The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author. They are not meant to represent the views of organisations, institutions or countries mentioned here or elsewhere.
As the last UNFCCC expert meeting on approaches to address loss and damage from the adverse effects of climate change drew to a close in mid-October in Bridgetown, Barbados, the island was hit by a low pressure system, which later became Hurricane Rafael – a fitting end to an intensive period in the UNFCCC process grappling with the problem of loss and damage from climate change, both from extreme weather events such as cyclones and slower onset impacts such as sea level rise.
Little did we know as we looked out at the storm ravaged beach in Barbados that, Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record was just around the corner. In looking back at outcomes and lessons learned from the regional expert meetings on loss and damage, the recent impacts of Hurricane (♯Frankenstorm) Sandy provide us with a palpable manifestation of issues covered by the regional meetings.
Let’s set aside the debate of attributing the size and severity of Sandy to man-made climate change – although I would like to draw your attention to the exchange between the NY Times Andrew Revkin and Dan Miller, a colleague of NASA’s Jim Hansen, on this subject. Prevailing science makes clear the human contribution to climate extremes and states the very likely contribution of mean sea level rise to increased extreme coastal high water levels, coupled with the likely increase in tropical cyclone maximum wind speed, noting that this is a specific issue for tropical small island states.
An important lesson to be learned from Sandy is the radically different abilities countries have to cope with climate-change related impacts. Before tropical storm Sandy hit the East Coast of the United States, it wreaked havoc in the Caribbean. Formed just south of Jamaica, Sandy’s 130 kph winds caused extensive damage to that country, knocking out power to half the island and killing one person, on its way toward Cuba. In Cuba, Hurricane Sandy caused eleven deaths and destroyed over 3,000 buildings, removing more than 30,000 roofs. Damages in Cuba are estimated at least USD one billion, which is around 2% of Cuba’s annual GDP – higher than its current annual growth rate.
Similar loss and damage was suffered in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Haiti was the hardest hit with more than 50 deaths. The hurricane swooped right over the part of the island most devastated by the 2010 earthquake, severely affecting those still living in makeshift homes. They have no resources to recover. Particularly vulnerable developing countries are in serious need of help to engage in the full range of activities required to address climate change-related impacts from disaster risk management to the transfer of risk of damage to compensation for permanent losses.
There is no doubt that loss and damage from Sandy in the US is personal, painful and significant, with a growing death toll, homes levelled by water, wind and fire, massive power outages, and crippling business and travel disruptions. But, ultimately, the US can pay its way out of the mess. There are early warning systems in place, allowing for early evacuation, and insurance will cover much of the loss and damage. For those affected there are social safety nets in place to help them through the aftermath of disaster. Having said that, repeated freak weather blasts could whittle away at even the United States’ ability to cope. The German reinsurance giant, Munich Re is showing an interest in weather-related events in the United States with the recent publication of Severe Weather in North America. The report looks at weather-related loss events in North America and attributes human-caused climate change as a contributing factor to an upward trend in losses.
A possible silver lining of Sandy’s impact on the United States is the political repercussions. The ‘perfect storm’ managed to put a halt to the furious last week of Presidential campaigning in the United States – a campaign where mention of climate change has been viewed as a political liability by both sides, and the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been harshly criticised by the Republican candidate. It is doubtful that the last-minute hype around Sandy’s connection to climate change will have any real impact on the outcome of next week’s presidential elections, but one hopes that Sandy and its aftermath will help sway public opinion on the link between climate change and weather-related disasters and lend legitimacy to the issue in the policy arena.
London, November 2012