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The Disaster Risk Expert: Robert Glasser

Dr Robert Glasser was formerly the United Nations Secretary General’s special representative for disaster risk reduction and head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He explains how the rising number and intensity of natural hazards is creating an “era of disasters” and discusses mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Robert Glasser

Can you tell us more about the rise of disaster risk globally?

Two main factors are increasing disaster risk. The first is that many investments in infrastructure are being made without sufficiently incorporating risk. With such poorly risk-informed investments, it is not surprising more infrastructure is being destroyed and the financial costs of disaster risk are going up.

The second is climate change, whose impacts are only just becoming visible. Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of many hazards. Infrastructure investments need to take account not only of the historical risk of hazards, but also of how climate change is altering the risks. In the US, if you look at Hurricane Harvey , something like half of the homes destroyed by that were situated outside the one-in-500-year threat area.

The patterns of hazards are also changing. In Australia, in a warming world, recent scientific research suggests cyclones will begin tracking further south to parts of the country including the Gold Coast, a big tourist area with high-rise buildings that have not been designed for extreme cyclones.

How are governments responding to the potential knock-on effects?

In Australia, we are beginning to think about simultaneous and consecutive disasters, partly because we are seeing it happen before our eyes. In Queensland, our most hazard-prone state, over half the local communities over the past three years have had three or more disasters. For them, the cascading impacts are already huge; they partly recover from one and are hit by another.

The countries hit by disasters more often are the furthest along in risk and disaster planning

Generally, it is still difficult for countries to come to terms with this. As usual, the countries hit by disasters more often are the furthest along in risk and disaster planning. For example, in Bangladesh, where they can see the changing impacts of climate through the annual monsoonal flooding, they are fundamentally incorporating flood risk protection in their investments and economic planning.

For countries not yet seeing these things, it is hard enough to get them to prepare for historical hazards like the historical chance of flooding, let alone for the fact history is no longer reliable because the frequency and severity is increasing non-linearly and very quickly.

Has a lack of preparedness worsened the impact of COVID-19?

We have seen in this pandemic that governments are not very good at responding to threats when they don’t seem imminent. We had so much warning, with repeated calls about bird-flu, swine flu, SARS, MERS: there were plenty of false alarms. Governments did spend more money when each of those viruses struck, but very quickly the funding went away, rather than devoting consistent, significant funding to address this scale of threat.

On the other hand, once it was imminent, countries did respond remarkably and in unprecedented ways, as has been seen with the lockdowns, bailouts and all the rest.

What should we do to adapt our communities and businesses to the era of disasters?

First, we need to understand the risks, and there are two dimensions to this. One is what we know historically about those disasters, then adding the climate piece as we cannot rely on the past anymore. That is really tricky because you can get some useful information from climate scientists on, for instance, the risk of extreme weather in a particular part of the country, but we would need much better information to provide climate risk information at levels and with degrees of certainty that are useful for planning in regional and local communities.

The second step is to incorporate this understanding of the risk within our investments. That is important for new investments, but we also need to think about the infrastructure already in place that is not resilient. There are steps you can take, even though addressing it in existing infrastructure is much more difficult.

It is interesting to realise that where we sit defines how we look at resilience

There is another element, which is dependent on your level of analysis. Governments can think about risk in terms of economic assets and lost life, while local communities might point to a large company providing jobs and income as the source of resilience, and some remote areas may be dependent on the expertise of a single person. It may be a small point, but it is interesting to realise that where we sit defines how we look at resilience.

How is the compounding of natural hazards affecting the probability of large-scale catastrophes?

Take the food security crisis in 2010-2011. Droughts and fires in Russia, Ukraine and parts of China, as well as floods in Canada and Australia, combined to destroy the wheat crop. That led to countries hoarding wheat and hiking the price of food, which resulted in food riots in North Africa. That was a contributory factor behind the Arab Spring.

In a similar example of a negative feedback loop, at 1.5 degrees of warming most coral reefs – which are fish nurseries for perhaps ten per cent of the world’s species – will have died, depleting tropical food supplies. Scientists have also determined that fish species are already moving towards the poles to escape warming waters. At two degrees Celsius of warming, this will result in a decrease of up to 60 per cent in fisheries’ yields in the tropics. And, as coral reefs disappear, so will the protection they offer coastal areas against storm surges, exposing millions of people to more extreme weather. Combine these with the impact warming will have on agriculture, and the food security risks become enormous.

If you put all those things together, it is extremely likely we will see these cascading impacts happening relatively quickly. They will happen in a given year, but also in consecutive years, and the individual events will, in effect, become one big event as the interval of time between them shortens.

Will companies and governments adapt in time?

The business community, and the financial sector particularly, is moving faster than governments on climate risk. I suspect, as these disasters happen more often and the impacts become bigger, regulators will begin requiring corporations to disclose their exposure to climate risks and how they are addressing the risks. Ultimately, this will accelerate the movement of hundreds of billions of dollars towards more resilient infrastructure. It will change the whole system because asset owners will want to make sure they have something to offer investors that is resilient to climate and disaster risk.

It is going to become politically compelling to act because the number of these disasters is increasing so quickly

The politics on climate change are also going to change. It is going to become politically compelling to act because the number of these disasters is increasing so quickly. With the unprecedented bushfires in Australia that are clearly linked to climate change, even the government, which is a strong supporter of fossil fuels, is changing its response. If something similar happens again in the next two years, the momentum will keep building towards more ambitious action.

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