HomeSpotlightSaving the planet from future disasters

Saving the planet from future disasters

World is facing the stark reality of increasing disasters, climate change and environmental degradation. As a result, communicating about reducing and avoiding the creation of new risk, is more important than ever before. Cascading impacts of disasters create serious difficulties for risk management and risksharing actors, including the insurance industry, governments and the wider private sector. It is now recognized that climate change is creating greater systemic risk than previously recognized for critical infrastructure, especially in coastal areas that are most immediately affected by sea-level rise.

According to the latest data from insurer Munich Re, losses from natural catastrophes in 2020 rose to $210 billion globally, from $166 billion in 2019. Of all of deaths from weather, climate, and water hazards, 91% occurred in developing economies, according to the United Nations country classification from 1970 through 2019. Since 1980, more than 2.4 million people and over $3.7 trillion have been lost to disasters caused by natural hazards globally, with total damages increasing by more than 800%, from $18 billion a year in the 1980s to $167 billion a year in the last decade. So, the threat is real and the cost is phenomenal.

Rapid urbanization is making people more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, in part due to the concentration of large cities in coastal areas subject to the impacts of sea-level rise. Sea levels rose on average 1.3 mm per year between 1901 and 1971, but since 2006, that rate has increased to 3.7 mm per year. It is projected that by 2100, 27 million people in India will be affected by sea-level rise.

Though, of late, disasters are claiming fewer lives annually, they are costing more and increasing poverty. While the economic impact of geophysical disasters has remained stable over recent decades, annual economic loss from climate- and weather-related events has risen significantly since the 2000s, in line with their amplified intensity and frequency.

Development is not merely set back by disasters, it is also an essential factor in the creation of risk. Development that is not sustainable exacerbates existing risk and creates conditions for the emergence of new risk. This includes overexploitation of the environment and the building of cities and critical infrastructure that are not resilient.

While we have witnessed substantial progress, improving disaster preparedness at the same time as enabling better disaster prevention and climate adaptation remain as key challenges for sustainable development. Meanwhile, many of the human actions continue to push the planet towards its existential and ecosystem limits. In the face of intensifying climate change impacts and increasing system threats, risk reduction efforts often seem too little and too late.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the hottest decade on record, there is growing momentum to change how the global community manages risk, and a willingness to accelerate action on climate change. In the aftermath of disasters, psychologists note there is a moment when individuals are particularly open to change. The current phase of the COVID-19 crisis is perhaps such a moment that should not be wasted.

Time has come to think less in terms of individual-based approaches and more in larger structural and systemic ways that show how individual decisions are influenced by larger social systems. These may include issues such as laws, policies, systems, physical designs, discrimination, restricted access, financial constraints and other aspects of lived experience that help facilitate or constrain behaviours.

The private sector also has a major role to play in accelerating risk reduction action and in reducing losses from future disasters. For example, banks and financial institutions that provide property improvement loans can require specific risk reduction measures to be undertaken as a condition for a mortgage.

In designing new houses, apartments and business facilities, developers can avoid construction on flood-plains or in areas affected by sea-level rise.

All parts of the private sector can take action to reduce the risk of disasters, including by ensuring business continuity when disasters cannot be prevented and by reducing their carbon footprints.

Local and state governments can also enact or modify building codes and impose land-use regulations to reduce future losses from floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires, and implement nature-based solutions to limit risk from natural hazards.

Humanity must understand itself as part of the broader system that humans aim to change. Instead of standing outside and controlling ecological and planetary systems, there is increasing recognition that humans have always been part of them as has been traditionally recognised in Indian culture.

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