COP26 experts weigh in: Climate disasters are getting worse – but we can get ahead of them

Weather-related disasters aren’t necessarily inevitable. We can use scientific data to act early and trigger action before extreme weather events strike. At the climate summit COP26, climate experts shared their insights on programs already in place while asking for further money for vulnerable nations to adapt to the climate crisis.

Image credit: Cristoff / Flickr

Extreme weather events are becoming the new norm, the World Meteorological Agency forecasts. The past seven years, including this one, have been the warmest on record as greenhouse gases reached record concentrations in the atmosphere and this has triggered all sorts of extreme phenomena, from floods to drought. 

This is resulting in continued rises in the number and costs of disasters. In particular, the poor and marginalized groups have the most to lose in a disaster, as they lack resources, information, capacities and social safety nets to protect their livelihoods. Martin Griffiths, Emergency Relief Coordinator at the UN, said things will only get worse. 

Since 1990, 92% of mortality attributed to internationally reported disasters associated with natural hazards has occurred in low- and middle-income countries, mainly concentrated in the Asia–Pacific region and Africa, according to a UN report. Geophysical hazard events have taken the highest toll on human lives, the UN found.

Mami Mizoutori from the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction said the world has to invest more in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction, deploying early warning systems in vulnerable countries. The UN has metrics and data that it regularly shares with countries so this can be used to prevent extreme disasters, she told participants at an event at COP26.

“Countries that are suffering the most need to get support to address climate-related loss and damage. We have to accelerate predictable and risk informed investment that looks at future climate impacts,” Mizoutori said. “This means moving from response focus of disaster to a greater investment in prevention. The results are much better.”

Acting ahead of shocks

For María Elena Semedo from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), acting ahead of shocks is a key to increasing resilience across all economic sectors. Every dollar spent in anticipatory action is a good investment, she said, as the costs after a climate disaster is always much larger. But we need much more money invested around the world to truly be prepared.

“In 2020 we had a locust that affected horn of Africa. We mobilized $230 million and we protected livelihoods of 40 million people. We save crops and pasture valued in $1.7 billion,” Semedo added. “It’s important to have anticipatory action and this pays back. We need rapid funding to enable all actors to support those most vulnerable.”

The Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. It’s exposed to regular typhoons and droughts and it has an extensive coastline, home to the country’s main cities and most of the population. The country has been hit by more than 75 disasters since 2006, causing over $4 billion in losses in the agriculture sector. 

To address these challenges, the government has implemented a set of disaster risk management and adaptation measures, Paola Alvarez from the country’s Department of Finance said at COP26. All government departments work together in this, from energy to agriculture, Alvarez added, with early warning systems set in several provinces.

In its most recent assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a leading group of climate experts, said the world can still meet the targets of the Paris Agreement and avoid a temperature increase of over 1.5ºC. Doing so would be essential for island nations and vulnerable countries, who are already feeling the worst effects of the climate crisis. In the meantime, we’d be wise to be prepared for what’s to come.

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