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Climate Change Takes Its Toll

fortmcmurray

A wildfire devours the forest next to Highway 63, 24 kilometers south of Fort McMurray on Saturday, May 7. The “Beast”, as it was called by Wood Buffalo fire chief Darby Allen, caused the mass evacuation of nearly 90,000 people from the northern Alberta city. (Photo by Chris Schwarz / Government of Alberta) Public domain

By Sunny Lewis

MUNICH, Germany, September 21, 2016 (Maximpact.com News) – Monetary losses caused by natural disasters in the first half of 2016 were “significantly higher” than the corresponding figures for the previous year, although fewer people died in these events, according to a report by the German insurance and re-insurance firm Munich Re.

In total, losses to the end of June came to US$70bn (previous year US$59bn), of which US$27bn (US$19bn) were insured.

The main loss drivers were powerful earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador, storms in Europe and the United States, and forest fires in Canada.

A raging wildfire consumed the parched forest south of the oil sands city of Fort McMurray, Alberta on May 7. The 1,500 square kilometer inferno caused the evacuation of nearly 90,000 people.

The European storms are likely linked to climate change, explains Peter Höppe, who heads Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research Unit.

 “Scientific studies have shown that heavy rainfall has become more frequent in certain regions of Europe over the last few decades. For example, in the period 1951–2010 severe spring rainfall events that used to have a mathematical occurrence probability of once every 20 years have already increased by a factor of 1.7. Climate change is likely to have been partly responsible for this,” said Höppe.

Natural catastrophe figures for the first half of 2016:

Overall losses were above the inflation-adjusted average for the last 30 years (US$63bn), but below the average for the last 10 years (US$92bn).

Insured losses were in line with the inflation-adjusted average for the last 10 years and above the average for the last 30 years (US$15bn).

Just 3,800 people lost their lives to natural disasters in the first six months of 2016, fewer than during the same time period in 2015, (21,000) and the averages for the last 10 and 30 years (47,000 and 28,000).

The greatest number of fatalities was caused by an Mw 7.8 earthquake which hit the Pacific coast of Ecuador at almost the same time as the quakes hit Japan. Many buildings were destroyed and shopping mall roofs collapsed. Nearly 700 people were killed. As is so often the case in emerging countries, a relatively small share of the overall loss of US$2.5bn was insured: US$400m.

The highest losses were caused by two earthquakes on the Japanese island of Kyushu in April (US$25bn, just US$6bn was insured).

 Munich Re Board member Torsten Jeworrek said, “These events clearly show the importance of loss prevention, such as protection against flash floods or the construction of earthquake-resistant buildings in high-risk areas. The good news is that improved building codes and a more intelligent approach by emergency services and authorities offer people much better protection than used to be the case.

Catastrophe activity in the United States led to $3.8 billion in insured losses in 29 states during the 2016 first quarter, with much of the damage hitting Texas. Those events were the worst in a decade in terms of frequency and severity, according to a new industry report.

The first quarter is usually mild … since the major perils are hail and winter storm,” the Property Claims Services unit of Verisk Insurance Solutions explained in its first-quarter 2016 catastrophe review, which encompassed 13 catastrophe events.

But this year, said PCS, some of the first-quarter U.S. storms “packed a serious wallop.” One storm alone caused $1.1 billion in insured losses when it hit Texas in March.

The Global Federation of Insurance Associations (GFIA) , a Brussels-based industry group, warned as far back as 2013 that “loss trends and climate scientists indicate that, in the future, more and more insurance will be needed to help economies recover from a growing frequency of weather related losses: tornados, hailstorms, hurricanes/typhoons.

Natural disasters triggered by climate change are tragic and costly, but these are not the only losses people are experiencing due to the warming climate.

The rising price – in money and in health – of extreme weather events amid rapid urbanization, and the value of applying science and technology to reduce these risks, is explored in six research papers released at a United Nations forum in Malaysia on July 19.

Assembled by UN University’s Malaysia-based International Institute for Global Health (UNU-IIGH), the research is published in a special issue of the “Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health.”

The papers include a stern warning about productivity loss due to heat stress. The latest estimates show productivity in many jobs will fall by up to 40 percent by 2030 due to heat stress. The global economic cost of this reduced productivity may be more than US$2 trillion by 2030. 

 The jobs most susceptible include the lowest paid – heavy labor and low-skill agricultural and manufacturing.

In Southeast Asia alone as much as 15 to 20 percent of annual work hours may already be lost in low-paid, heat-exposed occupations, a figure that may double by 2030. 

Author Tord Kjellstrom of the Health and Environment International Trust, New Zealand, said, “Current climate conditions in tropical and subtropical parts of the world are already so hot during the hot seasons that occupational health effects occur and work capacity for many people is affected.

Dr. Kjellstrom’s paper cites estimated GDP losses due to heat stress for 43 countries: Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Costa Rica, Denmark, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Fiji, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mexico, Myanmar, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Russia, Saint Lucia, Samoa, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Tanzania, Thailand, Tuvalu, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu and Vietnam.

The situation in Malaysia is typical of the Southeast Asian countries. As work slows or stops to avoid dangerous heat stress, the country’s Gross Domestic Product is projected to decline by an estimated 5.9 percent (value: US $95 billion) by 2030, more than double the estimated 2.8 percent GDP lost to heat stress in 2010.

 In 2030, in both India and China, the GDP losses could total $450 billion, although mitigation may be made possible by a major shift in working hours, among other measures employers will need to take to reduce losses.

