Reducing Climate Change's Disastrous Effects

As countries across the globe face more disasters from extreme weather, an upcoming conference in Japan may be key to protect those most vulnerable from the impacts of climate change. 

Given the urgent need to act, the public is increasingly focusing on the UN climate change negotiations in Paris in December 2015. Yet much less talked about is another international conference kicking off tomorrow in Japan, the outcome of which could prove vital to protecting our communities and economies from the negative impacts of climate change. 

Over the next week, more than 8,000 representatives of governments, UN agencies, businesses, and civil society from around the world will meet in Sendai, Japan for the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. While it may lack the fanfare that will likely accompany the Paris climate talks, the stakes could not be higher. The risk of disaster displacement has quadrupled in the past 40 years with new projections that disasters losses will top $300 billion per annum in the coming decades

The goal of the Sendai conference is to hammer out a new framework for reducing the economic and human impacts incurred by disasters and building resilience of governments and communities to withstand and recover from these crises. That will entail an assessment by governments of what has, and hasn’t, worked in terms of their ability to mitigate and manage disaster risk. Factors such as population growth, unplanned and rapid urbanization, and more extreme weather are increasing disaster risk at a rate faster than governments can manage.

The goal of the Sendai conference is to hammer out a new framework for reducing the economic and human impacts incurred by disasters and building resilience of governments and communities to withstand and recover from these crises.

For governments to keep pace with accelerating disaster risk they will need to target impact where it matters most– at the local level. When floods, storms, and other disasters hit – whether they be acute or small-scale, recurrent disasters that never make the news – it is local communities who are the first and often only responders. In the new disaster risk reduction (DRR) framework, governments must commit to empowering local communities with the tools, decision-making power, and technical and financial capacity to manage both large-scale and everyday risks. This must include ensuring that the most vulnerable and at-risk sectors of society including the poor, the politically-disenfranchised, women, the elderly, and people with disabilities, are able to participate in identifying and managing disaster risks.

Civil society organizations faced with responding to the protection and assistance needs of growing numbers of people affected by disasters must also commit to ensuring that government disaster risk reduction policies are translated into meaningful solutions at the local level. That is why Refugees International has joined with dozens of other humanitarian organizations around the globe to outline the commitments and actions that they are willing to make to implement the new framework agreement. 

While achieving an effective response to the threat that disasters and climate change present will require ambitious commitments by governments, I’m confident that an agreement in Japan that puts people and local communities at the center is the best strategy for success. Last year I visited the city of Tacloban in the Philippines just months after Typhoon Haiyan hit killing thousands of people, leaving tens of thousands homeless, and destroying 90 percent of the city. What impressed me most was not the robust humanitarian response to the crisis, but the fact that it was the local government and the people of Tacloban themselves that were contributing the most to recovery. Driving around the city there were signs and T-shirts reading “Tindog Tacloban!” What did it mean, I asked my Filipina colleague. “Rise up Tacloban!” For me, that clear message of resilience was the best hope for the future in an increasingly risky world.

Photo: An impoverished family rebuilds their home using wood, metal and other typhoon debris. Tacloban City, Philippines.