Climate change reports and scenarios paint a bleak picture of the present and the future — one filled with extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods, hurricanes, storms, and droughts that could result in the loss of lives, threaten livelihoods, and exacerbate existing problems. But it is too simple to blame climate change for the increase in the number of disasters and for their effects. Today, as we celebrate Disaster Risk Reduction Day, disasters and humanitarian studies scholar Rodrigo Mena argues that a Disaster Risk Reduction approach to governing climate change could be essential for preventing extreme weather events and other climate-related phenomena from becoming disasters.
Watching the news these days, it is impossible not to hear about disasters: from floods in Greece and Sri Lanka to fires in Australia and Tropical Storm Philippe in Antigua and Barbuda. Climate change is often mentioned as an important factor driving these disasters and, what is more, thanks to climate change, we can expect more and more intense disasters in the future. Is all this true? And is there anything we can do? Can we mitigate some of the worst consequences of a disaster before it has occurred? In this article, written on the occasion of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) day, I discuss the relationship between disasters and human-caused climate change and emphasize the importance of DRR as an approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Disasters and hazards aren’t the same
While fires, droughts, storms, and earthquakes are often perceived as disasters, experts stress that these are just natural events that can possibly cause harm to people or property. For instance, a thunderstorm can be seen as a hazard due to its lightning and heavy rain, but it doesn’t always cause significant harm. A disaster on the other hand is said to occur when a hazard actually causes a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society, like floods that destroy homes or hurricanes that leave many people injured.
Vulnerability turns hazards into disasters
Which conditions turn hazards into disasters, then? The key factor behind the occurrence of disasters is the vulnerability of people to specific hazards. For instance, if a city is designed to withstand heavy rainfall or earthquakes, these events are unlikely to lead to disasters. This explains why earthquakes of similar intensity can have completely different impacts in Chile compared to Haiti, for example.
And this social vulnerability is shaped by political choices, resource allocation, funding availability, and cultural heritage. This is why the concept of a “natural disaster” is now considered a misnomer by the UNDRR, academics, and other actors, as it places more emphasis on the natural event than on the social and political conditions that truly explain a disaster. It is now also recognized that through the effective and timely use of DRR strategies, it is possible to prevent hazards from progressing to disasters.
It’s too simple to say that climate change leads to disasters
In brief, climate change mostly refers to long-term shifts in average weather patterns and conditions attributed directly or indirectly to human activity. These shifts can result in variations in the frequency and intensity of weather events like hurricanes, heatwaves, and heavy rainfall, as well as changes in overall weather patterns. In other words, it does affect the weather, but as noted before, the development of disasters is often better explained by people’s vulnerability rather than the intensity or frequency of weather events alone.
Saying that climate change will result in more disasters is, therefore, imprecise (or at least not that simple), and we need to acknowledge some important nuances and exceptions. Ilan Kelman’s post on Pulse presents a good overview of these arguments with several scientific sources being referenced. An important takeaway, also seen in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, is that climate change may not always lead to more disasters if our societies take adequate action to reduce their risk of occurrence and impact — in short, if DRR measures are in place.
The problem seems to be, however, that we are not doing enough, nor are we doing it fast enough. Therefore, climate change is already and will continue to contribute to more disasters, but not because of more (or more frequent and extreme) natural events occurring. We as a society are not doing enough to curb carbon emissions that drive climate change, nor are we taking sufficient measures to reduce our vulnerability to climate-related hazards. In other words, we (or more precisely, some people in power) are deciding to have more disasters. DRR can and must play a critical role here.
Why to adopt a DRR approach in mitigating and adapting to climate change
DRR involves the steps and plans we make to prevent disasters from happening and ensure that when disasters occur, they cause as minimum harm as possible to people. In addressing climate change, mitigation and adaptation remain the two primary measures. Climate change mitigation aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions, slowing climate change and so indirectly reducing the severity of climate-related disasters. Climate change adaptation on the other hand involves adjusting to current and new climate conditions to address related risks, for example through city design, food systems adaptation, or managing coastal and river delta infrastructure.
While DRR is not yet seen as an important measure to combat climate change, it’s vital in addressing the complexity of the crisis. How? DRR is an approach that can be applied in various situations:
- It is broader than adaptation, building upon a long-standing framework to reduce disaster risk, whether climate-related or not.
- It is crucial for addressing poverty, furthering sustainable development, improving public health services, protecting the environment, and fostering societal well-being.
- It recognizes that disasters result from vulnerability and societal choices, going beyond weather event frequency or intensity as primary (or only) cause.
- It acknowledges the interplay between ecosystems and communities, safeguarding both for current and future generations and enabling systematic approaches to climate change’s cascading effects on livelihoods.
As we emphasize the importance of DRR measures and strategies today, the invitation is then to avoid simplifying disasters as consequences of climate change (which also brings us to the complex world of attribution) and, as scientists Emmanuel Raju, Emily Boyd, and Friederike Otto plead, to “stop blaming the climate for disasters.” Instead, we should emphasize their complex nature as social and political phenomena, engage in broader discussions about DRR, and consider the measures that could be taken but are not effectively implemented to reduce the risks and impacts of disasters.
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About the author:
Rodrigo Mena is Assistant Professor of Disasters and Humanitarian Studies at The International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Dr. Mena has studied and worked in humanitarian assistance, disaster governance, and environmental sociology for twenty years, especially in conflict-affected and vulnerable settings. He lectures on humanitarian action, disaster risk reduction, methodology, and safety and security for in-situ/fieldwork research.
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