The Yin and Yang of Climate Extremes

Posted on 13 October 2010 by admin

A truck left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Credit:Susannah Sayler/The Canary Project, Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

By Stephen Leahy*

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Oct 13, 2010 (Tierramérica/TerraViva) – The floods that affected 20 million people in Pakistan and the devastating six- week heat wave in Russia in recent months are tragic climate events — and they’re closely linked.

“The Pakistan floods and Russia heat wave were directly connected, the atmospheric science makes that clear,” Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the U.S. National Centre for Atmospheric Research, told Tierramérica.

A long-lasting high pressure system called a “blocking high” essentially gave western Russia a dry Mediterranean summer, which in turn shifted more- than-normal moisture into the Indian monsoon, resulting in record-breaking rainfall in northern Pakistan and India, Trenberth explained.

It is difficult to determine whether climate change caused this extraordinary event, but it certainly made it much worse, according to Trenberth. “Without global warming these extremes are unlikely to have occurred,” he added.

The drought in Russian and the heavy rains in Pakistan are exactly what are expected to happen with climate change, said the expert.

“Changes in extreme weather events are the main way climate change is manifested,” he said, noting that the storms or floods that used to occur once every 200 years may now occur every 30 years.

Extreme weather accounted for 76 percent of all disasters over the past 20 years. In the next 20 years, the annual humanitarian price tag for natural disasters could increase 1,600 percent, according to the 2009 report, “The Humanitarian Costs of Climate Change,” from the Feinstein International Centre at Tufts University in the U.S. city of Boston.

“Ultimately, it is the ability of individual households to protect themselves against the physical and economic shock of disaster that will make the difference between survival and failure… (Governments) can profoundly alter the environment within which individuals act,” the report concludes.

Hard hit by cyclones in the 1970s that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Bangladesh has dramatically reduced the economic and human cost of cyclones and flooding.

The secret? Implementing early warning systems, educating the public, building raised roads for evacuation routes and constructing buildings on stilts, said Gordon McBean, director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at Canada’s University of Western Ontario.

Local Bangladeshis have also adapted to the frequent floods, saline soils and sea level rise by raising ducks instead of chickens, farming fish and crabs, and creating floating gardens.

In whatever ways the governments in the developing world prepare and recover from extreme weather events, they will require far more international support than they are now receiving, McBean told Tierramérica.

Rich countries spend incredible amounts of money on their military and security interests, but only a tiny fraction on helping countries with their disaster readiness and recovery. The latter is a far better investment in terms of security, in his view.

Billions of dollars have been pledged to help countries adapt to climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The first two projects, totalling 14 million dollars, were approved in September for Senegal and Honduras.

In many countries, unwillingness persists amongst policy-makers and the public to spend large amounts of money on disaster preparedness for events that might not happen in their lifetime, says McBean.

Even though it is far cheaper to be prepared, short-term thinking often delays putting disaster readiness measures into place.

And there are some disasters for which preparedness is difficult, such as mudslides, said the expert.

“Some years ago I was in Caracas, Venezuela, and saw a crowded shantytown crawling up the side of a steep valley wall. I said to my companions: There’s a disaster waiting to happen. A week later, after days of heavy rains, it did,” McBean said.

Poverty forced people to live on those dangerous slopes, and that is a much more difficult challenge to overcome, he said.

Recovery from major weather disasters is far more difficult than most people appreciate. Often it is impossible. Five years after Hurricane Katrina struck the southeastern U.S. city of New Orleans the city is still struggling to rebuild.

The casinos, tourist zone and wealthier part of the city were quickly restored, but the poor areas are still devastated, and have just 24 percent of their former population, wrote John Mutter, earth sciences professor at Columbia University, in the Aug. 26, 2010 edition of the science journal Nature.

“The U.S. could rebuild every square inch of New Orleans, but the current mood in the U.S. is that government isn’t expected to take care of the poor,” Mutter said in a Tierramérica interview.

The result is that the gap between rich and poor in New Orleans is even wider now. This is what happens without the appropriate post-disaster response, he said.

With climate change spawning more and worse weather related disasters, there is a new urgency to handle recovery appropriately, he said.

In his experience working in Haiti, the right way to help a country recover is to support and boost those sectors of the economy with the greatest chances of growing. “You can’t simply put things back the way there were; that is often the wrong thing to do.”

In both Haiti and Pakistan, rebuilding schools, hospitals and other infrastructure needs to be a priority. Improving agricultural productivity and supporting labour-intensive industries can provide jobs and stimulate economic growth, said Mutter.

* This IPS story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network http://www.cdkn.org (END)

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