This situation already is straining electricity infrastructure, Dr. Kiellstrom observes. The additional energy needed for a single city the size of Bangkok for each 1°C increase of average ambient temperature can be as much as 2000 MW, roughly the output of a major power plant.

It is very important to develop and apply adaptation measures now to protect people from the disasters that current climate and slowing changing climate brings,” said Kjellstrom. “However, adaptation is only half an answer; we must also take decisive action now to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases.

Failure will cause the frequency and intensity of disasters to worsen dramatically beyond 2050, and the situation at the end of this century will be especially alarming for the world’s poorest people,” he warned.

Climate change will bring increasingly difficult situations, according to the papers:

  • Disastrously heavy rains can expand insect breeding sites, drive rodents from their burrows, and contaminate freshwater resources, leading to the spread of disease and compromising safe drinking water supplies.
  • Warmer temperatures often promote the spread of mosquito-borne parasitic and viral diseases by shifting the vectors’ geographic range and shortening the pathogen incubation period.
  • Climate change can worsen air quality by triggering fires and dust storms and promoting certain chemical reactions causing respiratory illness and other health problems.
  • In extreme disasters, harm is often amplified by the destruction of medical facilities and disruption of health services
  • Central and south China can anticipate the greatest number of casualties and highest economic losses from extreme weather events in the Asia Pacific region – the world’s most disaster-prone region – and a more integrated, multidisciplinary approach is needed to upgrade the nation’s emergency response system for natural disasters.
  • From 1980 to 2012, roughly 2.1 million people worldwide died as a direct result of nearly 21,000 natural catastrophes such as floods, mudslides, extreme heat, drought, high winds or fires. The cost of those disasters exceeded $4 trillion (US) – a loss comparable to the current annual GDP of Germany.
  • In Asia Pacific 1.2 billion people have been affected by 1,215 disasters since the millennium. Some 92 percent of human exposure to floods occurs in Asia Pacific, along with 91 percent of exposure to cyclones and two-thirds of all exposure to landslides. Between 1970 and 2011, two million people in the region – 75 percent of the world total – were killed by disasters.
  • From 1993 to 2012, the Philippines experienced the highest number of extreme weather events (311), Thailand experienced the greatest financial loss (US$5.4 billion) and Myanmar experienced the highest death rate (13.5 deaths per 100,000 people).
  • In just 40 years, from 1970 to 2010, the regional population exposed to flooding risk more than doubled from about 30 million to 64 million while those in cyclone-prone areas rose from roughly 72 to 121 million.
  • Cities cover two percent of world land cover, generate 60 to 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and half of all waste, and are expanding at a rate of one million people per week. In a single generation – from 2000 to 2030 – urban land extents are expected to have tripled.

The authors underline that fast-rising numbers of people are being exposed to the impacts of climate change, with much of the increase occurring in cities in flood-prone coastal areas or on hills susceptible to mudslides or landslides. Especially vulnerable are people living in poverty, including about one billion in slums.

Cities, concentrated sources of energy consumption, heat and pollution, covered in surfaces that absorb warmth, create local heat islands and impair air quality, both threats to health.

And rising demand for cooling contributes to warming the world. Air conditioners not only pump heat out directly, the electricity required is typically produced by burning fossil fuels, adding to atmospheric greenhouse gases. As well, people acclimatized to air conditioning become less heat tolerant, further increasing demand for cooling.

On the other hand, better urban planning presents “tremendous opportunity” to mitigate the health impacts of more extreme weather events, authors emphasize.

Urban planners, the authors say, can help by designing cities “in ways that enhance health, sustainability, and resilience all at once,” incorporating better building design, facilitating a shift to renewable energy, and fostering the protection and expansion of tree cover, wetlands and other carbon sinks, for example.

To mitigate the health impacts of longer, more severe extreme weather events, the authors stress the need to replace piecemeal reactive responses with integrated, multi-disciplinary planning approaches.

Beyond better preparation and warning systems to improve disaster response, recommended steps include enhancing drainage to reduce flood risks and strengthening health care, especially in poor areas.

The six papers, published by the “Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health,” are:

  • Climate Change, Extreme Weather Events, and Human Health Implications in the Asia Pacific Region, by Jamal Hisham Hashim and Zailina Hashim (http://bit.ly/29AXLlM)
  •  Urbanization, Extreme Events, and Health: The Case for Systems Approaches in Mitigation, Management, and Response, by José G. Siri, Barry Newell, Katrina Proust, and Anthony Capon (http://bit.ly/29N9IBA)
  • Impact of Climate Conditions on Occupational Health and Related Economic Losses: A New Feature of Global and Urban Health in the Context of Climate Change, by Tord Kjellstrom (http://bit.ly/29BL0Dn)
  • Impact of Climate Change on Air Quality and Public Health in Urban Areas, by Noor Artika Hassan, Zailina Hashim, and Jamal Hisham Hashim (http://bit.ly/29EX6y4)
  • Review of Climate Change and Water-Related Diseases in Cambodia and Findings From Stakeholder Knowledge Assessments, by Lachlan McIver, Vibol Chan, Kathyrn Bowen, Steven Iddings, Kol Hero and Piseth Raingsey (http://bit.ly/29EWWXw)
  • Emergency Response to and Preparedness for Extreme Weather Events and Environmental Changes in China, by Li Wang, Yongfeng Liao, Linsheng Yang, Hairong Li, Bixiong Ye, and Wuyi Wang (http://bit.ly/29UhBI7)

Featured Image: Rescue vehicles address Cypress Creek flooding near Houston, Texas, April 19, 2016 (Photo by muypronto) Creative Commons license via Flickr

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