Q&A on climate change and disasters

Q&A on climate change and disasters
23 February 2010

Is there an increase in disasters?

There is an increase in disasters. All statistics tell us this, including our own statistics. However, the numbers fluctuate. In 2008 and 2009 there were less disasters then the average in the last ten years. In the early 1990s the average was around 200 a year. In the past decade it has never been below 300 a year.

Is this increase due to climate change?

There are two aspects to this:

One important reason for the increase in disasters is an increase in exposure and vulnerability, for instance because more people live in areas that get hit by floods or storms.

However, there is also scientific evidence that the frequency and/or intensity of several hazards (such as heatwaves, floods, droughts, and storms) are increasing, and it is likely that these increases will continue. This clearly has an additional impact on the risk of natural disasters.

In any case, our job as the Red Cross/Red Crescent is to deal with the increase in disasters that we see here and now. In addition, we are trying to use the best available science to prepare for what may happen in the future.

So why do you believe that the future will be different?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summarizes the knowledge on climate change. Thousands of scientists contribute to the work of the IPCC. Ever 5-6 years three big reports are produced, the IPCC Assessment Reports. A summary for policymakers of each report, carrying the main conclusions, gets reviewed and approved by all governments. The IPCC concludes that climate change is already happening, but also that it is very likely caused by humans, and will probably accelerate, so we have to plan accordingly.

So you’re basing your evidence on the IPCC. Recent reports have questioned the quality of their reports, specifically also in terms of the link between disasters and climate change. Why do you trust them?

The IPCC is composed of hundreds of the best scientists from all over the world, who summarize the best scientific knowledge, primarily from articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The reports go through a very thorough review process. Recent media attention focused on a few errors in a 3000-page report. While regrettable, these errors do not affect the main conclusions of the IPCC that climate change is happening and very likely due to human greenhouse gas emissions. The evidence specifically related to the changes in hazards is very solid.

But doesn’t the Red Cross have other things to do than worry about what will happen in the future?

The problem is here and now. Scientific observations tell us risks are increasing. We are also getting reports of strange weather from our own Red Cross volunteers all over the world. This is a challenge that we have to start working on today.

And science about climate change does not provide all the answers – part of the problem is that as we get more sure about the change in global climate, we are getting less sure about what risks to expect in a particular place. So our strategies are not only to work with a scenario about what may happen in the year 2100. We work on getting better at planning for next week, next season and the next few years. There is a lot of climate information available for these different time-periods into the future, and we need to get better at using that information. In addition, there is a lot we can do to reduce risk and increase community resilience, even only in the face of rising uncertainty. All of these investments will pay off regardless of precisely how climate change will unfold.