5 natural disasters that beg for climate action

This September, world leaders will meet at the UN Climate Summit to discuss climate change for the first time in 5 years – since then, extreme weather events have cost the world half a trillion dollars, and thousands of lives. The cost of climate inaction in dollars and lives lost is continuing to mount.

For Oxfam, this is an issue of justice: those living in poverty are the hardest hit by climate change despite being the least responsible for the crisis. In the last five years, we've witnessed extreme weather events like the Australian bush fires and Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillipines that have devastated millions of hectares of crops, sent food prices rocketing and left millions facing hunger.

We want our messages to be heard at the UN and in parliaments and in corporate boardrooms around the world. We want a world with an economy that works for people and the planet. Oxfam is calling on nations to cut emissions and a world where people are not going hungry.

1. Australia Wildfires

Bushfire in Tasmania in 2013. Photo: ToniFish [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In Australia, between August and November 2013, over 100 wildfires have raged across the state of New South Wales with unprecedented levels of scale and severity. Australia has just experienced its hottest 12 months on record.

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The Climate Council of Australia, a non-profit organization, state that climate change is contributing to more extreme fire weather days and prolonged periods of low rainfall. The IPCC says climate change may lead to an increase in the frequency of wildfires and the likelihood that they will be bigger in size and intensity. Since August, the wildfires have burned more than 126,000 hectares (311,000 acres), an area greater than the size of Los Angeles, said NSW Rural Fire Service spokesman Andrew Luke.

The IPCC Working Group II AR5 report issued in September suggests dire consequences for Australia’s economy and climate. The report predicts that Australia will experience up to 80% more droughts across its southeastern states, greater exposure to severe tropical cyclones along its east and southern coasts, many more days of +35C temperatures, and decreased profits due to shorter growing seasons and sparse rainfall.

Several factors contribute to bush fire risk, including temperature, wind, humidity and the amount of combustible material or ‘fuel load’. The increase in hotter and drier weather is reducing opportunities for planned hazard reduction burning, to reduce the fuel load and the risk of catastrophic fires. Damages to date are estimated at 100 million with two fatalities, with firefighting along a 400-kilometer front, and 140 parks closed to tourists. Climate change will end up diverting billions of dollars from countries’ GDP.

2. Russia Drought

Dry soil
Russia's drought led to poor harvests of grain, sugarbeet, sunflowers and potatoes. Photo: Anna Moiseenko

Extreme weather events are becoming increasingly common in Russia, and the 2012 drought – following hard on the severe drought of 2010 – confirmed this trend. During 2012, 22 regions suffered crop losses, with a state of emergency declared in 20 of these.

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The losses incurred were very significant: the year’s gross grain harvest was 70.9 million tons, 24.7 per cent lower than in 2011 (94.2 million tons). There were also decreases in production volumes for sugarbeet, sunflowers, potatoes and vegetables. In 2010 and 2012, the total losses resulting from poor harvests exceeded RUB 300 billion [9 billion USD] in these years.

This meant significant increases in domestic prices for grain, and therefore of bread. Global food prices soared by 10 percent in July 2012, with maize and soybean reaching all-time peaks. This meant hardship for vulnerable populations hard pressed to pay the higher prices for staple goods both within Russia and around the world. For small-scale farmholders in Russia, recurring drought has meant increasing levels of debt due to low crop volumes compared to the rising cost of agricultural inputs (seeds, herbicides etc).

Oxfam is working with national partners to raise awareness about the challenges involved in food production and climate change in Russia. The Russian Federation has implemented a Climate Doctrine which acknowledges that climate change is impacting Russia’s economy, including in the agricultural sector, and sets out a general framework for adaptation and mitigation policies.

3. Guatemala Coffee Rust

Closeup of a coffee plant leaf infected with coffee rust.
A leaf of an infected coffee plant. Photo: Carvalho et al. [CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

In Central America, a fungal disease on coffee plants called la Roya (coffee rust) is attacking Arabica coffee plants across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua at ever higher altitudes as the climate warms. Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica have declared national emergencies with up to 70% of this year’s crop in Guatemala affected.

