Red Cross/ Red Crescent Climate Centre

Climate change: the ultimate early warning

16/06/2009 - by Bekele Geleta, Secretary General, IFRC

To many people enduring its effects worldwide, the global economic crisis must have felt like what we, in the humanitarian sphere, call a “sudden-onset” disaster. One day, it seemed, they had jobs and houses and futures; the next they didn’t.

Yet in many countries there are economists who claim, quite possibly with justification, to have seen the dangers on the horizon well in advance: unsustainable property bubbles; dubious and incomprehensible banking practices centred on “securitization”; too much borrowing; and so on.

We think we see signs of trouble ahead too, in the form of what our latest annual World Disasters Report calls the “ultimate early warning”: climate change.

The report points to the vast amount of evidence now uniting experts the world over that suggests a highly changeable climate in the decades immediately ahead. Scientists, ominously, now predict not just “imaginable” surprises but “true” surprises as well. “Unknown unknowns”.

There are, of course, uncertainties attached to these predictions. But it is now highly likely that extreme-weather events – floods, droughts and storms – will become more frequent and more severe. And we cannot say we have not been warned. In March, experts meeting in Copenhagen said global sea levels could rise by more than a metre by the end of the century because of changes in the polar ice sheets; existing UN estimates, they believe, are too low.

The disasters which climate change will trigger, potentially threaten more lives and livelihoods than any before. But are we acting on this “early warning”? So far, only piecemeal. Some countries and communities are well on the way to protecting themselves; others, usually vulnerable nations in the developing world, lack the means to act. Read full opinion piece.

More on the World Disasters Report 2009 - Focus on early warning, early action.