In April, the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership hosted a masterclass with the Head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Climate and Security Policy Centre, Dr Robert Glasser, where he shared his insights into the implications of climate change on so-called ‘natural’ disasters and what this means for humanitarian practitioners. This is an edited transcript of his presentation.
I want to make three points that are really fundamental right now and in the years moving forward.
The first point I want to make… is how rapidly severe [climate] impacts will begin appearing… The floods that we just had [are] just the beginning of how these very imminent small changes will have very huge human impacts.
The second point I want to make is that we’re hugely underestimating the systemic nature of the changes—there’s a tendency to think of climate change either as an environmental issue or as an issue of disasters. Those are certainly true, but climate change is changing everything—it’s a systemic change—it will change trade, it will change geopolitics, in every dimension…
And from a disasters perspective… We tend to think of disasters as individual events or hazard strikes, but we’re moving to … thinking of these things as multiple, mutually reinforcing and simultaneous (in many cases) events that have these cascading impacts that are hugely more damaging.
The third point I want to make is that were wildly underestimating how severe the impacts are going to be, particularly in our northern maritime region, especially in Southeast Asia… And of course, in Pacific Island countries climate change is an existential threat and some countries will disappear under the weight.
The change is now
Extreme heat events have increased 20-fold over the last 10 years relative to the previous 30, and at that point this was less than one degree of warming. The latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report suggests that without much more ambitious action we’re on track for over two degrees of warming.
A second example of [how small changes have big impacts is that] if you have 10 centimetres of sea level rise, what was once a one in 100-year event becomes a one in 33-year event. For 20 centimetres, it becomes a one in 11-year event and as the IPCC has pointed out, we’re on track for at least 30 centimetres by 2050.
The conclusion the IPCC reaches, [is that] even though these are very small increases notionally… the impact on extreme flooding means that these one in 100-year events will become annual events in many parts of the world.
And I want to focus on the tropics because this rule of thumb doesn’t apply in the same way—in the tropics there’s actually a much faster impact. Ten centimetres turns a one-in-100-year event into … to a one in 10-year event, so you can see that within a matter of decades we’re going to be seeing what have historically been one in 100-year events becoming annual events.
A year ago, [during the] floods in New South Wales, the premier said, “no one could have anticipated this, this is a one in 100-year event”. I had an article appear in the Sydney Morning Herald [the following day, which said], “You’re wrong on both counts. You could have anticipated this and it’s no longer correct to think of these as one in 100-year events, because [with climate change] history is no longer an adequate indication of what lies ahead”.
Compounding the pain
The second point I wanted to illustrate … is that there is a systemic change happening [and that we are] wildly underestimating the compound events that will occur.
The IPCC acknowledges this in their reports, they say, “look we know we’re underestimating these things. It’s technically extremely difficult to evaluate what a single hazard will do and how it’s going to change and what impact it has on human systems, let alone multiple hazards striking either simultaneously or in close succession.”
I want to illustrate this with four examples, starting with Black Summer in Australia.
We had record drought, combined with record high temperatures that contributed to the outbreak of fires that were so intense from those other factors that they generated their own weather that rapidly caused these fires to spread. The fire was not the only issue in this crisis … it became a biodiversity crisis, it became a major air quality crisis, it almost became a water security crisis for Sydney (you may recall that Warragamba Dam was threatened). So, simultaneous record setting events that then create their own hazards that then cascade and caused these other impacts across society. The economic impacts would have been dreadful for Australia, in terms of tourism, for example, if nothing else, but then we had COVID shortly after that, which, of course, contributed to a huge economic crisis globally.
Now one year earlier in Queensland was a very similar picture that didn’t get a lot of attention. There was record bad drought and record high temperatures triggering the outbreak of fires which destroyed one million hectares of land, which is the largest area destroyed [by fire] since record keeping began. And that was followed by Cyclone Owen that dumped more water on parts of Queensland than Melbourne receives in a year. That wasn’t enough to end the drought, however—that happened a bit later when a monsoonal trough settled over the region, dumping huge amounts of rain, that ended up killing hundreds of thousands of drought-stressed cattle in Queensland.
We went to Wujil Wujil Aboriginal Community in Far North Queensland and they were just devastated by the flooding beyond anything they’d experienced before. One of the elders told me that in the midst of these floods, Uncle Billy was up at their sacred waterfall throwing debris back into the water and yelling at his ancestors, “Enough! Why didn’t you warn us about this?” There were no storylines, no stories, no record of something like this before in tens of thousands of years of history there.
[The third example is] a marine heating event, a few years earlier off the coast of Tasmania. Again, [there was] drought, record temperatures, an outbreak of fire, and the drought affected hydroelectricity production. The marine heating event destroyed the farm seafood and shellfish seafood industry. There were areas burned from fires that were never burned before. The combined impact of these events, reduced Tasmania’s net state income by almost 50% during these events.
Now, I want to focus on a global example of these cascading impacts—the global food security crisis of 2010-11.
