Friday, 18 November 2016

The Louisiana flood - connecting the dots

©Frank J. Grass

As indicated in my previous post, I will endeavor to highlight a few cases of loss and damage, past and present, across the five geographical regions of the world. One of the main events that have occurred in the recent past is the flooding in Louisiana.

The floods

The month of August will perhaps be remembered by the residents of Louisiana, United States of America (USA), as one of the darkest months to have ever occurred. Described as possibly the worst disaster to ever happen in the U.S, termed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration termed it "a once-in-every-500-years event" - Louisiana flooding event is a clear manifestation of how unprecedented natural hazards can be. Many news outlets - including BBC, CNN, The Guardian, New York Times, among others - reported of how devastating this event, both to the lives and properties of Louisianans.
A state of devastation as household properties in Ascension Parish are destroyed due to floods ©Reauters

The statistics

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) records;
  • 13 people died
  • 200,000 people were relocated
  • 60,646 houses were damaged
  • More than 100,000 vehicles destroyed
  • More than 20,000 businesses affected
  • Roughly 10 billion dollars in economic losses
Other sources however indicate that approximately 507,495 people were either directly or indirectly affected - 11 per cent of Louisiana's population. Notably, less than 20% of all the damaged homes had been insured against such natural hazards hence the burden of 'restoring dignity' lay on the individuals, the government and humanitarian agencies like the Red Cross.

This is not the first flood event to occur in Louisiana. The University of Colorado's Dartmouth Flood Observatory database indicates that flood events of lower magnitude have occurred in Louisiana before. Between 28 August - 7 September 2012, the Hurricane Isaac led to massive flooding in both Southern Mississippi and Louisiana (83938.23 square kilometers) killing one person, displacing around 60,000 people and causing undocumented damages to properties. 

In March 2016, Louisiana was faced with flood as water rose above normal ruining around 1,200 homes and leading to at least 4 deaths and an evacuation of approximately 3,300 people. This resulted into economic losses of 1.3 billion dollars.

The Climate Science...

A recently published synopsis and attribution study done by Wang, Zhao and Gillies (2016) attributes the 'strange' flood to "...intense precipitation produced by a slow-moving tropical low pressure system interacting with an eastward-traveling baroclinic trough to the north". Vahedifard,AghaKouchak,and Jafari,(2016) argues that due to the recent high temperatures experienced in Louisiana, especially around July 2016, moisture built up in the atmosphere and in turn increased the risk of floods.

In my article on the emission gap I explained how the trend in emissions and subsequent global warming poses a risk to ecosystems in terms of losses and damages caused by climate extreme events. This article published on the guardian also explains in depth how climate change led to Louisiana floods.  as the Scientific American answers scientific questions on why, when, how etc


There is a general agreement that the August flood in Louisiana did not come while ringing the bells loudly enough. No one was prepared for what transpired. When the level of awareness is near zero, people become more vulnerable and the risks of exposure  to hazards increase, resulting into devastating state of affairs, as statistics have shown. People's sense of belonging and endowments are eroded in a flash, and the level of helplessness gets heightened. When it remains business-as-usual in a climatic sense, then you can only expect the situation to worsen in future - for instance, a future clouded with more intense and frequent floods. Is it not surprising that the existing data shows an upward trend in the losses and damages that have occurred in Louisiana since 1980s due to floods. 

In summary, therefore, actions to mitigate against future should therefore be centered on the following;
  • Reinforcing physical infrastructure
  • Improving observation of weather related events through an integrated system
  • Efficient communication of hazard warnings
  • Rapid response and insurance schemes
  • Efficient management of land use and land use changes
  • Managing greenhouse gas emissions, both in the near and long term - this is a global commitment
  • Managing people's attitudes towards weather-related information, and events.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Humanizing the realities of climate change

© Asha Sitati

When we humanize climate change through highlighting people's lived experiences, we start to appreciate the science behind different scenarios. In avast world where different communities are accustomed to their unique cultures and ways of living, you can imagine how much of the reading, watching or listening you would need to put up with in order to try and understand the rich diversity. Climate change, however, presents a story that would resonate well with different groups of people.

Although there is a likelihood of varying levels of vulnerabilities and exposure to climate risks, most similar vulnerable groups like farmers, women, disabled, and elderly, tend to find themselves in more or less similar circumstances. The variations among such groups are bound to occur relative to their varying socio-economic dimensions, access to climate information, literacy levels, among others. 

