'No vaccine for climate change': COVID is disastrous — but Red Cross says eco collapse poses greater threat

'No vaccine for climate change': COVID is disastrous — but Red Cross says eco collapse poses greater threat
California wildfire spreading, screengrab

"The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how vulnerable the world is to a truly global catastrophe. But another, bigger, catastrophe has been building for many decades, and humanity is still lagging far behind in efforts to address it."

So begins Come Heat or High Water, the 2020 World Disasters Report (pdf) published Tuesday by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

While "Covid-19 has demonstrated that humanity has the capacity to recognize and respond to a global crisis," the authors wrote, "climate change is an even more significant challenge to humanity... one which literally threatens our long-term survival."

Indeed, "the impacts of global warming are already killing people and devastating lives and livelihoods every year," including in 2020, the report noted. "Climate change is not waiting for Covid-19 to be brought under control."

The analysis showed that more than 100 climate change-related disasters occurred in just the first six months of the pandemic, affecting over 50 million people.

"Many people are being directly affected by the pandemic and climate-driven disasters all at once," the report said, drawing attention to what researchers called "compounding shocks."

"And the world's poorest and most at-risk people are being hit first and hardest," which is consistent with "trends in vulnerability and exposure" that have led scholars to describe climate as a "risk multiplier."

While there is hope that one or more vaccines will soon provide protection against the coronavirus, IFRC Secretary-General Jagan Chapagain told reporters that "unfortunately, there is no vaccine for climate change."

To the contrary, the report stressed that climate-driven disasters "will only get worse without immediate and determined action."

According to the IFRC:

  • In the past 10 years, 83% of all disasters triggered by natural hazards were caused by extreme weather- and climate-related events, such as floods, storms and heatwaves;
  • The number of climate- and weather-related disasters has been increasing since the 1960s, and has risen almost 35% since the 1990s;
  • The proportion of all disasters attributable to climate and extreme weather events has also increased significantly during this time, from 76% of all disasters during the 2000s to 83% in the 2010s;
  • These extreme weather- and climate-related disasters have killed more than 410,000 people in the past 10 years, the vast majority in low and lower middle-income countries; and
  • Heatwaves, then storms, have been the biggest killers. A further 1.7 billion people around the world have been affected by climate and weather-related disasters during the past decade.

Governments "may well be 'busy' with the pandemic" right now, the Red Cross acknowledged, but the climate crisis is getting worse—not taking a break—meaning "there's still never been a more urgent time to... adapt to its realities."

"We must work to limit the deaths and damage that climate-driven disasters are already" causing, the report noted, while also "taking action to reverse climate change."

The good news, the authors wrote, is that "the massive stimulus packages that are being developed around the world in response to Covid-19 are an opportunity to build back better."

Even though the climate crisis is much more dangerous to human life on Earth than the pandemic, the $10 trillion spent on the global response to the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis is far more than the amount of money the Red Cross said is necessary to "adapt to current and imminent climate-driven disaster risks."

According to the IFRC, "it would take an estimated $50 billion annually to meet the adaptation requirements set out by 50 developing countries for the coming decade."

The report advocated for investing "not only [in] a green recovery, but an adaptive one, using funds to... create jobs [while] making communities safer and more resilient."

Using "resources well" is crucial, the authors argued, given the "uneven geographic impacts of... hazards between regions," as well as how land-use patterns and socio-economic inequalities "affect who is at greatest risk... within countries."

The Red Cross pointed out that "funding for climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction does not seem to consistently prioritize the countries at highest risk and with the lowest ability to adapt and cope with these risks."

"Many highly vulnerable countries are left behind, receiving little climate change adaptation support," the analysis showed. "None of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change and to climate- and weather-related disasters were among the 20 highest per person recipients of climate change adaptation funding."

"An additional challenge is ensuring that funding reaches the most at-risk people within these countries," the report continued. "Many communities may be particularly vulnerable to climate-related risks, from people affected by conflict whose capacity to manage shocks is already strained, to migrants and displaced people who may struggle to access the services and assistance they need, to urban poor people and other marginalized communities."

We must "get the priorities right," the authors added, and ensure that support reaches the "communities that are most exposed and vulnerable to climate risks."

"Let's not miss our chance," the report said, calling on society to "act effectively before it's too late."

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