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Economic losses to climate catastrophes are surging fastest in temperate countries, which need to move faster to adapt, scientists warn

By Laurie Goering

LONDON – (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Economic losses caused by the most extreme weather events, from hurricanes to wildfires, are surging fastest in parts of the world outside the tropics – places that once saw relatively few such disasters, scientists and statisticians have warned.

In those temperate zones – from the United States and Canada to Europe and Australia – the cost of the most catastrophic events grew by an average of $46 million a year between 1960 and 2014, compared with $18 million a year in tropical countries, said researchers at Pennsylvania State University.

That presents risks to the financial stability of emergency response and insurance programs in temperate regions, they said.

It suggests richer northern countries may need to step up protection against new threats fuelled by climate change, as well as supporting adaptation in poorer places, they added.

“In tropical zones, people have learned to put certain adaptation measures in place, while in temperate zones those have not been a priority,” said Francesca Chiaromonte, a statistician at Pennsylvania State University.

Raised concrete cyclone shelters in coastal Bangladesh, for instance, have over the past 25 years dramatically slashed once sky-high death tolls in that low-lying South Asian nation.

In other places, measures ranging from early warning systems to tighter building standards, construction of sea walls and even planned relocation from at-risk coastal areas have helped reduce losses.

In the United States, low-lying Louisiana in 2012 created a coastal “master plan” that aims to avoid between $5 billion and $18 billion in expected damage from worsening storm surges.

And New York, in the wake of destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, is building a $10 billion system of berms, removable barriers and new, higher land at the fringes of lower Manhattan in an attempt to protect itself from flooding.

In general, however, adaptation measures in temperate zones “have been lagging behind, compared to the tropics, where people traditionally have had to cope with these kinds of catastrophic events”, Chiaromonte said.

“Thirty years ago, it was relatively seldom that a big disaster hit one of these (temperate) places. Now it’s become more common,” she added.


Mami Mizutori, the U.N. Secretary-General’s special representative for disaster risk reduction, has called for an expected $90 trillion in new infrastructure needed worldwide by 2030 to be built with surging climate risks in mind.

“If we build to last, this is a great opportunity to avoid the creation of new risk and to adapt to extreme weather events,” she said in a statement ahead of Sunday’s International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction.

More than two-thirds of economic losses from extreme weather come in the form of damage to infrastructure, from roads and bridges to schools and homes, she said.

With two in three of the world’s people expected to live in cities by 2050, ensuring construction there can stand up to worsening climate threats is particularly important, she noted.

But while efforts to adapt to harsher weather often have been pioneered in the developing world – which has seen some of the first and worst climate change impacts – richer countries now need to adopt them too, Chiaromonte said.

study she and other researchers published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, looking at losses from weather disasters between 1960 and 2014, found those associated with major catastrophes had risen fastest in temperate countries.

That is perhaps unsurprising, given developed countries tend to invest more in expensive infrastructure and so have more to lose when a big disaster hits.

But it is also an indication of the high value of assets at risk as climate threats grow, including in places that may not be fully aware of the rising risks they face, the scientists said.

As global emissions and temperatures continue to rise, “the hits are going to keep increasing” both for public institutions that must respond and for insurance companies, Chiaromonte said.

Curbing emissions rapidly is one clear way to reduce the threats, the study noted.

Chiaromonte also emphasized that adaptation efforts should not shift from tropical countries to temperate ones, but should be expanded in both.

“Attention on these (tropical) areas should be kept and kept strongly,” she said. “But we cannot put on the back-burner what we do in other areas.”

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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