A year of climate extremes: a case for Loss & Damage at COP23

Date
01 November 2017

Written by
Adelle Thomas, Bill Hare, Olivia Serdeczny, Luis Zamarioli, Fahad Saeed, Mouhamed Ly, Carl-Friedrich Schleussner

Climate extremes, many now bearing human fingerprints, are already causing devastating impacts across the globe, and the time is high for Loss and Damage to be considered in concrete and actionable terms in the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Fiji, the first island nation to lead a UN climate summit, COP23, has ensured that the issue of Loss and Damage is high on the political agenda. But what are the next steps to really move this issue forward, and in particular what needs to be done at the first “Islands COP” in Bonn? The review below shows that Loss and Damage – climate impacts exceeding the adaptive capacity of countries and communities – is already happening and has ramifications for SIDS and LDCs across the globe. We highlight regional examples of climate extremes and detail what needs to be done at COP23 to assist in limiting future impacts.

Dealing with loss and damage from climate extremes such as more frequent and severe droughts and floods are just some of the challenges SIDS and LDCs face. These extremes and resultant impacts are expected to increase as global temperatures continue to rise. ©Photos Oxfam International/DVIDSHUB CC BY 2.0

2017 – a year of extreme events

International media has reported with shock and sadness the sequence of climate extremes hitting the United States in the past months. However, climate extremes and resultant impacts have been occurring in every corner of the globe and can be linked to the drivers of climate change – Loss and Damage is already occurring. Observational records show that the half a degree of global warming observed in recent decades is connected with more intense extreme weather, including hot temperature extremes and intense precipitation.

Rising rates of sea surface temperature increase and rapidly accelerating sea level rise have also been observed. These changing climate drivers are linked with increased intensity of tropical storms, El Nino events, flooding and droughts and have had extreme damages across the planet including agriculture in Africa, human lives and infrastructure in Peru and biological systems, including massive coral reef bleaching.

While severe weather events have occurred throughout history, the rate of occurrence and intensity of current events are in many cases both unprecedented and attributable, in part at least, to human induced climate change. Some can now even be attributed to individual country emissions. As global temperatures increase, the intensity and related damages of climate extremes are projected to continue to rise, with the poorest regions in the world suffering the most, a fact which has led the IMF to raise concerns about the ability of poor countries to cope.

However, limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5⁰C decreases the risk of more severe impacts that are associated with higher levels of warming. Although impacts of climate change will continue to be experienced, a 1.5⁰C global temperature goal is essential in limiting the extent of future Loss and Damage. Unfortunately, current levels of climate action put the world on track for at least 3.6⁰C of warming, which is likely to exceed adaptive capacities and pose existential threats for highly vulnerable regions. Recent climate extremes and their impacts that are highlighted below underscore the urgency to limit warming to 1.5⁰C as called for in the Paris Agreement and to limit as far as possible further devastation across the globe.

South Asia

In July, heavy floods following unusually heavy monsoon rains have killed more than 1200 people and affected 43 million people in Bangladesh, Nepal and India. In Pakistan’s capital, Karachi, a monsoon cyclone has killed 16 and affected millions. These numbers are already alarming and can be particularly worrisome when read together with studies pointing out that the region will experience an increase in the intensity of extreme precipitation events in the future if the planet continues to warm. Despite the buzz around economic growth, South Asia is projected to be among the worst affected regions when it comes to climate change. Heat extremes and heatwaves pose very substantial risks to lives in the region as a large increase in mortality in the region and limits to habitability thresholds are projected to occur by the end of the 21st century. Limiting warming to 1.5˚C will substantially reduce these risks.

India (1.34 billion), Pakistan (207.8 million) and Bangladesh (170 million) currently make up 23% of the world’s population. Alarmingly, these three countries are in the top 15 countries projected to be most affected by climate change. To make the situation worse, the poverty levels in the region mean that these populations are most vulnerable in the face of climate change, with a low ability to bear risks and adapt.

West Africa

The frequency of storms in the Sahel has tripled since 1982, with models suggesting a continued upward trend in response to global warming. In an era of climate change, the region faces an increased frequency of extreme rainfall events that pose enormous threats to livelihoods and residents.

