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Could big bills from extreme weather drive climate action?

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 21 June 2013 16:00 GMT

A submerged statue of the Hindu Lord Shiva stands amid the flooded waters of the river Ganges at Rishikesh in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, India, on June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

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Heavy financial losses from climate change have not so far led to widespread political action. But that could change, experts say

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Could the growing costs of damage from extreme weather – in rich countries as well as poor – be the push that finally drives action on climate change?

Worst-in-a-decade flooding that swept through Germany as U.N. climate talks took place there this month will cost Germany’s government and its insurance companies up to $8 billion, experts estimate. In the United States, the bill for recovery from Hurricane Sandy is estimated at more than $50 billion, with agricultural losses from that country’s widespread drought last year even more costly.

“When you add up what all the extreme weather events cost last year (in the United States), it’s in excess of $250 billion,” said Rachel Kyte, vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank. “You’re talking about economic devastation that at some point is going to start hitting.”

So far, such heavy losses have not led to widespread political support for action on climate change in the United States, or other hard-hit countries. But a new report from the World Bank on the expected impacts of climate shifts suggests that so-called “loss and damage” from extreme weather is just starting, and the costs – in lives, economic damage and even potentially political stability – could rise dramatically around the world.

In South Asia, the once-regular Asian monsoon is growing less predictable, leading to deepening concerns that shifts could affect the food security and lives of 1.6 billion people. This year, the monsoon arrived almost a month early, causing severe flooding in some parts of India. At other times it has come late, leading to widespread power blackouts as desperate farmers switch on irrigation pumps, said Erick Fernandes, an adviser on climate change and natural resources for the World Bank.

Worsening drought in the Amazon threatens rainfall in food-producing areas of South America as far south as Argentina, he said, during a seminar on the World Bank report at the offices of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London.

Brazil’s crops – which are widely exported to other countries as well as feeding Brazilians – are 95 percent rainfed, Fernandes said, and the country relies heavily on hydropower for its energy.

Ocean acidification, as the world’s seas absorb excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, has risen by 30 percent from pre-industrial times, the seminar heard. Acidification could prevent many shellfish from growing shells while an expected global temperature rises of at least 4 degrees Celsius would kill most coral reefs around the world, threatening tourism income and leaving coasts now protected by reefs more vulnerable to storms.

The Caribbean alone earns $5 billion a year from its coral reefs, Fernandes said.


Much of southern and southwest Africa is expected to see worsening drought by 2030 that could make growing maize – the region’s staple – impossible in 40 percent of the area it is now cultivated, the report said. Rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is also likely to turn many of Africa’s grass savannahs to brushy woodlands, affecting pastoralists.

In Southeast Asia, where coastal cities are seeing a big population surge, particularly in informal settlements, rising temperatures are expected to make life extremely uncomfortable for those without access to air conditioning, and to drive a serious increase in the severity of storms that could flood homes and workplaces – as happened in Thailand in 2011, said Fernandes.

Such shifts, besides causing huge financial losses, are likely to force a complete revamp of existing development plans.

“The development paradigm we’ve been peddling for years, that it’s easier to deal with the poor in urban settings than rural, because they’re easier to find and reach with services” may now be wrong, Kyte said.

“This report says that perhaps the most dangerous place to be if you’re poor is in the slums of a southeast Asian city.”

Changes are coming faster than expected, Fernandes said, noting that there was now a chance that a 4 degree Celsius rise in temperatures could arrive by 2060, and that “we could experience a 2-degree (hotter) world in our lifetimes”.

The increasingly extreme weather of recent years is the result of a 0.8 degree Celsius rise in the world’s temperature since pre-industrial times, which suggests that “even 2 degrees is not going to be a picnic”, he said.

Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, and a senior fellow at the IIED, said he saw the World Bank report as “all about loss and damage” – a relatively new term that describes the costs associated with failure to reduce or adapt to climate change.

Who might pay those costs remains a huge political question. Rich countries at the U.N. climate talks have so far refused to accept any liability for their higher carbon emissions, fearing it could lead to them having to pay billions in compensation, experts say.

That suggests many countries, companies and communities will be asked to shoulder the rising costs of extreme weather  themselves – and those costs could lead to growing pressure for action, experts predicted.

Loss and damage is a reality and not just for South Asia, with its hefty share of climate-vulnerable countries like Bangladesh, Huq said. Even in Europe, the United States and other rich nations, “we’re looking at big, big bills if we don’t take action”.


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