulnerable communities from isolated hazards, thanks to more effective early warning systems, disaster preparedness and response. However, the agency warned that projected global temperature rises could make these improvements “obsolete in many countries”.

Currently, the world is on course for a temperature increase of 3.2 degrees Celsius or more, unless industrialised nations can deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 7.2% annually over the next 10 years in order to achieve the 1.5 degree target agreed in Paris.

Do something!

So with the scorching winds of disaster bearing down on us, why aren’t we doing more?

Because change is hard, it’s difficult, there will be losers, and there are powerful vested interests with their hands firmly on the levers of power – all the reasons we’ve discussed over time in this blog – because sustainability bites.

And there are aspects of equity and justice woven into this equation too. The poor are much more vulnerable to disasters. The UNDRR report said that the data indicates that poorer nations experience death rates more than four times higher than richer nations.

So the richer industrialised nations which are creating the problem of increased disasters (through climate change) are not, in the first instance, the places that are suffering the most. In other words, they don’t see it as their problem.

Then, on top of all this, there is that wonderful capacity of humans to adapt to changing conditions, in this case to normalise extreme weather. A study released last year in PNAS found people have short memories when it comes to what they consider ‘normal’ weather. On average, people base their idea of normal weather on what has happened in just the past two to eight years. This disconnect with the historical climate record is thought to obscure the public’s perception of climate change.

The researchers behind this PNAS study suggested this is a classic case of the boiling-frog metaphor: A frog jumps into a pot of boiling hot water and immediately hops out. If, instead, the frog in the pot is slowly warmed to a boiling temperature, it doesn’t hop out and is eventually cooked. While scientifically inaccurate, this metaphor has long been used as a cautionary tale warning against normalizing the steadily changing conditions caused by climate change.

This latest report on disaster and climate change is another wake-up call – the water’s scorching! Surely we have more sense than a boiling frog?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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