SINGAPORE – Great floods in China, India and Thailand, super storms in the Philippines and the United States, and summer heat waves in Australia and Japan in recent years, are manifestations of an alarming trend in the rise of climate-related disasters. The 2010s may well go down as the decade when the trend line of these events headed aggressively north after a noticeable rise in their intensity and frequency since the 1970s.
Global warming has contributed to warming oceans, more moisture in the air and higher sea levels, but scientists have been cautious about attributing to climate change a flood or storm. Even so, papers have argued that the intensity of the 2011 Great Flood in Thailand and Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines owed in part to the changing climate. More recent work has been even more pointed: Global warming is shown to have made Japan’s unusually hot summer this past year 1.5 to 1.7 times more likely.
A consensus, too, is building that climate change has roots in human actions. We have known for a long time that weather events turn into disasters for man-made reasons. More people are hurt when they are exposed in harm’s way, and when they are vulnerable and unable to cope. But now we also know that the intensity and frequency of the hazards themselves are greater because of man-made global warming.
This understanding profoundly affects how countries engage in disaster risk reduction. Economic growth projections are contingent on addressing climate change. Yet few of the forecasts for global and country growth take into account the impacts of climate change that are already evident, or the massive investment and resources that will need to be mobilized for climate action. Such forecasting is missing from the current estimates for global growth of around 3.0 to 3.5 percent in 2017 and 5.5 to 6 percent for Asia and the Pacific.
Countries and regions need to build in contingency plans in their economic programs. Floods and storms in recent years inflicted sizable economic losses in Australia, China, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. After the financial crisis, governments and multilateral institutions intensified their efforts to anticipate future crises, carrying out stress tests of the vulnerability and resilience of their banking systems. In the same way, we now need stress tests of how well countries can withstand the impact of rising natural disasters.
For economic growth to be more sustainable, we also need to value all three forms of capital — physical, human and natural. Government spending and private investment have long been skewed toward the first two forms of capital, with natural resource management getting short shrift in development programs. Yet, a country’s natural capital — its stock of natural assets — is essential for the pace and quality of growth. Sustainable land use and agricultural practices, and forest and coastal management, need far greater emphasis in Asia.
In many respects such country actions bring both global and local benefits. Reducing black-carbon emissions that blight so many cities like Beijing and New Delhi is a case in point. Phasing out the use of fossil fuels that present the greatest danger to our environment is another. India and Indonesia recently slashed fossil-fuel subsidies. Investments in solar photovoltaics in China and Japan, and in onshore wind across Europe, are pointing the way for increased use of renewable energy.
The five cities most vulnerable to natural hazards are all in Asia: Bangkok, Dhaka, Jakarta, Manila and Yangon. All of them are overcrowded and in geographically fragile settings. Asia’s growth has been characterized by increasing urbanization, making it imperative that climate-friendly urban management becomes a strategic thrust. And because the poor are hit harder by the effects of climate change than the rest of the population, building resilient communities will be essential element of poverty reduction strategies.
Climate-related natural disasters are no longer one-off occurrences, rather they are systemic events that need preventive action. Disaster risk reduction needs to be seen as an investment, going beyond relief and reconstruction to a dual approach of prevention and recovery. Japan invests some 5 percent of its national budget in disaster risk reduction, and this has been shown to reduce human and economic losses when disasters strike.
To deliver sustained growth and wellbeing, we need to value natural capital, recognize the human hand in climate change and take preventive action against climate-related calamities.
Vinod Thomas is a visiting professor at National University of Singapore and the author of the newly published book “Climate Change and Natural Disasters: Transforming Economies and Policies for a Sustainable Future.”