When powerful Cyclone Amphan roared into the low-lying coastal Sundarbans region of Bangladesh and India last year, families trying to stay safe faced a dilemma.
Many storm shelters were already occupied by quarantined migrant workers who had returned home as the COVID-19 pandemic shut their workplaces, leaving local people a choice between facing the cyclone at home or braving the virus in shelters.
From heat and wildfires in the Arctic region to cold-weather power outages in Texas and deforestation in the Amazon, threats around the world that might seem unrelated are increasingly compounding each other, UN researchers said in a report released on Wednesday.
The underlying causes of the rising risks — from climate change to a lack of cooperation among governments and ignoring the value of nature in economic decisionmaking — are common across many of them, researchers said.
For instance, putting a price on timber, but not on the services forests provide when left standing, such as absorbing carbon and regulating rainfall, helps drive everything from climate change to species extinctions, droughts and pandemics, the report said.
Reworking how economic benefits are measured could help reduce a wide swathe of disaster risks, said Jack O’Connor, a scientist in the UN University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security.
“The disaster is the tip of the iceberg, and there’s a whole mass of things behind it. And the base of the iceberg is the same thing shared across all the events,” said O’Connor, a lead author of the report.
Many everyday individual choices, such as eating a chicken sandwich for lunch, have direct links to threats ranging from forest and species loss to climate change, researchers said.
A major driver of Amazon deforestation in Brazil is the expansion of soybean fields — and 77 percent of the soy grown goes to feed animals, especially chickens, the report said.
With meat eating on the rise around the world, particularly in Europe and China, the researchers said that even when not directly produced in the Amazon, “through the interconnections of global supply chains, meat consumption is the root cause of the destruction of the Amazon.”
O’Connor, an Australian ecologist, said that researchers hoped that looking at fast-surging disasters as something other than unconnected crises would drive stronger action on them.
“They’re happening more frequently, all over the world, and when you see them in the news every day you can get a little overwhelmed,” he said. “We’re saying: ‘This is not just a fire in Brazil. It’s connected to you and to other disasters.’”
Recognizing the linkages between risks — and their common drivers — remains a challenge for most individuals and governments, UN Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction Mami Mizutori said.
As the pace of threats picks up, many governments are too busy responding to current crises to work on avoiding future ones, and those that try often focus on just the most serious local risk, whether it is a flood, pandemic or fire, Mizutori said.
Budgets and expertise are also limited, handicapping efforts to deepen understanding of interconnected risks and join up efforts to reduce them, she said.
Without acknowledging that biodiversity loss threatens to ignite future pandemics, “no matter how much you make your hospital system resilient or develop better vaccines or get better prepared, you won’t prevent” health crises, she said.
“Avoiding biodiversity losses is not only about making sure that animal doesn’t go extinct. It really directly relates to our lives and livelihoods,” she said in a telephone interview.
Effectively reducing risks depends on recognizing and tackling the root causes of disasters, but is proving hard in practice, the researchers said.
Stronger international cooperation, for instance, could supercharge responses to pandemics, climate change or nature loss — but the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how crises often spur competition among governments, they said.
Still, there are signs of progress. The WHO on Wednesday last week launched a new global hub to boost collection and sharing of pandemic and epidemic intelligence.
Meanwhile, G20 countries and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development are planning to set a minimum global corporate tax rate of 15 percent to limit tax avoidance and provide more government revenue to address growing challenges.
Helping government leaders — and others — understand that the growing drumbeat of disasters in the headlines is not about individual crises, but a symptom of wider structural problems is crucial to reducing those threats, the report said.
“The way we understand and perceive risks influences our ability to respond to them,” it said. “Since the risks associated with these disastrous events are interconnected, thinking in fragmented, isolated and insular ways is no longer tenable.”
Berlin-based O’Connor said that Germany’s catastrophic floods in July would likely spur efforts there to improve flood prevention infrastructure and early warning systems.
However, “if we don’t look at why there was such an extreme event in the first place, it won’t matter how well we prepare,” as climate change drives wilder weather, he said.
“Politicians tend to shy away from tackling these very complex issues, but we’re getting to the stage where we can’t afford to do that anymore,” he added.
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