2013 was the worst year ever in terms of insurance losses from extreme weather in Canada: torrential rains and flooding caused over $1.7 billion in insured damage in Alberta while flash floods in Toronto cost $940 million in payouts. But with over $5 billion of damages each, the 2001/02 coast-to-coast drought and the 1998 ice storms are the most expensive disasters in Canadian history. So extreme weather events associated with climate change are already impacting Canada and are expected to intensify in coming years. Clearly, Canada is highly exposed to the impacts of climate change and yet it ranks low in terms of vulnerability. How can this be?
Developing Countries Disproportionately Impacted
When looking at climate change vulnerability we must consider not only exposure but also sensitivity and the ability to adapt to those consequences. While Canada is increasingly experiencing these impacts, like most rich and developed countries it has a high adaptive capacity that helps mitigate the outcomes. So even the most devastating events, despite their substantial impacts, have left Canada’s infrastructure largely intact. Hence, despite their climate change exposure, the overall vulnerability of Canada, the United States and Europe is low compared to the regions of extreme risk in Africa, Asia and in Central America. To illustrate, the President of Honduras said Hurricane Mitch in 1998 had set the country back 50 years in terms of economic development (1.5 million homeless – 20% of the population, 70% of the transportation and water infrastructure was damaged, etc). This is why developing countries will disproportionately feel the effects of climate change.
A New Era of Global Vulnerability
In 1800, only 3% of the world population lived in cities. The proportion is now 50% and growing – especially in developing countries. Many of the fastest growing megacities with the highest concentration of infrastructure and people are in “extreme risk” locations. A quarter of the world population lives in low elevation coastal areas that are at risk from the consequences of sea level rise. We are entering a new era of global vulnerability in terms of human lives and infrastructure.
Preparedness is Key
Emergency preparedness is a key factor in reducing risk and mitigating against the consequences of natural hazards. Developed and developing countries must work together to reduce the exposure of the most vulnerable and help prepare for future climate impacts.
For anyone interested in learning more about this topic natural disasters the McGill University online course is highly rated and strongly recommended.