Coping with Climate Change

It was reported recently that the leaders of the tiny, remote archipelago nation of Kiribati, fearing climate change, are considering spending US$9.6 million to buy almost 3,000 hectares put up for sale by a church group to move Kiribati’s entire population of 103,000 to Fiji if it becomes necessary.

That may be a prudent plan. Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a network of thousands of volunteer scientists established by the World Meteorological Society and the United Nations Environment Program, released a massive 594-page report titled Managing the Risk of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation that seeks to find ways to cope with what, to the IPCC, appears to be an inevitability.

(The scientists and other experts contribute without receiving payment from the IPCC, in case the naysayers of the Republican Party in the United States think the scientists are promoting climate change as a way of making extra money.)

The document is a summary for policymakers dealing with the interaction of climactic, environmental and human factors that can lead to disasters and gives them options for managing risk. It is important because buried in its dry, rather bureaucratic language are an exhaustive series of scenarios for governments to examine, ranging anywhere from moving islanders like the Kiribatians and Maldivians, to trying to mitigate the damage to people in other ways.

The report, the authors note, “explores the challenge of understanding and managing the risks of climate extremes to advance climate change adaptation. Weather- and climate-related disasters have social as well as physical dimensions. As a result, changes in the frequency and severity of the physical events affect disaster risk, but so do the spatially diverse and temporally dynamic patterns of exposure and vulnerability.”

The report doesn’t deal in terms of whether climate change is real. It states baldly that it is, and questions how to deal with it: “The character and severity of impacts from climate extremes depend not only on the extremes themselves but also on exposure and vulnerability.” the authors say. It is very likely that mean sea level rises will contribute to upward trends in extreme coastal high water levels," the report notes.

“There is high confidence that locations currently experiencing adverse impacts such as coastal erosion and inundation will continue to do so in the future due to increasing sea levels, all other contributing factors being equal. The very likely contribution of mean sea level rise to increased extreme coastal high water levels, coupled with the likely increase in tropical cyclone maximum wind speed, is a specific issue for tropical small island states.”

There is also high confidence that changes in heat waves, glacial retreat, and/or permafrost degradation will affect high mountain phenomena such as slope instabilities, movements of mass, and glacial lake outburst floods. There is also high confidence that changes in heavy precipitation will affect landslides in some regions.

Extreme events, the report notes, “will have greater impacts on sectors with closer links to climate, such as water, agriculture and food security, forestry, health, and tourism. For example, while it is not currently possible to reliably project specific changes at the catchment scale, there is high confidence that changes in climate have the potential to seriously affect water management systems.

“However, climate change is in many instances only one of the drivers of future changes, and is not necessarily the most important driver at the local scale. Climate-related extremes are also expected to produce large impacts on infrastructure, although detailed analysis of potential and projected damages are limited to a few countries, infrastructure types, and sectors."

While some regions can expect economic loss, the main drivers of loss will be socioeconomic in nature. “Climate extremes are only one of the factors that affect risk, but few studies have specifically quantified the effects of changes in population, exposure of people and assets, and vulnerability as determinants of loss. However, the few studies available generally underline the important role of projected changes (increases) in population and capital at risk.”

Direct economic losses can be expected from the increasing frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones, something the Philippines has already experienced over the past two to three years, with parts of Manila completely inundated. There is also the weeks of rain that put much of central Thailand underwater for months and wrought billions of dollars in damage, shaving GDP growth by several percentage points.

The authors state with “medium confidence” that overall losses due to extra-tropical cyclones thus will also increase, although there will be possible decreases or no change in other areas. “Although future flood losses in many locations will increase in the absence of additional protection measures, the size of the estimated change is highly variable, depending on location, climate scenarios used, and methods used to assess impacts on river flow and flood occurrence."

Some local areas are certain to become increasingly marginal as places in which to live or in which to maintain livelihoods, the report notes, an ominous forecast for many cities such as Jakarta, Bangkok, Manila and others which were built on flood plains because of their proximity to ease of water navigation. Many of these cities are also subsiding as governments draw down groundwater. Bangkok and Jakarta are two of the best examples.

“In such cases, migration and displacement could become permanent and could introduce new pressures in areas of relocation. For locations such as atolls, in some cases it is possible that many residents will have to relocate,” the authors note. Kiribati, the Maldives and other such low-lying island chains are the canaries in the mine.

Managing Climate Risk

The report details measures that provide benefits under current climate and a range of future climate change scenarios, called “low-regrets measures,” including early warning systems; risk communication between decision-makers and local citizens; sustainable land management, including land use planning; and ecosystem management and restoration.

Other such low-regrets measures include improvements to health surveillance, water supply, sanitation, and irrigation and drainage systems; climate-proofing of infrastructure; development and enforcement of building codes; and better education and awareness.

Mitigating risk doesn’t just depend on dealing on a local level. It is going to take multi-hazard risk management approaches provide opportunities to reduce complex and compound hazards. The international financial community must be involved although so far funding remains scant. “International funding for disaster risk reduction remains relatively low as compared to the scale of spending on international humanitarian response. Technology transfer and cooperation to advance disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation are important. Coordination on technology transfer and cooperation between these two fields has been lacking, which has led to fragmented implementation.”

Local populations must document their experiences with the changing climate, particularly extreme weather events, in many different ways, and this self-generated knowledge can uncover existing capacity within the community and important current shortcomings. Local participation supports community-based adaptation to benefit management of disaster risk and climate extremes.

“However, improvements in the availability of human and financial capital and of disaster risk and climate information customized for local stakeholders can enhance community-based adaptation.”

The key, the authors say, is to understand people's circumstances on a human level in order to bring about changes in attitudes at the community level. Social and cultural traditions expose people to greater risk, like living in certain more perilous locations because the choice of livelihood dictates it. Thus it is important to understand the people of the city of Cagayan de Oro at the northern tip of Mindanao, where hundreds drowned recently in flash floods, and the survivors, who shortly later moved back to the flood plains, because that is the only place for them to live and to find work.