[In 2010] There was an atmospheric blocking event over Russia that contributed to extreme temperatures, [exacerbating] the existing drought conditions. The drought and extreme heat contributed to the outbreak of bushfires that killed over 50,000 Russians from the direct impacts of the [heatwave and] fires … At the same time, this blocking event affected the South Asian monsoon contributing to record downpours—20 million people were affected by that humanitarian disaster. In the meantime, those Russian fires harmed the wheat crop including in neighbouring Ukraine and in parts of China. Simultaneously, in Australia and Canada, we had severe floods that reduced our crops. All of this led to a spike in the price of food on the global food markets, particularly in places like North Africa, where it became a factor in the Arab Spring … you may remember people brandishing baguettes of bread calling for bread, freedom and social justice.
Our northern neighbours
These climate impacts have already been severe in Australia, in South Asia and other parts of the world. [They will] be even more disruptive and harmful in our immediate region: particularly in maritime Southeast Asia. This region to our immediate north has the fastest sea level rise globally and there are literally hundreds of millions of people that are relying on fisheries in this region for their livelihoods.
By 2035, at 1.5 degrees of warming, we can expect 95% of coral reefs to be gone— and they’re the fish nurseries for 10% of the world’s fish supply. They are livelihoods for a huge number of people. There is also a link between geological hazards and climate hazards; coral reefs are the most important natural barrier to tsunami risk and to wave impacts. And the projected stronger cyclones will further accelerate the destruction of coral reefs, so this natural protective barrier will soon disappear from Australia and our region.
The last point I wanted to make is that this is also the most geologically active region in the world. Seventy percent of global volcanic risk is in Indonesia and the Philippines, alone. So while all these climate hazards are striking, they will simultaneously be exacerbated by the ongoing geological hazards such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and this will further undermine the resilience of communities, food security and cause enormous population displacement.
Reasons for optimism?
I’m not optimistic that we’re going to be able to avoid very severe disruptions, but I am optimistic that we can avoid the worst of the disruptions.
It’s not because I think [the Australian government] is going to reduce more greenhouse gases than [they] committed to reduce previously, it’s not even because I think Joe Biden is going to do that. I’m optimistic because the price of renewables is just plummeting and … I think market forces will accelerate this energy transition faster than anyone realises.
But we urgently need to start investing more of our time and energy into reducing the risk of disasters by investing in prevention, for example, by embedding climate and other risk into our core social and economic investments.
If we don’t, then we’re never going to get ahead of the hazards. We will not have enough money to support our communities if we focus primarily on disaster response, rather than prevention and risk reduction. And if this is a problem for a wealthy country like Australia, imagine what that will mean for our regional neighbours, such as Indonesia, Vietnam or Cambodia.
[There are many ways we can reduce disaster risk]. Some are low-tech. Vietnamese villages in the Mekong are addressing flood risk by switching from chickens to ducks—because ducks float! Solutions can be very low tech. Nature-based mitigation, as opposed to engineered, or built-environment risk reduction measures, can work well, and in many places it is the best and the most cost-effective response, with multiple benefits beyond reducing disaster risk.
In many places [though], communities will require other measures as well, from replanting mangroves, for example, to flood control infrastructure, such as weirs. I think the answer is actually very place-based and requires an analysis of the right approach for the right place addressing the right hazards. This requires an all-hazards approach to avoid measures that decrease the risk of one hazard but increase others. You could put in place measures to reduce bushfire risk, by say cutting down the trees on the hillside above your house, and then it rains, and you have landslips that destroy your house. In any case, this issue of multi-hazard risk and incorporating risk wholistically, including climate risk is critical.
[I take] issue with the premise that we’ve [already] failed. Let’s just say, hypothetically, if we can manage this accelerated energy transformation and move to abundant renewable energy [what we could do]. And you know, looking back 50 years from now, we can say, “Wow, this has been such a success story. It was a little dicey there for a while, because we were stuffing it up and there was huge inequality and you know all sorts of other [problems], but [we figured it out].”
[Community is critically important]—When you’re on your deathbed, you probably won’t be thinking about that great initiative you launched or that article that you published in that journal, you’ll be thinking about the relationships with people that you’ve known. That also applies in terms of disaster risk and resilience … Community is going to be really important in managing the transitions and surviving the shocks.
Where is my community? Where are the people that I support, and that support me? We’ll manage the risk where we live as much as possible and advocate for climate action. It’s not meant to be all about solutions now. It’s part of this broader learning journey we’re on.
Fundamentally though, the most critical and urgent disaster risk treatment is to reduce greenhouse gases as rapidly as possible.
Because if we, as a global community don’t do that, then all our efforts to reduce disaster risk and to build resilient communities will be overwhelmed by the scale of these emerging hazards.
Dr Robert Glasser is the Head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Climate and Security Policy Centre. He was previously the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction and a member of the Secretary General’s Senior Management Team. Before joining the U.N., he was the Secretary General of CARE International, one of the world’s largest non-governmental humanitarian organisations.