27th Sep 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)
Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

Europe's drought 'may be worst in 500 years'

According to data from the EU's Joint Research Centre, over half of Europe is in danger of drought — and may be suffering its worst drought in 500 years.


Scaling up tidal requires flood of new cash

The next step is scaling up the prototype platforms so that tidal energy can become commercially viable and enter the energy grid in a meaningful way. There's just one hitch in this plan: cost


Flooded Pakistan needs climate reparations, not EU charity

So far rich countries have pledged pitiful amounts of aid to Pakistan. The EU, responsible for 23.2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, has allocated a mere €1.8 million for humanitarian assistance — less than five cents per person.

IEA says: Go green now, save €11 trillion later

The International Energy Agency finds that the clean energy investment needed to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius warming saves $12 trillion [€11.3 trillion] in fuel expenditure — and creates double the amount of jobs lost in fossil fuel-related industries.


How do you make embarrassing EU documents 'disappear'?

The EU Commission's new magic formula for avoiding scrutiny is simple. You declare the documents in question to be "short-lived correspondence for a preliminary exchange of views" and thus exempt them from being logged in the official inventory.

Latest News

  1. Germany tightens police checks on Czech and Polish border
  2. EU Ombudsman warns of 'new normal' of crisis decision-making
  3. How do you make embarrassing EU documents 'disappear'?
  4. Resurgent Fico hopes for Slovak comeback at Saturday's election
  5. EU and US urge Azerbijan to allow aid access to Armenians
  6. EU warns of Russian 'mass manipulation' as elections loom
  7. Blocking minority of EU states risks derailing asylum overhaul
  8. Will Poles vote for the end of democracy?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators, industry & healthcare experts at the 24th IMDRF session, September 25-26, Berlin. Register by 20 Sept to join in person or online.
  2. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  3. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA
  4. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators & industry experts at the 24th IMDRF session- Berlin September 25-26. Register early for discounted hotel rates
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal interest in the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations – here are the speakers for the launch
  6. Nordic Council of Ministers20 June: Launch of the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  2. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  3. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics
  6. EFBWWEFBWW calls for the EC to stop exploitation in subcontracting chains

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us