These observations and projections are consistent with the increase in West Africa of devastating climate impacts during the months of the rainy season. This September, the floods caused by extremely heavy rains have claimed 25 times more lives than Hurricane Harvey, with disasters hitting communities across the region. In Sierra Leone, record, heavy rains killed more than 400 people due to floods and mudslides. Heavy rains in the capital city of Niamey have left 11 dead. In the Tillabery region, three people died and more than 300 people were affected. The floods have also already killed approximately 4,000 cattle and the population at risk of floods is estimated at 157,000 people.

Caribbean

The recent Atlantic hurricanes have had devastating impacts across Caribbean islands. Hurricanes Irma and Maria were among some of the most powerful Atlantic storms ever recorded. Irma resulted in the deaths of at least 38 people in the Caribbean, and whole cities and entire islands were reduced to rubble in its wake. 60% of Barbuda’s population was made homeless and 99% of its buildings were destroyed. 10 people died and two-thirds of Cuba was left without electricity, with floods destroying many of its cities.

Puerto Rico and Turks and Caicos, spared by Irma, were later hit by hurricane Maria. Maria, the second powerful hurricane in less than a week, claimed over 25 lives in Dominica and severely damaged more than 80% of the housing sector. The proportion of the most intense hurricanes – Category 4 and 5 – have increased since the 1970s. The increased intensity of these hurricanes is linked to the drivers of climate change including increased sea surface temperatures, and their effects are exacerbated through more intense precipitation and sea level rise. As the climate continues to change, the Caribbean is projected to incur the highest damages per unit of GDP on a global scale as a result of rare but intense hurricanes.

The region is also suffering from increased drought. A recent study confirmed the drought between 2013-2016 as the region’s most severe in 66 years, occurring due to consistently higher temperatures. Droughts are the likeliest reason behind the severe food shortage in the region, which is home to more than 44 million people.

As global temperatures continue to rise, the Caribbean is also projected to experience further reduction of rainfall and increased incidents of drought. Limiting warming to 1.5oC is projected to avoid a substantial fraction (~25%) of the large overall freshwater stress projected under 2°C for several SIDS and in particular across the Caribbean region1.

Pacific

The Pacific has experienced severe impacts from El Niño-associated drought and extreme precipitation, affecting agriculture and water supplies from 2015-2017. States of emergency due to water shortages were declared in islands across the region and over 4.3 million people in 12 Pacific countries were placed at risk from changed rainfall patterns induced by El Niño.

The observed increased intensity of El Niño events has been linked to climate change and projections show that with continued global warming, the frequency of extreme El Niño events will increase. Additional studies have projected that as global temperatures increase, small islands, particularly in the Pacific, will face reduced freshwater availability due to high rates of evaporation associated with higher atmospheric temperatures.

Intense tropical cyclones have also had severe impacts across the Pacific. In 2016, Cyclone Winston was recorded as one of the largest and most intense tropical cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere and had severe impacts throughout the South Pacific. In Fiji, over 60% of the population was affected, with 22% of the nation’s housing either destroyed or damaged and over 130,000 people being displaced. Cyclone Pam, in 2015, affected over 70% of the population in Vanuatu, displaced 65,000 people and resulted in 11 deaths and over 17,000 buildings being damaged or destroyed.

The estimated economic cost of Cyclone Pam on Vanuatu across all sectors was approximately 64% of the country’s GDP. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, another high intensity cyclone, had devastating impacts in the Philippines in particular, resulting in over 6,000 casualties and affecting approximately 16 million people.

As in the Caribbean, climate change is expected to increase the intensity of cyclones in the Pacific resulting in greater damages across the region. These events are projected to compound the effects of sea level. Recent research has shown that event the 10 to 20 cm of sea-level rise expected by 2050 will “more than double the frequency of extreme water-level events in the Tropics, impairing the developing economies of equatorial coastal cities and the habitability of low-lying Pacific island nations.

South America

Earlier this year, El Niño caused torrential rains and widespread floods in the eastern part of South America, displacing more than 1400 people in Ecuador and over 8000 in Argentina. Hundreds of deaths have been recorded across Ecuador, Peru and Colombia between March and April.

El Niño has great influence on precipitation in South America and climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme El Niño events. Additionally, a recent study concluded that warming global temperatures will result in increased flood magnitudes across much of South America.

By the end of August, Brazil declared states of emergency for over 900 cities due to extreme rainfall. Confirming the current reality and upward trend, a 2016 study analysed rainfall data from the past 70 years in the Southeast region of Brazil and concluded that “projected changes for future scenarios of climate change are already occurring”.

