Disaster risk talks ‘could break down’ under weight of climate politics

Observers warn countries may fail to reach an effective deal in Sendai to limit the risk of natural disasters

Flooding in Bangladesh: climate change heightens some extreme weather threats (Pic: Department for International Development/Rafiqur Rahman Raqu)

Flooding in Bangladesh: climate change heightens some extreme weather threats (Pic: Department for International Development/Rafiqur Rahman Raqu)

By Megan Darby

UN talks on cutting the risk of natural disasters look increasingly likely to break down over climate change politics, observers have warned.

Countries were due to close a deal by tomorrow lunchtime to limit the damage to people and property from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and extreme weather.

But with an estimated 87% of disasters linked to climate change, divisions have opened up over how much responsibility developed countries should accept for future disasters.

Negotiations are set to continue well into the night in Sendai, Japan, as developing countries push for more finance and technology support.

“The chances of a big blow up and a non-agreement are increasing at the moment,” Tom Mitchell, head of climate at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), told RTCC.

The disaster risk management community has previously focused on giving practical advice to governments.

Now, Mitchell explained, it must grapple with political issues that have dogged climate change negotiations for years.

Harjeet Singh, climate change expert at Action Aid, wrote in a comment article for RTCC that the text of an agreement was getting weaker.

Six out of seven targets are vaguely defined, he said, with no numbers. The seventh is on international cooperation, including finance.

On this, developed countries “are in no mood” to meet demands from poorer parts of the world for “additional and predictable” funding.

“I am pained to see climate politics dividing even the disaster community, which usually unites to respond to people in crisis,” wrote Singh.

Part of the difficulty, said ODI’s Mitchell, is that “there is not really anything to trade”.

Unlike in the climate talks, where curbs on emissions are discussed alongside finance and adaptation, in Sendai the demands for greater ambition all flow one way – from poor to rich.

Meanwhile, the impact of Cyclone Pam on Vanuatu underlined what is at stake. The category five storm flattened some 90% of buildings in the capital Port Vila and killed at least 11 people.

Scientists at the Potsdam Institute said ocean temperatures in the region had risen 1C above the long-term average, partly as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. Warming seas are expected to increase the intensity of tropical storms.

“Strong tropical cyclones such as Pam are to be expected more often under global warming,” said Anders Levermann, sustainability expert at the Potsdam Institute. “Their impacts will in the long run be enhanced by sea-level rise.”

Phil Evans, government services director at the UK’s Met Office, emphasised in Sendai that the topic of climate change was unavoidable when discussing disaster risk.

“It’s clear that climate change is going to have dramatic consequences for disaster risk reduction, particularly for poorer countries,” he said, according to a UN news release.

This was reinforced by delegates from Bangladesh, which is increasingly vulnerable to cyclones and flooding, and the regularly typhoon-battered Philippines.

“Investing in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction is critical to maintain development gains,” said the Philippines’ climate change commissioner Lucille Sering.

The outcome in Sendai tomorrow will set the tone for negotiations on sustainable development goals in September and a global climate change agreement in December.

This year is “a remarkable opportunity” to rein in the impacts of increasingly frequent and extreme storms and droughts, said the Met Office’s Evans.

An ineffective agreement in Sendai would “set a wrong precedent” for the later negotiations, Action Aid’s Singh warned.

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