28th Mar 2023

UN: economic decisions turn extreme weather into disasters

  • Climate experts have long warned extreme weather events will become more frequent as human-induced global warming takes hold (Photo: Wikipedia)
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As flash floods in Pakistan have submerged a third of the country, killed over a thousand people and forced tens of millions out of their homes, rivers in Europe, parts of the US and China are at record lows following months of sustained drought.

The period between 2021 and 2022 saw record-breaking catastrophic disasters in all corners of the world. Some 10,000 people lost their lives, and an estimated €280bn was incurred in damages worldwide.

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Climate experts have long warned extreme weather events will become more frequent as human-induced global warming takes hold, but people's experiences on the ground are often very different as climate change reveals itself differently. This complicates collective action.

To bridge the experiential gap, the United Nations University (UNU-EHS), an influential think tank based in Bonn, Germany, published a study on Wednesday (31 August) connecting a string of 10 recent, seemingly-disparate, disasters worldwide.

"Disasters occurring in completely different parts of the world at first appear disconnected from each other. But when you start analysing them in more detail it quickly becomes clear that they are caused by things like global warming or unsustainable consumption," Zita Sebesvari, lead author of the study and deputy director of UNU-EHS, told EUobserver.

"We wanted to give people a tool to understand what connects these disasters,"

The study includes last year's record-setting wildfires in Europe, flash-floods in Lagos and New York, murderous heatwaves in British Columbia, mudslides in Haiti and famine in Madagascar.

Global warming is at the root of them all, but loss of life and the level of ecosystem destruction could have been prevented or alleviated if governments had been better prepared.

"Disasters are often socially-constructed and systemic. We know flooding will grow more likely due to climate change. But what determines the deadly outcome is exposure and the population's vulnerability," Sebesvari said.

Drought is another issue covered by the study. Last year over 100 people died in wildfires in Europe. Out-of-control fires are partly driven by heat and lack of rainfall, but the way authorities manage the problem also plays a part.

Evidence suggests fire services in the Mediterranean, afraid of losing remaining forests, contribute to the risk of deadly mega-fires by preventing small and medium fires from burning out, allowing vegetation to accumulate. State officials in California have drawn up plans for prescribed burning to prevent this, but fire fighting authorities in Europe are slower to adapt.

Ineffective policies allowed to persist and other forms of "under-prioritisation" of environmental risks are human drivers contributing to many of last year's disasters, the study suggests.

When Hurricane Ida hit New York on 1 September last year, people were caught off guard by a flash flood caused by torrential rain. Twenty-nine people drowned in their own homes because they lived in illegal basement apartments in poor neighbourhoods built in flood-prone areas.

In Lagos, 4,000 people lost their homes to a flash flood because city officials allowed developers to build houses on a floodplain, exposing residents to environmental risk.

'Good news'

"The focus of the study was to see how an [extreme weather] event turns into a disaster," Sebnasvari said. "The good news is because drivers often overlap, solutions do too."

Admittedly, not all solutions noted in the study seem easy to implement. Lagos, which houses 24 million people, has become so heavy it is sinking precipitously into its own lagoon.

The study explains that deadly flooding can be prevented by improving the city's drainage systems, but this has not happened so far, and many experts project the city may be submerged by 2100.

What is driving the floods in Lagos is "a tendency to pursue economic interests without regard for environmental externalities," Sebnasvari said

Lagos is naturally protected from the open sea by its shore. But these protective beaches are being excavated to feed a booming appetite for construction materials to build skyscrapers and high-end housing, which has risen the city's sinking rate to 87mm a year — which is "a lot," according to Sebnasvari.

Overuse of resources features as a driver in most disasters mentioned in the study.

Deforestation directly contributed to the deadly mudslides in Haiti and crop-destroying sandstorms in Madagascar in the past year.

By focusing on drivers such as overuse, poor regulation and oversight or economic short-termism, researchers show interconnected problems need interconnected solutions —a message made all the more relevant now EU leaders are faced with the possibility of gas-rationing this winter.

As EU leaders are projecting an image of climate leadership ahead of this year's UN climate summit in Cairo (COP27) in November, energy companies, supported by the same European leaders, have reignited €100bn worth of fossil fuel projects in Africa.

Critics have noted these will not solve the issue of energy poverty in Africa and will likely lead to more environmental destruction.

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