As I've been writing for 15 years, there's a glaring climate divide on this turbulent planet. Industrial powers that prospered through a burst of fossil fuel use over the last two centuries have also shielded themselves from many climate risks through wealth and technology.
At the same time, the accumulated greenhouse gases emitted by all that combustion are jolting the climate system in dangerous ways that most threaten poor countries with almost no contribution to warming and the least capacity to withstand today's weather extremes, let alone what's coming.
Pope Francis touched on this divide in a tweet last year, saying, "The climate crisis always generates more serious humanitarian crises and the poor are the most vulnerable regarding extreme weather events. A solidarity founded on justice, on peace and on the unity of the human family is needed."
One way to make progress is to be sure that forecasts of extreme weather events made possible through advances in remote sensing and supercomputing are translated into responsiveness on the ground where peril is greatest. The term of art is "anticipatory action."
As of today, which is World Meteorological Day, the United Nations is making this a top-line priority.
In a videotaped statement, Secretary-General António Guterres has said the U.N. "will spearhead new action to ensure every person on Earth is protected by early warning systems within five years."
He is charging the World Meteorological Organization with leading the effort and presenting an action plan at COP-27, the climate-treaty conference scheduled to be held in Egypt this November.
"The world must end its addiction to fossil fuels, especially coal," Guterres said. "At the same time, we must invest equally in adaptation and resilience."
Guterres continued: "That includes the information that allows us to anticipate storms, heatwaves, floods and droughts. Today, one-third of the world’s people, mainly in least developed countries and small island developing states, are still not covered by early warning systems. In Africa, it is even worse: 60 per cent of people lack coverage."
That is 2.6 billion people without any advance word when a storm or flood is coming.
"This is unacceptable, particularly with climate impacts sure to get even worse. Early warnings and action save lives," Guterres concluded. "We must boost the power of prediction for everyone and build their capacity to act."
Decades of grinding experience and research have shown that the capacity of communities to withstand potent, but rare, hazards is determined less by forecasting technologies than by the capacity to coordinate, to translate from technical projections to practical actions, to cross disciplinary and administrative boundaries, and to train regularly enough to do the right thing when a rare event happens.
This is as true in prosperous places as it is in poor ones. Please click back and read my article about the starkly different outcomes when similarly potent tornadoes destroyed an Amazon warehouse in December, killing six workers and an Illinois big-box manufacturing facility in 2004, killing none of the 150 people inside at the time.
But the most glaring need is to spread these capacities in communities and poor countries facing layered hazards, from storms to disease outbreaks.
Many seasoned practitioners and scientists working on risk reduction say the most important step is to foster the capacity for effective exchanges among disciplines from meteorology to sociology and between expertise and communities at risk.
This need is so glaring that it needs to become a profession. Call these people "climate science translators."
That's the argument made last month in a paper by Markus Enenkel of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Andrew Kruczkiewicz, a senior researcher at the Columbia Climate School’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society and principal investigator on a Global Flash Flood Risk project.
The paper, in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, has a title that says it al: "The humanitarian sector needs clear job profiles for climate science translators – more than ever during a pandemic."
Outside of a few large international aid agencies like the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies, they say, there is scant capacity to integrate climate data with fast-shifting situations in areas facing imminent danger: "This can lead to uncertainties in decision-making with far-reaching consequences, such as a misuse or misinterpretation of climate information that result in harmful short-term consequences or worse, promoting longer-term maladaptation."
Where they exist, the authors add, "Translators have been and continue to broker discussions both across academic domains, between scientists and practitioners in the field, developing strategies for anticipating potential future impacts related to compound risks."
I discussed these issues with Kruczkiewicz and an array of other experts and journalists in a Sustain What webcast in 2020, as a cyclone bore down on Bangladesh and India's eastern provinces even as these areas were in the midst of the early COVID-19 surge. I hope you'll watch and weigh in.
Another grand challenge, Kruczkiewicz said, is flipping the narrative around disasters so that communities can actually envision, and work toward, and invest in, preparedness.
"How do we tell stories of resilience, because in theory the story is that noting happened," he asked during the discussion. "If we take anticipatory actions on short or long-term lead times, building resilience, there’s nothing to take a picture of necessarily because what we did worked.”
He added, "With disasters [the narrative is] people coming in to save the day. How do we switch to telling the story and having people interested. How does normal become news?”
That remains a great question!
Please post your answers!
Enhancing Warnings - a new report by Carina Fearnley and Ilan Kelman at the University College of London Warning Research Center on ways to develop effective warnings that consider multiple hazards (a storm in a pandemic), cascading events, and integration across stakeholders. Among their core recommendations:
Adopt a public engagement and outreach program that empowers people to identify and fulfill their own needs regarding warnings for enhancing preparedness and response behaviors and actions.
Create and support mechanisms to overcome silos and territorialism and instead encourage idea and action exchange for building trust and connections that support action when a major situation arises.
Africa must upgrade its early warning systems as climate crisis deepens, experts advise - This article from the Alliance for Science notes that "only 40 percent of the World Meteorological Organization’s 138 member countries have effective multi-hazard early warning systems" and some of the worst gaps are in that continent of 1.2 billion people.
Multi-Hazard Early Warning System (MHEWS), a tool for Effective Ocean Prediction and Services - a case study looking at paths from information to impact around Tropical Cyclone Kenneth, which slammed Mozambique in 2019.
Experts in hurricanes, climate and risk perception grapple with ways to boost public safety facing uncertainty - a Sustain What post on hurricane warning gaps.