Building resilience in a time of climate change

Meena Raman warns that the days of ‘business as usual’ are over and that we will have to confront the problem of climate change squarely by building up climate resilience.

AS is well evident by now, we are facing a climate emergency.

The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit temperature rise to well below 2°C compared with pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C.

The fact is that the planet’s average surface temperature has increased by 1°C since pre-industrial times over 100 years ago. This change has been driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere. 

A 1°C rise does not seem like much. Yet, we are already witnessing dramatic changes in the climate, such as rainfall intensities which have not been heard of before, as well as extreme weather events which are unprecedented, including category 5 hurricanes most recently experienced in the Bahamas and Japan, with devastating consequences.

Most of the warming has occurred in the past 35 years, with the warmest years on record taking place since 2010.

A recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if emissions continue to increase at the current rate. Some have even predicted that the 1.5°C level will be breached much sooner rather than later.

It has been estimated that the emission cuts that countries have pledged to undertake from 2021 onwards to 2030 under the Paris Agreement process will take us on a path to a 3-4°C world. Such a scenario is indeed frightening and catastrophic in terms of the climate change impacts we will be witnessing. The world will not be the same as we know it now!

In a study published in October and reported by CNN,1 researchers estimate (as a result of new advances in elevation modelling technology) that nearly three times as many people in coastal areas are at risk from flooding than previously thought.

The researchers from Climate Central (a US-based non-profit institution) predict that over the next three decades, hundreds of millions of people worldwide are at risk of losing their homes as entire cities sink under rising seas.

According to the study, global sea levels are expected to rise between 2-7 feet (0.6-2.1 metres) – and possibly more – over the course of the 21st century.

As many as 150 million people are currently living on land that will be below the high-tide line by 2050, three times more than previously thought.2 By 2100, land that is home to 200 million people could sit permanently below the high-tide line, rendering those coastal areas all but unliveable.

Asia is one of the regions most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Without enough sea defences, entire coastal cities could be wiped out in some places. It is reported that some 70% of the people at risk of yearly floods and permanent inundation are in eight Asian countries: China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Japan.

These are astonishing predictions, arising from the increasing rates of melting of major ice sheets such as from Greenland and the Antarctic.

According to the IPCC, Greenland is melting the fastest, and has lost more than 275 gigatons of mass on average per year between 2006 and 2015, while the even larger Antarctic ice sheet has had its mass loss tripled between 2007 and 2016 compared with the previous 10 years.

There is enough warning that coastal communities worldwide must prepare themselves for much more difficult futures than may be currently anticipated.

Yet, what is most startling is the apparent lack of sufficient preparedness in many cities and countries around the world in addressing these possible climate impacts.

According to another study,3 more than two in three cities around the world are already noticing the effects of climate change, from more heatwaves to worsening flooding, but few have effective plans in place to deal with the threats.

Apparently, budget restrictions are a key reason cities say they are failing to act, particularly on long-term threats. Five hundred and thirty cities around the world (with a population of 517 million people) reported on the climate hazards they face to the London-based Carbon Disclosure Project, but just under half said they had done a vulnerability assessment on their climate risks.

Clearly, all this shows that we are not planning or preparing adequately or at all for the current and impending climate impacts.

Many questions arise in this regard.

Are our policy-makers and planners at all levels of government, including the architects and engineers, sufficiently aware of the current and impending impacts of climate change?

Are we planning for the future threats and disasters?

Even if there is some awareness about what the latest science is telling us, are policies, plans and measures being put in place to secure the future of our communities and countries from these climate risks and impacts?   

Clearly, the time for ‘business-as-usual’ approaches or token measures is over. We can no longer ignore what the science is telling us. We have to sound the alarm bells even louder and adapt (if possible) to the ‘new normal’ of climate change impacts. We have to also be ready to face situations where adaptation is no longer possible. 

However, there are grave concerns that many communities and countries are not planning for the future risks. 

We see the promotion of massive ‘business-as-usual’ infrastructure projects of highways, tunnels, reclamation works and building construction, with little or no regard for climate change risks and impacts. There does not seem to be enough consideration given to whether such projects contribute to or actually undermine climate resilience.  

One country where the challenges of climate risks and impacts are already being taken on board at the highest level of government is Singapore. The Singaporean Prime Minister himself talked about climate change risks for the island state in his most recent National Day speech. It has been estimated that it would cost S$100 billion or more to protect the island state against rising sea levels, and measures are being undertaken with a long-term perspective.

Surely, other countries should also be embarking on investing in adaptation plans and measures that build climate resilience. International funds such as the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund have resources to help developing countries cope with the climate challenge.

Clearly, all over the world, there has to be a reset button in the way we do things to secure our futures in a climate-changing world. We have to begin to relook at everything we do from a climate change lens. Otherwise, we will be making wrong investments that will not be sustainable in the long run, and which would be a colossal waste of scarce public resources.

Urgent adaptation plans that include ecosystem-based approaches are needed to ensure buildings, infrastructure and coastal areas are resilient to storms and increased rain, can withstand floods and sea level rise, etc. Forest and soil conservation measures, including the protection of watersheds and rivers to prevent and mitigate against floods, turning urban areas into ‘sponge cities’, and the strengthening of coastlines through mangrove forest protection and rehabilitation, are all vital parts of the plan. More comprehensive measures are also needed in dealing with droughts, heatwaves, water shortages, impacts on agriculture and health, extreme weather and disasters.

Clearly, a lot needs to be done. There is an urgent need to adapt, build climate resilience and address loss and damage resulting from climate change, in order to bring about a better and safer world.         

Meena Raman is Coordinator of the Climate Change Programme at the Third World Network. The above is an edited version of her opening remarks delivered at a public forum on ‘Climate Change Impacts: How Prepared Are We?’ held in Penang, Malaysia, on 2 November 2019.





*Third World Resurgence No. 341/342, 2019, pp 21-22