Expect More Disasters as Climate Change Worsens Everything

A Monday report by the United Nations states that disaster-weary world will suffer more from future catastrophes in interconnected global environments.

According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, there will be an increase in the number of disasters that strike the planet every year, from 400 per year in 2015 and up to 560 by 2030. According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, only 90 to 100 large- to medium-sized disasters were experienced each year from 1970 through 2000.

According to the report, there will be 3x as many extreme heat waves by 2030 than 2001. There will also be 30% more droughts. It’s not just natural disasters amplified by climate change, it’s COVID-19, economic meltdowns and food shortages. Report authors stated that climate change is a major factor in disasters.

People have not grasped how much disasters already cost today, said Mami Mizutori, chief of the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, “If we don’t get ahead of the curve it will reach a point where we cannot manage the consequences of disaster,” she said. “We’re just in this vicious cycle.”

The report stated that this suggests society should rethink the way it finances, manages, and values disasters. Mizutori stated Monday that 90% of disaster relief spending is for emergency assistance, with only 6% going to reconstruction and 4% going towards prevention.

Mizutori stated that not every earthquake or hurricane has to be a catastrophe. Planning and prevention can prevent a lot of destruction.

The world lost approximately $70 billion annually to disasters in 1990. Now they cost more than $170 billion a year, and that’s after adjusting for inflation, according to report authors. Mizutori also said that this does not include the indirect costs, which we often overlook but add up.

Mizutori noted that over years, disaster deaths decreased steadily due to improved warnings and prevention. But in the last five years, disaster deaths are “way more” than the previous five years, said report co-author Roger Pulwarty, a U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate and social scientist.

That’s because both COVID-19 and climate change disasters have come to places that didn’t used to get them, like tropical cyclones hitting Mozambique, Mizutori said. It’s also the way disasters interact with each other, compounding damage, like wildfires plus heatwaves or a war in Ukraine plus food and fuel shortages, Pulwarty said.

Pulwarty said if society changes the way it thinks about risk and prepares for disasters, then the recent increase in yearly disaster deaths could be temporary, otherwise it’s probably “the new abnormal.”

Disasters are hitting poorer countries harder than richer ones, with recovery costs taking a bigger chunk out of the economy in nations that can’t afford it, co-author Markus Enenkel of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative said.

“These are the events that can wipe out hard-earned development gains, leading already vulnerable communities or entire regions into a downward spiral,” he said.

The sheer onslaught of disasters just add up, like little illnesses attacking and weakening the body’s immune system, Pulwarty said.

This report recommends a fundamental overhaul of how risk is discussed. To put it another way, rather than asking about the chance of a disaster in this year’s, say, 5%, officials need to consider how likely they are over a period of 25 years. Mizutori explained that talking about 100-year floods, or the chances of it happening once in 100 years is too distant.

“In a world of distrust and misinformation, this is a key to moving forward,” said University of South Carolina Hazards Vulnerability and Resilience Institute Co-Director Susan Cutter, who wasn’t part of the report. “We can move forward to reduce the underlying drivers of risk: Inequality, poverty and most significantly climate change.”

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