©  Zinta Zommers
In the video below, which I helped produce as part of UN Environment Climate Warning Project, I tell the story of Florida, a widow and farmer in Turkana County of Kenya whose only source of livelihood (farming) is under constant threat from floods and drought. She is extremely vulnerable but still hopes that reliable climate information would enable her to act on time and avert any potential disasters. Florida is one among the many women in marginalized areas of the world who worry about feeding their families in the midst of all the uncertainties. 

In my subsequent posts, I will delve more into some case studies from around the world that are a reflection of the changing environment and subsequent loss and damage. I will highlight the interlinked issues that catalyze vulnerabilities and risks of exposure to climate extreme events.

How has the changing environment and climate affected you or your community?

Friday, 4 November 2016

What the gap in emissions means for human and ecological systems

Source: Reuters

Greenhouse gases?

Sources of emissions in 2010 by sector
Source: Environment Protection Agency based on data from the
Working Group III  of the fifth assessment report of the
International Panel on Climate Change 
These are gases that have the ability to trap heat and cause a 'greenhouse effect' potentially causing variations in atmospheric temperatures and affecting human and ecological systems. They include;
  • Carbondioxide is the major greenhouse gas emitted mostly from exploitation of fossil fuels, agriculture, and land use changes and forestry
  • Methane mainly from agricultural practices, burning of biomass, poor management of waste  and energy inefficiency
  • Nitrous oxide primarily from fertilizers used in agricultural activities and burning of biomass.
  • Fluorinated gases from consumption and production processes especially from industries and the refrigeration.

What is the current science saying?

The fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report clearly acknowledges that the earth system is warming unequivocally, increasing the global temperatures, and that there is a strong linkage to greenhouse gas emissions.The 2016 Emissions gap report, recently launched by the UN Environment, shows that the road to staying well below 2°C is still long. Despite commitments from governments, there is a steady increase in the amount of emissions especially from fossil fuels that account for approximately 68% of the emissions. In summary, 
  • People already face rising seas, expanding desertification and coastal erosion. 
  • There is a global upward trend in the emissions of greenhouse gases
  • Majority of these gases emanate from industrial processes and combustion of fossil fuels
  • Since 2000, the world ha experienced 10 warmest years
  • The intended nationally determined contributions geared towards reducing emissions are still not consistent with the goal of limiting emissions to way below 2°C - if fully and unconditionally implemented, these contributions can only curb emissions to way below 3.2°C
  • Different scenarios for total global greenhouse gas emissions in 2025 and 2030
    Source: Emission Gap Report, 2016

What does the emissions trend mean for humans and ecosystems?

A correlation exists between the gap in emissions and the level of risk to impacts of climate change. The risks of, and costs associated with climate disaster continue to increase putting a strain on vulnerable populations across the world. According to the 2015 global assessment report (GAR), the increasing level of risks due to climate-related disasters are often fueled by variations in temperature, precipitation, and rise in sea levels. This scenario has led to losses mostly in small island developing states and other developing countries that are highly vulnerable but lack the capacity to respond or cope to disasters. People’s lives and ecosystems’ survival are intertwined in the carbon cycle, hence when one end of the system is perturbed, the multiplicity of impacts is felt.
Source: Stephanie Andrei

Bouwer 2013, finds a clear correlation in the projections of future extreme events losses and the changing climate (increased warming due to increased levels of greenhouse emissions), that is especially biased towards increased losses due to floods.  The study also attributes the frequency of prolonged dry seasons and sea level rise to the increasing levels of emissions. However, Knutti et. al 2016 argue that the relationship between increasing global temperatures and the ensuing impacts is not always linear and 'straightforward'. This study agrees with James et. al, 2014 arguing that there is a cloud of uncertainties in attributing anthropogenic emissions to climate losses and damages  mainly because evidence varies among sectors, countries and regions. Furthermore, the uncertainty occurs when there is a wide variation in terms of time, space and character of various impacts occurring at varying levels of climate change. Nonetheless, science, and the latest data especially from developing countries continues to make clear the fact the anthropogenic emissions are distablizing the climate system and causing disproportionate impacts on individuals, communities and ecosystems.

What needs to be done?

The emission gap report recommends that, to achieve the goal outlined in the Paris Agreement, deep emission cuts be effected prior to 2020, and further, lower emissions pathways be embraced by 2030 . As a result, strong and consistent actions are required from governments and all actors in terms of promoting energy efficient mechanisms, tapping into non-state actors’ contributions and aligning activities to sustainable development goals.

It is absolutely necessary that risks to climate losses and damages, resulting from increasing emissions, are drastically reduced at all level. Policy decisions need to be pegged on the knowledge of such risks especially in having a clear understanding of the relationship between global emissions, and the resulting impacts.