Prevention is the best cure for saving millions from misery
NATURAL disasters and their subsequent humanitarian relief efforts tend to be transient events. Floods, forest fires and hurricanes hit the headlines for a few days or weeks, then fade from our consciousness.
But as governments and experts gather in Geneva this week for the Global Platform for Disaster Relief Reduction, there is one clear priority – the urgent need to tackle climate change, which is the driver behind many so-called natural disasters.
With Scotland's politicians deciding next week just how strong to make forthcoming climate legislation, the clock ticks inexorably towards the Copenhagen climate negotiations in December.
The heat is on to reach an agreement which will both stabilise global warming and move us on to a sustainable world economy. To achieve this, developed countries, including Scotland, need to aim to cut emissions by no less than 40 per cent by 2020, based on 1990 levels.
A recent report from the Global Humanitarian Forum estimates around 300,000 people a year are dying from causes directly linked to climate change – the equivalent of an Indian Ocean tsunami every year. That will rise to half a million a year by 2030 – almost all of them in developing countries.
The increasing frequency of so-called natural disasters are a direct threat to the lives, homes, jobs and security of hundreds of millions of people.
The financial costs of climate change are staggering. Running at around 76.5bn a year, they are expected to rise to around 208bn a year over the next two decades. But it is the human, not the economic, cost of climate change which should spur world leaders on to agree a global deal in Copenhagen. Natural disasters and extreme weather events are rising, from 100 a year in 1975 to 400-plus in 2005, according to the NASA Goddard Institute.
This rise is directly attributable to climate change. In the Himalayas, melting glaciers form lakes which can – and have – burst without warning causing catastrophic flooding. Increased sea temperatures contribute to both the severity and number of hurricanes such as Katrina.
Amid the packed calendar of negotiations leading to Copenhagen, the Geneva meeting this week puts the human face of climate change at the top of its agenda. This UN forum of scientists, governments, aid agencies, NGOs and others is trying to find ways of coping with and mitigating against natural disasters.
It is charged with protecting the world's most vulnerable countries and communities from the worst impacts of disaster. Past strategies tended to focus on reducing the risks with better early warning systems and "disaster-proof" infrastructure such as building higher sea defences. Now, the focus is on prevention – by restoring and protecting ecosystems which shield us from the worst effects of natural disasters, and by ensuring global warming remains below the critical 2C level.
A fair, fast and effective deal in Copenhagen has the potential to save countless millions of lives in the earth's poorest countries.
If we do not achieve big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, natural disasters – with all their attendant human misery – will increase. If we do not release significant funds, our ability to cope will be reduced and the costs will get higher.
One thing is certain; if Scotland and other developed countries do not pass strong climate laws and if Copenhagen does not produce an ambitious, robust global deal, disasters will become more frequent, more intense and more costly.
• James Leape is Director-General of WWF International
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Friday 24 May 2013
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