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In El Salvador, the Salvadoran Coffee Council estimates the fungus has affected 100 percent of the country's coffee plants. Its exceptional spread this year has been blamed in part on several years of above-average temperatures and rainfall, attributed to global warming trends, creating the ideal humid conditions for the spores to spread. 

According to the International Coffee Organization, most coffee in Central America is grown by smallholder farmers, who will find it difficult to absorb the unexpected losses as the coffee beans shrivel and die off. Harvests are likely to decline by up to 15-25 percent in 2012/13 and 30-40 percent in 2013/14 compared to 2011/12 levels.

1.4 million unskilled laborers depend on wages from coffee harvesting for much of their annual income. Daily income from the coffee harvest labor is likely to be up to 50% below average this year and next. And it is likely that some 374,000 jobs will be lost in 2012/13 due to the rust.

Big farms can invest in prevention and control, including using more fungicides. But many small farmers face ruin. Their best tactic is to uproot sick bushes and plant new rust-resistant varieties; but the new ones will not yield coffee beans for at least three years.

Oxfam is assisting communities affected by La Roya in the affected countries. In central Guatemala for example (Baja Verapaz and Chiquimula Departments) Oxfam partners are distributing bean seeds, fertilizers and insecticides, and will be implementing cash-for-work or cash transfer programs and agricultural training in 2014.

4. Pakistan Floods

A man sits atop a destroyed house
A man sits atop the remains of his house destroyed in the Pakistan floods in August 2013.

In August 2013 floodwaters inundated up to one fifth of Pakistan and affected an estimated 20 million people. Research has shown that Pakistan is suffering from a global phenomenon of more frequent and intense weather patterns that put many communities’ lives and livelihoods at risk.

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Since the mega-flood of 2010 four consecutive years of flood disasters have destroyed harvests, particularly in South Punjab and Sindh provinces which grow wheat and rice for the whole country.

"There's no doubt that clearly the climate change is a major contributing factor," said Ghassem Asrar, director of the World Climate Research Program and WMO (World Meteorological Organization). Monsoon rains moved from east to west into the northern, mountainous province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa. Here, where many mountainsides had been deforested, water poured into valleys and burst riverbanks downstream. The floodwaters contributed significantly to soil erosion and in some cases, to permanent farmland damage that will have a devastating effect on food security.

Food insecurity in Pakistan has been worsening as underlying drivers of vulnerability turn natural weather occurrences – amplified by climate change – into long-lasting disasters, and hamper swift recovery. These include widespread malnutrition, deep levels of poverty, inadequate access to education, landlessness, discrimination against women and minorities, and conflict dynamics that hinder humanitarian access to certain populations.

National and local budgets to help disaster-prone areas may be aided by investing in early warning systems, ecological prevention like reforestation, flood barriers, regional risk pooling, maintaining drainage systems to divert water, building codes that ensure earthquake-resistant construction, requirements for sustainable farming practices, and subsidies for drought-resistant crops. Climate change financing will ensure more funding for these measures.

5. Philippines Typhoon

Satellite image of Typhoon Haiyan
A satellite image of Typhoon Haiyan over the Philippines. Image: NOAA

Typhoon Haiyan is the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in history. 11.3 million people are affected and over 700.000 people have been displaced.

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Local authorities say that over 40.000 houses have been damaged, but the number is expected to be much higher. The immediate priority is to get help to the communities that have been devastated. Oxfam and other agencies are right now working hard to get aid such as clean water and sanitation to people in need.

However this disaster is also another deadly warning of what much of the world can expect unless we can minimize climate change, and a poignant reminder of why governments need to make real progress at climate talks and take urgent action on climate change. The science tells us that at current and rising levels of emissions we are increasing the likelihood of more severe tropical storms like Haiyan happening.

Developed countries at climate talks must respond by increasing the amount of finance they put on the table to help poor countries adapt and cope with climate change. And all Governments must ensure that they urgently drive down their countries emissions.