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The long-term forecast for extreme weather

Soroti residents help an old woman to cross the flooded Awoja bridge in Teso sub region, Uganda (Sep 2012) John Odongo/IRIN
Soroti residents help an old woman to cross the flooded Awoja bridge in Teso sub region, Uganda (Sep 2012)

If you ask a climate scientist to indulge in some crystal ball gazing to predict what impact climate change could have in the next 10 years, they would probably refuse.

That is because climate is weather averaged over several decades. Changes occur slowly and are recorded over a period of decades or hundreds - even thousands - of years.

How, then, can aid groups and communities plan to address near-future climate-related disasters? According to Thomas Knutson, a US climate scientist and co-chair of the World Meteorological Organization Expert Team on Climate Change Impacts on Tropical Cyclones, the historical record - going back a century or more - can give some indication of what is to come.

“In my view, clearly the aid agencies and communities should be at least prepared to face weather and climate events of the same order (intensity, etc.),” Knutson told IRIN via email.

Examining the historical data for signs of man-made climate change in a particular area could also be a pointer to the future. “For example, if a drought or extreme temperatures occur in some region, is there already published evidence for a detectable anthropogenic contribution to the variable in question (e.g., a drought indicator in the case of a drought, or temperatures in the case of the extreme temperatures )?”

A new assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to be released on 27 September, and the Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) report “will be useful for a very crude initial interpretation of possible contributing factors to climate/weather events that we will experience in the next 10 years,” Knutson said.

Focus on the people

But rather than getting caught up in what might happen, many scientists advocate focusing on policies that prepare people and countries to face the unknown.

Richard Klein, one of the authors of SREX, says that to people experiencing the consequences of extreme events, whether those events were caused by climate change or natural variability is irrelevant. “Insisting on this distinction in adaptation decision-making is, in my view, unethical and inefficient.”

This should not guide adaptation policy and finance, he told IRIN: “Imagine a flooded river, and 10m away from you someone in the water is crying for help. Rather than throwing them a 10m-long rope, you first do a quick calculation to find out that the probability of the flood being due to climate change is 40 percent and to natural variability 60 percent.

“You therefore decide to throw the person in the water a 4m long rope, and suggest they swim the other 6m themselves, or ask someone else for a 6m rope. If that person can't swim, and if there's nobody to provide them with additional help, then not only will the 4m rope be insufficient to help them, it will also be a wasted effort.”

Integrating adaptation and disaster risk reduction

In another 10 years, the successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA2), a 10-year global plan to keep the world safer from natural hazards, will be in place, as might a climate treaty to help slow the impact of climate change and provide funds to help countries adapt.

Adaptation expert Saleemul Huq, one of the authors of the IPCC assessments, says disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies are now widely accepted as a form of adaptation to climate change. DRR and climate change adaptation are increasingly being integrated, with growing focus on the impact of policies on infrastructure and people, and on building their resilience to face what might come their way.

“It is still early to say how the resilience agenda will develop,” said Katie Harris, research officer with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), but the conversation on resilience has helped the disaster, climate change and development communities come closer.

Looking at state fragility

Harris and two other experts - Tom Mitchell, coordinating lead author of SREX, and David Keen, who teaches at the London School of Economics - are advocating the integration of peace and state building into disaster risk management. They hope this will get some traction in the coming years.

Their recent paper lists countries demonstrating high levels of fragility, disaster risk, poverty and climate change vulnerability, suggesting “a concurrence between drought mortality risk, state fragility and climate change vulnerability.”

The 2011 humanitarian crisis in East Africa - which was prompted by drought and food and political insecurity, and which degenerated into a famine in conflict-affected Somalia - has forced many in the aid community to think along these lines.

Countries with fragile governments or affected by conflicts, like Somalia, Afghanistan and Niger, top the authors’list of countries most vulnerable to disasters and climate change in the coming years.

The list takes into account weak or unstable governance and the state’s willingness and capacity to intervene during disasters. It factors in the Failed States Index, a product of the US-based nonprofit research organization Fund for Peace. This index, in turn, considers a host of variables that reflect the state of governance, such as the impact of conflicts, displacement of people, economic development, poverty levels, grievances of the population, state of public services, human rights records, rule of law, security apparatus and the rise of “factionalized elites”.

Harris says planning for climate change and natural disaster risks will have to consider these additional factors. While the aid community has begun to explore policies that integrate DRR, climate change adaptation and development, state fragility and conflict management have not featured prominently in these conversations, she told IRIN.

The new climate deal

Huq hopes a new climate treaty endorsing the integration of DRR, adaptation and development will be ready by 2023. The global climate talks have been dragging for at least two decades, stalled mostly because of a lack of political leadership from developed countries like the US.

Huq says that with US President Barack Obama’s administration at the helm, he senses a “greater sense of optimism” than he has felt since a long time. “President Obama and his team of senior advisers all accept the scale of the climate change problem and recognize the US’s responsibilities. This is in stark contrast to his predecessor, President Bush, who refused to take any significant action for eight years.”

There are people and some politicians in the US who remain unconvinced of man-made climate change, he adds. But the reality of major climatic impacts, such as the recent drought in the US, might convince some, as might “the threat of mass migration and conflict raised by the Pentagon, [or fear of] being overtaken by China to reach the post-fossil-fuel economy. Whatever the reason for taking actions, even if they take the right decisions for the wrong reasons, I can live with that,” Huq noted in a recent opinion article.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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