We need new warning systems to save lives in climate catastrophes

We need new warning systems to save lives in climate catastrophes

  • Science
  • March 18, 2023
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Finding ways to warn communities of impending climate catastrophes can yield a 10x return on investment by preventing deaths and injuries, according to the United Nations.

These methods can range from satellites that better predict extreme weather events to location-based text messaging systems that can warn vulnerable communities of upcoming storms, floods, wildfires, and other extreme events.

“Early warning systems are a proven and viable tool to help people adapt to climate change … by saving lives and livelihoods during extreme weather events such as increasingly intense and frequent storms and floods,” UN officials said in a press release this week. “And smart, innovative technologies are playing an increasingly important role in making them effective.”

According to the Technology Executive Committee of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, early warning systems are among the most cost-effective adaptation tools to reduce deaths and injuries from climate-related disasters around the world.

The return-on-investment calculation emerged from a “deep dive” discussion between UN officials and climate stakeholders in Rio de Janeiro last month, and follows guidance from UN Secretary-General António Guterres in March 2022 that the entire world population should have access to disasters has early warning systems until 2027.

Over the past decade, climate disasters have killed tens of thousands of people and cost trillions of dollars.

A January report by the British non-profit organization Christian Aid estimated that the world’s 10 biggest natural disasters in 2022 took an economic toll of more than US$168 billion; Hurricane Ian alone caused $100 billion.

However, deaths and displacements were much higher in developing countries. Christian Aid’s analysis showed that 10 disasters last year killed at least 3,275 people and displaced tens of millions more.

Extreme flooding caused by monsoon rains in Pakistan, for example, contributed to the deaths of nearly 1,740 people and displaced 7 million from their homes, Christian Aid found.

A post-disaster scientific assessment found that climate change contributed to the severity of the rain and flooding (Climatewire, September 16, 2022). It also noted that through a $120 million World Bank grant in 2016, Pakistan has invested in early warning technologies to help the country’s Sindh province.

UN officials have said 7 million people in the province are now receiving more accurate and timely alerts. But the post-flood scientific report noted that “the ‘lightning’ nature of much of the [2022] Flooding and large volumes of water may also have severely limited the effectiveness of early warning, even when the systems were in place.”

A recent meeting of the United Nations Executive Committee on Technology identified five innovations that could improve early warning systems. This includes artificial intelligence “to predict and enable collective behavior before and during emergencies [for] Better scheduling and location-based wireless calling and SMS capabilities.”

In addition, officials recommended greater use of the “Internet of Things” to “improve the effectiveness of early warning systems in human settlements for both public and private buildings.” A prime example of such a system is South Africa, where a networked electronic alarm system reduces wildfire risk by providing live monitoring and text alerts to residents.

E&E News reprinted with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.

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