The World Needs to Get Better at Assessing Natural Disaster Risk—Fast

The World Needs to Get Better at Assessing Natural Disaster Risk—Fast
A firefighter monitors the Caldor Fire burning near structures in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Aug. 30, 2021 (AP photo by Jae C. Hong).

For decades, market fundamentalists pitted capitalism against environmentalism, as if the global economy could be insulated from shocks to the health and stability of the biosphere. At last, those days are ending, and economists and corporate leaders are recognizing the costs of running down Earth’s natural capital. Last week, the nonpartisan business group Environmental Entrepreneurs announced that in 2021 alone, “climate change-related natural disasters inflicted nearly $150 billion in damage to America’s economy.”

The U.S. plight is part of a broader pattern. On April 26, the United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, or UNDRR, declared that the world as a whole had entered into a “spiral of self-destruction” characterized by ever-more frequent, preventable, natural disasters. According to the agency’s most-recent assessment report, the frequency of disasters like flooding, wildfires and health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic has quadrupled since 1990, placing the lives and livelihoods of millions at risk and jeopardizing the unprecedented development gains of the past few decades. By 2030, thanks to the extreme weather events associated with global warming, that number could rise another 40 percent, to 560 major events a year.

This was not the future the United Nations envisioned seven years ago when its members approved the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. That 2015 agreement aimed to reduce human exposure and vulnerability to all manner of hazards, from typhoons to wildfires, while improving the capacity of countries and communities to cope with them. Unfortunately, as the UNDRR report notes, “risk creation is outstripping risk reduction.”

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