One Climate Crisis Disaster Occurs Every Week, U.N. Official Warns

Governments should prioritize ‘adaptation and resilience’ measures designed to curb the effects of ongoing lower-impact climate events, experts say

Catastrophic disasters like the pair of cyclones that devastated Mozambique earlier this year, seen here, can over shadow more commonplace, smaller-scale events, including intense heatwaves, storms and flooding. EMIDIO JOZINE/AFP/Getty Images

A top United Nations official has issued a stark warning regarding climate change, pointing out that “lower-impact” climate crisis disasters capable of causing death, displacement and suffering now occur at a rate of about one a week.

Speaking with the Guardian’s Fiona Harvey, Mami Mizutori, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative on disaster risk reduction, says these smaller-scale events—including intense heatwaves, storms and flooding—are often overshadowed by catastrophic disasters like India’s water shortage and the pair of cyclones that devastated Mozambique earlier this year.

Mizutori emphasizes that small-scale climate crises are happening much faster and more frequently than previously predicted. It’s essential, therefore, for governments to stop viewing climate change as a long-term issue and instead start investing in “adaptation and resilience” measures designed to curb the effects of ongoing lower-impact events.

Mizutori explains, “This is not about the future, this is about today.”

As Harvey writes, much of the discussion surrounding climate change centers on mitigation, or curbing greenhouse gas emissions, rather than adaptation. Although this approach is easier to quantify and avoids encouraging a false sense of complacency regarding the urgency of cutting emissions, Mizutori tells the Guardian that the world is no longer at a point where humans can simply choose between mitigation and adaptation.

“We talk about a climate emergency and a climate crisis, but if we cannot confront this [issue of adapting to the effects], we will not survive,” she says. “We need to look at the risks of not investing in resilience.”

Per a 2017 report from the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, extreme natural disasters inflict global damages of roughly $520 billion per year, driving an estimated 26 million people into poverty annually. Comparatively, the Guardian notes, the cost of implementing warming-resistant infrastructure would amount to an additional cost of just 3 percent annually, or a total of $2.7 trillion over the next 20 years.

Heightened resilience standards for infrastructure such as housing, transportation, and power and water supply networks could help vulnerable regions ward off the worst effects of floods, droughts and other forms of extreme weather.

Given the relatively low price tag of such preventative measures, Mizutori argues that investors “have not been doing enough,” adding, “Resilience needs to become a commodity that people will pay for.”

According to the U.N. expert, communities should prioritize “nature-based solutions,” which rely on natural barriers such as mangrove swamps, forests and wetlands to thwart flooding. Other avenues for exploration include studying how to best protect those living in informal settlements or slums versus urban centers and taking a more holistic approach to climate change, perhaps by bringing environmental and infrastructure issues under the purview of one government ministry, as opposed to separate ones.

Communities in both the developing and developed world could avoid the worst effects of many smaller-scale climate events with the help of stronger infrastructure, earlier warning systems and better government awareness of which regions are most vulnerable to climate disasters, says Mizutori.

If countries fail to prioritize resilience and shorter-term disasters, the consequences could be dire. As Megan Rowling reports for Reuters, Mizutori offered a similarly stark prediction at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk and Reduction this May, concluding, “If we continue living in this way, engaging with each other and the planet in the way we do, then our very survival is in doubt.”

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