What transforms natural hazards into catastrophic events?

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In the recently published World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2020, risks that dominate stakeholder concerns include extreme weather events, failure of governments and businesses to adopt climate change mitigation and adaptation measures , and human-made environmental damages and disasters, among other issues. Thus, climate experts, planners, and policy and decision makers need to have a better understanding of these risks and of their impact on communities so that appropriate interventions and strategic decisions can be instituted.

In a recent study published by the Climate, Disaster and Development Journal, economics researchers examine some of the factors that turn natural hazards, particularly floods and storms, into intense disasters. In particular, they used a socioeconomic framework to determine how the increasing risk exposure and vulnerability, alongside climate variables, have contributed to the increase in the frequency of hydrometeorological calamities.

Their findings show that human actions have a decisive role in the changing climatic patterns. Moreover, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulation and its associated effects on climate contribute to the increased frequency of these events worldwide. 

From Hazard to Disaster

The study takes a different but complementary approach to climate models and looked at the behavioral relationships between disasters and the factors that contribute to making them. In particular, it looks at the interplay among people’s risk exposure, vulnerability, and the nature of the hazard itself as factors that can transform a hazard into a disaster. 

The study employs data from the Emergency Events Database of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters to measure the annual frequency of intense hydrometeorological disasters. The data cover 155 countries from 1970 to 2016. For purposes of the study, disasters are defined as natural events that lead to at least 100 deaths and/or at least 1,000 people directly affected.

The climate variables considered in the study include the average precipitation deviations to represent country-specific climate change impacts and atmospheric CO2 accumulation, which is based on in situ air measurements by the Mauna Loa Observatories. the socioeconomic variables, on the other hand, include people’s exposure and vulnerability to hazards. The former is represented by population density measures, whereas the latter is represented by GDP per capita estimates.

Managing Disasters

Disaster risk can be seen as a product of the probability that the hazard would occur and the impact that the hazard would have. The findings show that in addition to people’s exposure and vulnerability, climate change also contributes to turning natural hazards into catastrophic events. 

The results show that global climate conditions significantly affect the frequency of hydrometeorological disasters. The continuous increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration in the past four decades is significantly correlated with the increase in the number of extreme floods and storms. This means human actions have a decisive role in the trends and patterns of climate change. The study further emphasizes that if current trends in the increase in atmospheric CO2  accumulation continues, then the number of hydrometeorological disasters could double globally in 13 years.

As such, the researchers call on governments to step up on their efforts to institutionalize economic and environmental policies and apply greater investments in disaster risk reduction and mitigation globally and locally. Planners also need to employ a multipronged approach that draws on different (but related) disciplines so that adaptation responses will be effective against the increasing risk of these disasters. 

The research on “Impacts of Carbon Dioxide Emissions on Global Intense Hydrometeorological Disasters” was authored by Ramon E. Lopez, professor of economics at the University of Chile; Vinod Thomas, distinguished fellow at the Asian Institute of Management; and Pablo A. Troncoso, Ph.D candidate in Economics at the University of Georgia.

The CDD Journal is an open-access platform for peer-reviewed papers on all aspects and intersections of climate, disasters, and development, and their interaction.

It is open to submissions focused on the areas of climate science, vulnerability and risks, climate change adaptation, disaster management, resilience, and climate policy and development. Please refer to the call for submission flyer, guide on getting published in the CDD Journal, and the manuscript submission guidelines for more information.

The CDD Journal is also looking to expand our pool of experts. Please refer to our call for reviewers.

For information on Philippine climate change and its impacts, visit the Philippine Climate Change Assessment Reports page.