Preparing for climate disasters

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Around a week ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report saying that no part of the world is now exempt from the effects of the changing climate. These effects are already seen in all continents and even in our oceans.

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Last year, the IPCC issued the physical science side of their report that was unequivocal in saying that the global climate is warming and that, in the recent 60 years, these changes are “unprecedented over decades to millennia.” They also pointed out that the last 30 years was likely the warmest in the past millennium and a half.

The ocean has warmed considerably near the surface in the past decades. The ice sheets in the North and South Pole are losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink and there is less sea ice cover in the Arctic seas. Sea level has also risen by at least 0.19 meters over the last century. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 40% compared to before the 1800s, which not only contributes to global warming but also to ocean acidification.

The first report was also clear that human influence on climate is evident from the different measurements that they made by saying that it is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

This second part of the fifth assessment report that came out last week deals with the impact of such change in climate to natural systems and human activity. It assessed the impacts, the adaptation strategies and vulnerability of communities to a changing climate.

It discusses the wide-ranging impacts of climate change to natural systems such as changing precipitation and flow patterns, which are altering water quality and quantity, runoff and other resources. It also points out the shifts in the geographical ranges, migration patterns and other activities on many land, air, water and marine species.

The report also points out that climate-related hazards exacerbate other problems often yielding worsening poverty, reduction of crop yields or loss of homes, livelihood and security. It also warns of increased vulnerability of violent conflict due to climate change.

The report identified eight risks from climate change. First among these are the “risk of death, injury, ill-health, or disrupted livelihoods in low-lying coastal zones and small island developing states and other small islands, due to storm surges, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise.” We have seen this already in what happened to those affected by Yolanda but most of our coastal communities are at the same risk as well.

The report also points out the risk of “severe ill-health and disrupted livelihoods for large urban populations due to inland flooding in some regions.” We should only look at Ondoy and Pepeng and the flooding due to the Habagat in the recent previous years to realize that this has already happened to us.

The systemic risks due to extreme weather events due to the failure of infrastructure networks and other critical services such as electricity, water supply and other social services were made real in the case of Yolanda and Pablo. Until now, electricity and social services have not yet been brought back to normal in these areas. Even the DILG and DND secretary were cut off from critical communications during the height of Yolanda.

The report also warns of the risk of deaths from “periods of extreme heat, particularly for vulnerable urban populations and those working outdoors in urban or rural areas.” The failure of crops due to drought, flooding and variability in rainfall puts poorer populations in urban and rural settings at risk from food insecurity and the breakdown of food.

The same warning is made for the “loss of rural livelihoods and income due to insufficient access to drinking and irrigation water and reduced agricultural productivity, particularly for farmers and pastoralists with minimal capital in semi-arid regions.” This should make us work doubly hard since we are in a country where around 70% of our people are economically engaged in agriculture related activities.

The impact to our megadiverse ecosystem is worrisome as the report also notes that climate change puts us at the risk of “loss of marine and coastal ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for coastal livelihoods, especially for fishing communities in the tropics and the Arctic.” The same is true for the “loss of terrestrial and inland water ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for livelihoods.”

These risks have been made real to us by the recent disasters such as Ondoy, Pepeng, Pablo, the habagat, and more recently Yolanda. Although we do not name the droughts that have hit us, we only need to recall the drought in Cagayan Valley and some Visayan islands a few years ago. The effects of flooding and the breakdown of systems have long been felt in our country.

Last Tuesday marked the fifth month since Yolanda hit Samar and Leyte. It was also last Tuesday that Yolanda survivors in Eastern Visayas under the group People’s Surge went back to the streets in Tacloban and in Manila. They held a cenaculo portraying the hardships of the people in the Yolanda affected areas and a government who has not been listening to them.

As the IPCC report says, climate change will only worsen the inequalities that are happening in countries and regions. We just hope that the dismal government response to the continuing tragedy in the Yolanda damaged areas and peoples will not be the norm for the climate disasters that we are most likely face in the future.

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