Posted by: Hendra Siry | 10 October, 2008

Humanitarian Implications of Climate Change

A new CARE Climate Change report, Humanitarian Implication of Climate Change, identifies the most likely humanitarian implications of climate change for the next 20-30 year period.

New report pic 1The Earth is warming. Evidence includes a well-documented increase in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising sea levels. This is triggering a shift in seasons, changes in when/how much rain falls in different parts of the world, and changes in extreme weather.

As such, climate change is blurring the distinction between “natural” and “manmade” hazards. Although weather-related hazards, such as droughts and floods, would occur regardless of whether or not we add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, our actions have consequences.

In fact, an increase in temperature extremes, the area affected by drought and the frequency of heavy precipitation events, as well as changes in wind patterns and storm tracks, have already been measured – and the consensus amongst experts is that we are to blame.

When hazards hit areas where people have limited capacity to reduce their level of risk, manage or deal with the aftermath of extreme weather, the results can be truly “disastrous.” This is especially so in areas where population density is high and growing too quickly for good planning.

cc_newreport_pic 2Each year, natural hazards trigger disasters that we measure in terms of the dead, injured and displaced, as well as economic loss. The figures can be shocking. Between 2005 and 2006, for instance, natural disasters killed 120,000 people, affected 271 million more and caused economic losses totalling US$250 billion.

These numbers appear to be climbing: In the decade 1984-1993, 1.6 billion people were affected by natural disasters, compared with 2.6 billion in the following decade (1994-2003). In constant dollars, disaster costs between 1990 and 1999 were more than 15 times higher (US$652 billion in material losses) than they were between 1950 and 1959 (US$38 billion at 1998 values).

Rising numbers are the result of several factors, including population growth and changing habitation patterns. Regardless, it is vital to note that one number is going down: deaths. This reflects increased investment in disaster preparedness, management and response and illustrates what the international community can accomplish when committed.

cc_newreport_pic 4Climate change threatens to set back these limited gains while dramatically increasing both the number of people affected by disasters and the scale of economic damage. Indeed, it is precisely the kinds of hazards exacerbated by climate change (avalanches, extremes of temperature, droughts, floods, andslides, wild fires and wind storms) that account for the vast majority of disaster-related losses. According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), 68 percent of deaths and 89 percent of all economic losses between 2000 and 2007 resulted from these kinds of events. 

In short: humanitarian actors should be very worried when scientists tell us that during the next 20-30 year period, the intensity, frequency, duration and extent of weather-related hazards will increase in many parts of the world. 

It is, of course, poor people – and especially those in marginalised social groups like women, children, the elderly and disabled – who will suffer most from these changes. This is because the impact of humanitarian disasters is as much a result of people’s vulnerability as their exposure to hazards. 

Vulnerability refers to the capacity of individuals, communities and societies to manage the impact of hazards without suffering a long-term, potentially irreversible loss of wellbeing. Vulnerability is largely determined by people’s access to and control over natural, human, social, physical, political and financial capital.

Quality of governance, quality/degradation of their natural resource base, conflict, urbanisation and demographic change also shape people’s vulnerability.

cc_newreport_pic 3This study uses a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping approach to attempt to understand how the projected impacts of climate change will intersect with existing patterns of human vulnerability or so called disaster risk hotspots.

This allows the identification of current and future hotspots of climate change risk. The results illustrate the implications of climate change for humanitarian assistance so that policymakers can grasp the nature and scale of the challenge we face and humanitarian actors can begin adapting their response strategies to the realities of climate change.

The study builds on recent publications and data relating to trends in natural hazards and their relationship with climate change, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, the World Bank’s Natural Disasters Hotspots: a Global Risk Analysis, the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change and the Human Development Report 2007/8. It complements the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) recent work to improve risk analysis and mapping which combines historical data with forward looking climate model projections. Technical details of the methodology used for this study, as well as its limitations, are presented in a Technical Annex.


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