Mami Mizutori is head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.
The devastation of one of Mozambique’s largest cities, Beira, by Cyclone Idai, which claimed hundreds of lives, is stark evidence that the countries which contribute least to climate change are the ones being affected by it the most.
These last years of record global warmth have made things worse. Extreme weather events have increased over the past couple of decades. The previously unthinkable is happening with greater frequency.
Media reports might suggest that there is something exceptional about Beira. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Humans have short memories when it comes to disasters, and our innate optimism often leads us to discount disaster risk to our own future cost. What else can explain the lack of ambition on reducing greenhouse gas emissions that keep us on course for a catastrophic rise in global temperatures by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, a scenario that keeps children awake at night wondering what the future holds for them?
Thousands of lives were lost across the Philippines when Typhoon Haiyan churned ashore with deadly force in November 2013, after its slow passage across the Pacific, gaining in strength and absorbing energy from the warming waters of the ocean. The people of the devastated coastal city of Tacloban had no word in their local language to describe the “tidal surge” that hit them with all the power of a tsunami.
In Myanmar, memories are still raw from the loss of 138,000 lives almost 11 years ago when an unprecedented storm, Cyclone Nargis, battered the villages of the poor that lay in its path.
As a new cyclone season gets underway in the Bay of Bengal, there is continued trepidation about the prospect of a storm that might hit the exposed Rohingya refugees densely packed into camps along that low-lying coast, where hundreds of thousands perished in the years before early warning systems were developed.
The people of Beira had no past experience as Cyclone Idai bore down on them, destroying their homes, schools, hospitals, public utilities, roads and bridges in a violent demonstration of what it means in this century to live on the water’s edge.
Beira is not alone. There are thousands of cities and towns across the developing world where the sea is encroaching little by little. They are under siege. They are on a very visible front line.
That threat adds another layer to preexisting risks that stem from rapid urbanization, the rise of slums in vulnerable locations, the absence of resilient infrastructure, failures in planning and the destruction of protective ecosystems such as mangrove forests.
But the greatest risk driver of them all are the extreme levels of poverty that still afflict countries such as Mozambique and cripples their capacity to adapt to climate change.
What Beira tells us is that climate change is creating new obstacles to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, including the eradication of poverty and hunger.
New climate risks are emerging, and their full significance is yet to be fully grasped. Climate change and uncertain weather helped prepare the ground for the drought that affected more than 60 million people during the last major El Niño episode three years ago.
The push for progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions must be pursued with unshakable resolve, but it must be accompanied by an equally strong push for investment in resilient infrastructure in the poorest places on Earth, where adaptation to climate change is now a matter of life or death.