What needs to be done at COP23

These regional examples highlight the severity of existing climate impacts and showcase the need to limit warming to 1.5⁰C, which can prevent and/or limit the escalation of Loss and Damage. Loss and Damage is occurring now and will continue in the near and further future. A global temperature goal of 1.5⁰C will still be an adaptive challenge for many vulnerable regions that are already struggling with the impacts of climate change. So how can COP23 deliver on Loss and Damage?

  • A high-level segment must be established on Loss and Damage
  • Loss and Damage must be taken into account under other relevant negotiation themes, including capacity building, technology and the global stocktake
  • Observational record and regional model projections must become available and accessible in particularly vulnerable regions
  • The scientific basis for Loss and Damage must be formally brought into the UNFCCC process
  • Permanent and secure financial support must become a central deliverable of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (WIM)

Loss and damage needs to be moved into the political spotlight by establishing a high-level segment on Loss and Damage, to allow governments to highlight their concerns and motivate urgent action. As an immediate step, the WIM must be strengthened with a dedicated budget. This would allow its Executive Committee to implement their activities and fund the work of expert groups it already has set up (Task Force on Displacement and Expert Group on Non-Economic Losses) or is planning to set up (including the Technical Expert Group on Comprehensive Risk Management). Crucially, knowledge products generated under the Executive Committee´s work plan (to be adopted at COP23) must be transformed into actionable tools and disseminated accordingly.

Loss and Damage must be taken into account under other relevant negotiation themes, including capacity building, technology and the global stocktake. Countries must mainstream both mitigation and adaptation policies in order to limit warming and prepare for and respond to the multitude of climate change impacts. Where national capacities are overburdened, international support is due. While it is clear that Loss and Damage is already occurring, many developing countries, particularly SIDS, lack the policies and mechanisms to identify and monitor these impacts. Progress in this arena is much needed to evaluate impacts and implement effective coping strategies for both slow onset and extreme events. In order to support such processes, the scientific community must continue to assess the linkages between changing climate drivers and impacts, strengthening the scientific basis of the need to limit warming.

Crucially, the observational record and regional model projections must become available and accessible in particularly vulnerable regions as data for such regions continues to be scarce. While we do know about the occurring impacts and rising risks at regional scales, information is often too coarse to allow for national or local decision-making and planning. The WIM could support such processes through developing a public relations campaign to raise awareness of Loss and Damage at all levels, but targeted specifically at the scientific community, regional organisations and national and local government officials.

The scientific basis for Loss and Damage has to be formally brought into the UNFCCC process. There is now significant literature available on Loss and Damage, including valuable information on limits to adaptation, residual risks and impacts as well as the information required to assess and quantify such losses. However, this is not being recognised by the UNFCCC process. Although it is hard to imagine, at the IPCC plenary in September, government representatives could not bring themselves to agree to include Loss and Damage in the outline of its next assessment report despite the fact that there are hundreds of papers on the subject. It is time that this obfuscation and denial ends: the time is ripe for a dedicated special report by the IPCC.   COP23 could request that the IPCC plenary early next year consider initiating a special report on Loss and Damage to be completed within its 6th Assessment cycle.

Finally, it emerges from the regional examples above that observed losses are in line with our scientific understanding of how climate change will continue to unfold. The sad message is that much more, and much worse, is to come. The IPCC´s overview of residual risks shows that high risks remain in virtually all world regions even if all available adaptation options have been realised. This expected future necessitates large scales of dedicated support. Financial sources need to be tapped, without diverting from the dire need for mitigation and adaptation, or new ones created. A clear direction can be set at COP23; the vision for permanent and secure financial support must be made a central theme for the WIM.

With current levels of climate action the world is headed to warming of over 3.5°C by the end of the century. Even if Paris Agreement pledges (NDCs) are fully implemented, warming of around 2.8°C is expected, far above the 1.5oC limit in the Paris Agreement. The amount and extent of Loss and Damage this would entail is likely unfathomable, given what we are seeing already today. There is still time to take action on a global scale to limit warming to 1.5⁰C and limit the risk of such regional climate extremes and impacts from becoming the new normal. This is a mixed message: The time to avoid the very worst is now, but the time to avoid all negative impacts has long passed. We now need both urgent climate action and a support network for countries battered with Loss and Damage.

Other blogs on Loss & Damage:
Island states need better data to manage climate losses, Dr Adelle Thomas
“It’s complicated” – loss and damage in the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, Olivia Serdeczny
IPCC special reports on land, oceans and ice, Claire Fyson