Nicolas Hulot, Special Envoy of the French President for the Protection of the Planet, on climate change and disaster risk management

Nicolas Hulot, Special Envoy of the French President for the Protection of the Planet

Viewpoint: Nicolas Hulot

In the Philippines – as is the case elsewhere around the world – climate change is driving risk and multiplying the impact of other drivers of risk such as poverty, population growth and poor urban planning.

The Philippines has some of the best legislation and policy frameworks on climate change and disaster risk management. It also has strong institutions such as the National Council for Disaster Risk Reduction and Management and the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration.

Unfortunately, that will not be enough in the face of shifting typhoon seasons which can produce superstorms like Typhoon Haiyan. It was the strongest storm ever to make landfall, claiming nearly 8000 lives, affecting more than 16m people, and causing irreparable damage to livelihoods and economic growth.

Haiyan, which resulted in $13bn in damages, was one of the top two most damaging disasters in 2013, along with the floods in Germany in May and June that caused $12.9bn worth of economic damage. Even a lesser event like Tropical Storm Sendong, which arrived in the middle of the night in December 2011, killed some 1500 people who were vulnerable to floods and landslides on the southern island of Mindanao.

A decade ago, the Philippines adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action, the first comprehensive agreement on disaster risk reduction. Since then, it has been hit by 181 major reported disasters, including typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Only the US and China have suffered more hazard events. Economic losses in the US are in the region of $443bn compared to $16bn in the Philippines for that decade. While absolute losses are many times greater in economic superpowers, so is their economic resilience.

As a result, the impact of an event like Typhoon Haiyan on the GDP of the Philippines was far more significant than the impact of Superstorm Sandy or the recent winter storms on the US economy. Developing countries tend to experience higher risks than developed countries in terms of their impact on human life.

Under the leadership of Presidents Francois Hollande and Benigno Aquino III, France and the Philippines have come together in a spirit of shared concern and commitment to address climate change, and the risks that come with it. France lost 15,000 of its citizens in an unprecedented heatwave during the summer of 2003, but it has the resources to more effectively manage the risks and to minimise the death toll from future disasters. The Philippines, year after year, is confronted with the impact of rising sea levels and warming oceans on the behaviour of the typhoon season. Even so, when Typhoon Hagupit threatened the same swathe of territory as Typhoon Haiyan had done, the Philippines showed that it could rise to the occasion by undertaking pre-emptive evacuations, saving many lives.

Indeed, lessons have been learned as the country has gone beyond early warnings to early action. The wait-and-see attitude, which proved fatal in the face of Typhoon Haiyan, is hopefully now a thing of the past. What these events reveal is that disaster risk is a social construct. If the built environment is not capable of withstanding the hazards to which it is exposed then people are rendered especially vulnerable. The increasing frequency of natural hazard extremes calls for a change in mindset and in our approach to development.

All this must feed into the development agenda starting with the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction taking place in March in Sendai, Japan, which will adopt an updated version of the Hyogo Framework for Action. Sendai will kick off the post-2015 development agenda. A positive outcome there can prepare the ground for a forward-looking agreement when the UN Climate Change Conference convenes in Paris in December. President Hollande’s visit to the Philippines in February will have helped in that process. One thing is for sure: the Philippines and the rest of the world will have to continue focusing on disaster risk management for many years to come. Climate change is happening, but risk change has already happened, and we must both understand and manage it.

Anchor text: 
Nicolas Hulot

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