Climate change and disaster reduction

by Henning Wuester

The world is witnessing an ever increasing number of natural disasters, with a 68% increase in frequency over the last 10 years, according to the IFRC World Disasters Report for 2004. Drought and famine have proved the deadliest disasters of the decade worldwide, accounting for at least 275,000 deaths since 1994. According to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change is likely to affect the severity, frequency and spatial distribution of extreme climatic events such as hurricanes, storm surges, fl oods and droughts. IPCC scenarios have linked higher atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, in particular CO2, to a rise in mean global temperature. This is associated with larger and more abrupt climatic variations resulting in more frequent and increasingly devastating natural disasters.

Mankind faces several huge challenges. We must address the consequences of burning fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas-emitting activities. We need substantially to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We also have to adapt to changed and often threatening environmental conditions. Nor is there any way of putting the clock back. Urgent action to mitigate climate change and its effects, at local, national and international level is required.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which came into force in 1994, laid the foundations for concerted international action to address climate change. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, sets legally binding emission reduction targets for developed countries. Although stronger mitigation action is needed in the future, the Protocol represents an urgently needed fi rst step. Even if it takes decades to slow down and eventually stop changes in the climate, we must pursue mitigation activities – further reducing emissions, improving energy ef- fi ciency, creating sinks. The importance of such work preventing long-term increases in disaster risks cannot be underestimated. Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere urgently need to be stabilised before they reach levels to which it is no longer possible to adapt.

However the climate system is characterised by inertia. The international community must consequently give high priority to adaptation measures, of which disaster reduction is a crucial part. In particular adaptation refers to actions to help communities and ecosystems cope with changing climatic conditions. Reducing vulnerability to climatic hazards today is essential to building future resilience. Mankind needs to signifi cantly strengthen its ability to withstand the adverse effects of current and future natural disasters, likely to be even more severe. Adaptation is necessarily a global issue, but it is particularly relevant to developing countries, as they are likely to be the hardest hit by the effects of climate change.

Both adaptation and risk reduction strategies must focus on raising the adaptive capacity of the most vulnerable groups, including small-island developing states and least developed countries. Current strategies include capacity-building to manage climate risks, disseminating traditional coping mechanisms such as disaster-resistant housing and enhancing the development of private sector fi nancial risk-sharing mechanisms, particularly micro-insurance, insurance and reinsurance, for vulnerable populations and communities.

Eventually adaptation to climate change and disaster reduction efforts need to be mainstreamed into national and sectoral policies, programmes and plans to ensure adequate funding and effectiveness. The global community has a responsibility to raise its capacity to deal with the adverse effects of climate change and natural disasters.

Henning Wuester is the special assistant to the Executive Secretary of the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn.

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