What if we knew the real costs of climate change?

by Mami Mizutori | UNISDR
Tuesday, 11 December 2018 10:05 GMT

Classrooms in a severely damaged school as seen from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey surveying the aftermath from Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

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There is no economic loss data for 63 percent of the disasters recorded over the last 20 years

Mami Mizutori is the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction and the head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

“It’s the economic loss, stupid!”

I would never actually say that to anyone - I am far too reserved. But sometimes I feel it should be shouted from the rooftops in order to attract attention when we are trying to convince governments - and ministries of finance and economic planning, in particular - of the need to develop a greater understanding of how much of a drain extreme weather events really are on a national economy.

Some argue that we cannot afford to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because of the economic impact it would have. But we need to hear more about the other side of the story and the toll that climate change is already taking on the national and local economies of both developing and developed countries.

We human-beings are all by nature given to short term thinking - and the only way to reverse this might be to do a better job of capturing the economic-loss data from extreme weather events.

The World Bank tells us that disasters annually cost the global economy about $520 billion, and this is the most damning figure I have come across so far.  But the truth is that no one really knows with precision the extent of the direct losses suffered by national economies.

Why? Because we simply are not doing a good job of measuring those losses, particularly if they are not insured.

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction recently published a review of available economic loss-related data caused by disasters, in collaboration with the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the University of Louvain, based on their data for over 7,000 major disasters recorded in the past 20 years.   

We found that the number of weather and climate related disasters had doubled over the last two decades, accounting for 90 percent of all major disasters.

We also found that these climate-related events now account for 77 percent of $3 trillion in recorded losses for both climate-related and geophysical events such as earthquakes.

However, the most surprising figure of all is that there is no economic loss data for 63 percent of the disasters recorded over the last 20 years.

When it comes to low-income countries, no economic loss data is available for nearly 87 percent of disasters.

And yet we know the same low-income countries that contribute the least to climate change are suffering the most in terms of lives lost, people displaced, and damage to infrastructure and food security.

Capturing economic loss data serves at least two functions if we want to create a resilient world, one fit to cope with the upward curve of global warming.

First, it will hopefully motivate finance ministers to focus on the need to factor risk information into investment decisions around critical infrastructure. The most expensive in this category is the hospital, school or public utility that fails in a storm or a flood.

Second, good economic data can drive planning at the national and local level to ensure that strategies for reducing disaster risk are inclusive of climate change adaptation and provide clear guidance on how to avoid creating new risk.

Good accounting of your disaster losses is part of good governance. Efforts to eradicate poverty at national and local level will only succeed if the poor and vulnerable are protected from future losses.

Economic losses are key to measuring the success or failure of the overall 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development including the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and the global plan for reducing disaster losses, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

What is not measured, quickly becomes invisible. What is invisible is lost. And what is lost, cannot be acted on or remedied.

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