The risks of disasters caused by heat waves, record high temperatures and strong precipitation will depend on the level of vulnerability and exposure of populations, concludes the IPCC

Managing climate extremes is debated in São Paulo

August 29, 2012

By Elton Alisson

Agência FAPESP – In the next few years, due to global climate change, extreme climate events such as heat waves, record high temperatures and strong precipitation, which normally occur in 20-year intervals, should occur with greater frequency, intensity and duration than five decades ago.

However, the factors that will determine the risk of disasters causing loss of human life and economic damage, such as the landslides following heavy rains in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of 2011, will be the level of vulnerability and the population’s exposure to these extreme climate events.

These conclusions are from the Special Report for Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX), prepared and recently published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The results of the evaluations conducted by the IPCC in the document were discussed on August 16 during the workshop “Risk Management for Extreme Climate and Disasters in Central and South America – What can we learn from the IPCC Special Report on SREX Extremes?”.

Hosted by FAPESP and the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in partnership with the IPCC, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), both of the U.K, with sponsorship from Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Climate and Pollution Agency, the objective of the event was to debate the conclusions of the SREX report and the options for managing the impact of extreme climate events, especially in South and Central America.

One of the main conclusions of the IPCC report, prepared at the request of the government of Norway and the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, is that the impact of extreme climate events depends not only on nature but on the level of vulnerability and exposure of people or human groups in places where they may be affected.
“Disasters are not ‘natural,’ but rather conjunctions of natural climate or meteorological events with the vulnerability and exposure of a society or human groups to them,” commented Vicente Barros, researcher at the Sea and Atmosphere Research Center (Cima) at Universidad de Buenos Aires, in Argentina, and co-chair of SREX Work Group II.

“If the problem of climate risk is a conjunction of three factors, then, evidently, we must develop strategies to mitigate them,” evaluates Barros. One of the main actions highlighted in the report to reduce the risk of climate events is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are the primary cause of climate change.

To reduce the population’s level of exposure to extreme climate events, the scientists affirm that one must improve the emergency warning systems and, in certain cases, relocate some people.

To curb human vulnerability to the risks of disasters caused by climate change, the document notes that policies must be implemented to reduce poverty and increase the educational level of populations with a view to increasing the degree of awareness of the risks of extreme climate events.

According to data from the report, 95% of the disasters caused by extreme climate events from 1970 through 2008 occurred in developing countries, whereas only 5% occurred in developed countries.

“One very important message from the report is that the most effective manner to increase the resistance of populations to extreme climate events is to improve socioeconomic development conditions,” affirms Sebástian Vicuña, professor at Chile’s Pontificia Universidad Católica.

More studies on Brazil are needed

Composed of nine chapters and four annexes, the SREX was prepared over two years by 220 authors from 62 countries, gathered under two work groups from the IPCC: Group 1, which evaluated the physical basis of climate change, and Group II, which dealt with the impacts of climate changes, adaptations and vulnerabilities.

The authors of the document responded to more than 20,000 comments from government representatives, specialists and international agencies. An Executive Summary for Policy Makers was approved after four days of meetings in Kampala, Uganda in November 2011.

One of the weaknesses identified by the scientists during the preparation of the report was the need for more studies of climate extremes related to the regions of Brazil.

“We found a lack of studies published in indexed magazines on climate extremes in the regions of Brazil,” comments Jose Marengo, researcher at INPE’s Earth System Science Center (CCST), one of the authors of the IPCC SREX report and one of the organizers of the event.

“It is only now that Amazonia is beginning to appear in studies on climate extremes, and there are still few scientific articles on other regions in the country, like the Northeast,” said Marengo.

According to the researcher, the report’s analysis of the Northeast was based on articles published in Brazilian scientific magazines in this area, such as Revista Brasileira de Meteorologia and Revista Brasileira de Agrometeorologia, which are indexed in SciELO (Bireme/FAPESP), representing a major achievement of Brazilian scientists in the IPCC.

“For the first time in an IPCC report, we managed to use references to articles published in Brazilian scientific journals that are indexed and have a committee of reviewers,” said Marengo.

“This achievement represents a victory over an IPCC taboo. Previously, the IPCC only cited scientific articles published in English-language magazines. Nevertheless, more studies must be developed on climate extremes in Brazilian regions,” he said.

Another area that is lacking research, according to the authors, is the study of the socioenvironmental aspects of climate change. “There are a lot of data on the physical basis of climate change, but we need more socioeconomic studies on a global level,” notes Barros.

According to the researcher, international institutions such as the UN Development Program and the World Bank publish the majority of studies on the socioeconomic impacts of extreme climate events caused by global climate change. Still, even though this information is considered valuable and important, these studies are not peer-reviewed scientifically. For this reason, they are not utilized in IPCC reports.

According to Marengo, one of the most important parts of SREX, which is the newest report published by IPCC, is that it provides the most up-to-date information and analyzes the issue of climate extremes at a greater level of detail.

Nevertheless, there are still limitations in terms of data coverage and in terms of the models utilized to foresee global climate change. These issues should be better clarified by the fifth IPCC report, slated for publication in 2013.

“Much of the information published in SREX will be updated in the fifth IPCC report, through which we hope to have a better understanding of extreme climate events,” says Marengo.

FAPESP’s contribution

In the opinion of Carlos Nobre, Secretary of Policy and Research and Development Programs at the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and member of the coordination committee for FAPESP’s Program on Global Climate Change (PFPMCG), the publication of the fourth IPCC report in 2007 helped discussions of the impact of global change to gain popularity worldwide.

But, according to Nobre, in 2005, FAPESP’s scientific council was already discussing the need to create a research program on the topic. “FAPESP’s scientific leadership had a strategic and pioneering vision in creating PFPMCG. Through the program, the federal government has formulated a series of programs focused on the area – particularly the Brazilian Network on Climate and Climate Change – interacting solely with the PFPMCG,” he notes.

FAPESP Scientific Director Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz noted during the workshop that when they began discussing the creation of PFPMCG, one of the objectives set for the research program was to stimulate research on climate change by researchers in São Paulo and, by doing so, to put Brazil in a more prominent and protagonistic position in the international debate on global climate change.

“This event and others of the type held over the past few years show that the expectations for the program are being met, based on the existence of coordinated incentives for scientific and technological research on topics related to global climate change,” says Brito Cruz.

Celso Lafer, president of FAPESP, highlights the role that the IPCC has played in the formulation of global policies to mitigate the impact of global climate change.

“The IPCC is a platform for knowledge that was decisive for the signature of the Convention on Climate Change at RIO92. I give my testimony as Minister of Foreign Affairs at that time and precisely because I followed these negotiations in the diplomatic field,” he said.

“It is my profound conviction that the climate negotiations can only be appropriately conducted if they are rooted in quality knowledge, such as that provided by the IPCC,” said Lafer.