Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Cost of Inaction

In a post from December 3rd, I mentioned the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX).[1]  Just a few days later, Typhoon Bopha hit the Philippines.  Yet another extreme weather event.  From December 7th update of the international edition of The News:

“A quarter million people were homeless and 477 confirmed dead after the Philippines' worst typhoon this year, officials said Thursday, as the government appealed for international help.”[2]

Hundreds of people are missing, a fourth of the country’s banana crop is destroyed, homes are in rubble, villages are gone. 

Officials said many of the 477 dead victims were poor migrants who found work at landslide-prone sites such as New Bataan and nearby Monkayo towns, either at unregulated gold mines or at banana plantations.”

Last year, the night before the opening of COP17, there was a strong (and unusual) storm that hit Durban. The victims were relatively few in number, but all from poor shanty towns on the outskirts of the host city.  According to the Worldwatch Institute, in 2011, there were 820 natural catastrophes around the planet, resulting in almost 30,000 deaths and close to $400 billion in economic losses.[3]   When I read that press release back in April, I was struck by the fact that insurance companies are keeping tabs on this type of thing, which of course, makes perfect sense.  In the case of the Worldwatch Institute report, the data had been compiled by Munich Reinsurance Company and analyzed by WWI’s Vital Signs series.  Worldwatch President Robert Engelman was quoted as saying

“The steady increase in losses from natural catastrophes around the world demonstrates the need for preventative measures to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities  ...These communities often have little beyond their own wits and meager resources to help them recover from a crop failure, the destruction of a home, or the tragic loss of a family’s breadwinner.”

In sharp contrast, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went to Washington today to ask for aid for his state after the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy in October.  The Los Angeles Times reported today that New York and New Jersey alone have requested $79 billion in disaster relief.[4]

WASHINGTON, DC, November 23, 2009 – World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the leading insurer Allianz SE released a report today warning that sea level rise could dramatically increase risks to buildings, transportation infrastructure and other assets exposed to severe storm surges in coastal areas of the U.S. The study estimates that current assets at risk to a 1-in-100-year storm surge amount to $1.4 trillion. A mid-century global sea level rise of 0.5 meters (20 inches), with an additional 0.15 meter (6 inches) localized rise along the northeast U.S. coast, could jeopardize assets worth close to $7.4 trillion [emphasis added].[5]

If you take into account other economic impacts in developed nations – such as air travel disruption, impacts on electric-utility operations, temporary shut downs of extractive industries and community businesses, etc. – real costs of extreme weather events are significantly higher.  No wonder there has been so much talk in Doha of “Loss and Damage.”  But how exactly do negotiators and insurance actuaries account for loss of life or put a price tag on grief?

I am reminded once again of the comment from my Kenyan friend, Samwel, in an email just before I left for Qatar:

“Climate change is now speaking for itself and it’s up to us humans to act, to mitigate, or suffer the consequences.”

In many news feeds today there was coverage of the emotional pleas of the chief negotiator for the Philippines, Naderev SaƱo, pleas which echo those of Samwel:

“As we sit here in these negotiations, even as we vacillate and procrastinate here, the death toll is rising.  There is massive and widespread devastation.  Hundreds of thousands of people have been rendered without homes.  And the ordeal is far from over, as typhoon Bopha has regained some strength as it approaches another populated area in the western part of the Philippines.

I appeal to the whole world, I appeal to the leaders from all over the world, to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face.  I appeal to ministers.  The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want.  It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people.

I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses.  Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around.  Please, let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to find the will to take responsibility for the future we want.  I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who?  If not now, then when?  If not here, then where?”

Our colleagues from York College in PA had another op-ed published this week in the Huffington Post expressing the growing frustration amongst youth.[6]  Two Arab youth activists from Libya and Algeria were expelled from the conference today.  Their offense?  Displaying a banner that read: “Qatar: Why host and not lead?  A coalition of NGO’s today issued a statement claiming that the climate talks in Doha were “sleepwalking toward disaster.”[7]

I completely understand this frustration.  The science tells us what we should be doing.  Those paying attention to events around the world don’t even need the science.  But we should all be screaming about the inaction and the costs that we will eventually pay because of it. 

At a previous UNFCCC meeting, the youth wore blue t-shirts worn by youth at a previous U.N. meeting that included a quote from Christina Ora, a youth delegate from the Solomon Islands in 2009:

"You have been negotiating all my life. You cannot tell me you need more time."

Apparently, the negotiators think we have time.  After all, even if a new legally-binding agreement is reached (by 2015), it likely won’t go into effect until 2020.  So let’s start keeping a tally of measurable costs of damage due to extreme weather events, along with the loss of life and livelihood.  The cost of inaction is likely to be very high indeed.

1 comment:

  1. It's amazing that there have been 820 natural catastrophes in 2011 around the planet with an overall 30,000 resulting deaths and $400 billion in economic loss but yet nothing is happening to start controlling the situation. Either people just don't know these facts or they can't comprehend them.
    I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that the Sandy relief has already amounted to $79 billion dollars. This is a good thing but when looking at the bigger picture, it is inequitable.