The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently published an extensive “Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX)”. Among the more than 220 scientists who worked on this report was UNU-EHS Academic Officer Jörn Birkmann.
The report was made available online on 28 March 2012, while the print edition was published in mid-May.
Beyond the issue of current climate science and weather phenomena, the report focuses on the social and economic consequences of extreme climate and weather events and on risk assessments relevant to sustainable development. Overall, more than 18.000 review comments were taken into account during the development of the report.
“The risk that extreme weather events will cause severe harm and loss is highly dependent on the vulnerability and exposure of a society. Hence, we have to focus on both: the changes in the climate system and extreme events, as well as societal development processes (such as urbanization in low-elevation coastal zones)”, says Dr. Birkmann, a lead author of the chapter “Determinants of risk: Exposure and vulnerability”.
The scale of damage through heat waves, floods and storms is very much determined by human behaviour and the contextual conditions, such as the existing infrastructure, economical preferences and and the presence of an effective early warning system. Also the sharing of responsibilities between private and public stakeholders is important, as witnessed during the March 2011 triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear-power crisis) in Fukushima, Japan.
“We are capable of influencing the vulnerability and exposure of societies to extreme events”, says Dr. Birkmann, adding that “early and appropriate risk communication are central elements for an effective adoption and risk reduction strategy”.
According to the SREX, climate models suggest that a global increase of heat waves is very likely in the next couple of years. “We need usable early warning systems and precautionary measures for heat stress — particularly in ageing societies that are more vulnerable to these phenomena”, warns Dr. Birkmann, to help prevent an extreme event from becoming a humanitarian disaster.
Simultaneously with the SREX, a global literature data bank has been launched. The Non-Journal Literature Library is a database of non-journal-based literature cited in SREX chapters. It contains links to more than 1,100 open, accessible documents that are important and helpful in understanding present and future risks due to extreme events and alternative management options for dealing with them.