Extreme weather: How can we be more prepared?

Continued lessons from Hurricane Maria, and an interview with Andrew Padilla of Alliance Puerto Rico - Switzerland
Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico, 2018

On the annual celebration of Earth Day on 22 April, people around the world demonstrated their support for environmental protection.

It is imperative to consider not just what we can do now to protect the environment, but how we can protect ourselves against the effects of climate change in the coming years.  

The link between carbon emissions, global warming and extreme weather

The interests of governments and the elite few mean that the world’s addiction to fossil fuels has continued fairly unabated to the point where we can no longer pretend it is having no impact. As the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere steadily increases, the Earth’s thermal and hydrological systems are undergoing changes. This, in turn, increases the frequency of occurrences of extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, heavy rain, floods, and hurricanes.

In 2014, scientists from the Carnegie Institution for Science estimated that it takes around 10.1 years after carbon dioxide is initially emitted into the atmosphere for the impacts of those emissions on the climate to be felt. The good news is that the benefits of reducing carbon dioxide emissions will be seen and felt during the lifetimes of the people who took that action.

However, the bad news is that even if we act today, the environmental effects of the past decade will continue to manifest, and preparations for the forthcoming destructive effects of climate change should be implemented without further delay.

Disaster Risk Reduction

Disaster risk reduction (DRR) is a form of prevention policy that governments and organisations can adopt to reduce the damage caused by natural hazards like extreme weather events.

DDR has been a high priority for global governments for decades. And yet, stories still emerge of governments ignoring advice, putting their people at risk, and contributing to the staggering damages incurred by extreme weather events. Developers were allowed to build in areas prone to flooding in Houston, so when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, the severe flooding it caused devastated large areas. After heavy rain in Tampa Bay, Florida in 2015, the floods caused far more damage because high-rise buildings were built by the water’s edge in an area known to be one of the most flooding and hurricane-prone areas in the United States.  

Despite contributing the least to climate change, developing countries have and will suffer disproportionately from an increase in extreme weather events because they have relatively fewer economic resources to prevent natural disasters from wreaking long-term havoc. In 2017, the International Monetary Fund called on developed nations to take the responsibility and extend their help to developing countries most at risk from the impacts of climate change. But is enough being done?

Interview with Andrew J. Padilla

Over the past 35 years, there was a large increase in the number of hurricanes classified as categories 4 and 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, mostly over the North and Southwest Pacific Oceans and the Indian Ocean. In September 2017, Hurricane Maria caused catastrophic damage when it hit Puerto Rico as an upper category 4 hurricane, the effects of which are still very much visible today.

Andrew J. Padilla, 2018

Andrew Padilla is part of Alliance Puerto Rico – Switzerland, a collective of Puerto Ricans and allies in Switzerland, fighting to rebuild the island after Hurricane Irma and Maria.

What were your first thoughts when you learnt that Hurricane Maria had hit Puerto Rico?

“I was beginning my masters program in Geneva, Switzerland when Maria hit the island. What I heard was from my family when they finally got phone reception / power again and our nightly diaspora conference calls. We tried to make sense of the damage and find ways to help. The saddest thing to watch from abroad was how avoidable much of the catastrophe was. More died from the anemic US response than the actual storm itself. Yes, Maria knocked out much of the islands infrastructure, but it had been crippled and pushed to privatization for years before the storm. Weeks after Maria, food was still scarce, healthy food even harder to come by. Many died from the inability to attain basic medical care, refrigerate diabetes medications, continue dialysis etc. Nations throughout the world pledged support but many were blocked from docking / landing on the island. The US was unwilling to fully support its colony but it tried to block other nations and our diaspora from doing the same.”

Do you think the relief response of local and international authorities has been adequate?

“Puerto Rico has estimated the total cost of recovery at just under 100 Billion USD. The U.S. government has offered a few billion in loans and has not moved to erase the crushing 70 plus billion USD debt facing the island. In the case of my family on the island, the first responders were their neighbours. The U.S. government didn’t clear the roads to their houses, they did. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency did come, it brought foodstuffs like Cheez-Its and Skittles with them. Small farmers on the island have provided healthy food, organized volunteer brigades to help their neighbors rebuild, held intergenerational tallers (workshops) to teach residents how they can preserve seeds and grow their own food.”

In the wake of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, what would help Puerto Rico rebuild in your opinion?

“Support to grassroots community organisations focused on the long-term rebuilding and resiliency of the island. Global allies can push to remove the debt burden that was crippling the island and its infrastructure years before Maria and can also push to remove the recently installed fiscal control board that has usurped democratic control of Puerto Rico’s finances and prioritised debt repayment. Last fall, Puerto Ricans in Switzerland fundraised to support small ecological farmers on the island. Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico and PAC / Proyecto Agroecológico Campesino are two groups we have funded. If allies from abroad want to help the island, supporting the small farmers seeding Puerto Rico’s future is a fantastic place to start. ”

Our future choices will make all the difference

The scale of destruction that an extreme weather event can cause depends on the choices made by ourselves and our governments. Climate change has been allowed to reach this point by allowing our global governments to run economies that favour an elite few, favouring fossil fuel subsidies over education, or tax breaks over good quality public housing. The choices we make, whether it be about climate-resilient agriculture, where we build homes and how, the type of government that we elect and whether they protect the poorest people, our economic system or academic curricula, they are all important. We need to be prepared and put measures in place that will save lives when the time comes.

Isobel Edwards

Isobel has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and a master’s degree in Emerging Economies and Inclusive Development with a focus on gender from King’s College London. She has worked in various areas of international development including cooperation and development for the EU in China, peacebuilding and statebuilding for the OECD and in environmental affairs for the UN, both in Paris. She now works in Geneva mainly on UN affairs relating to peacebuilding and the prevention of violent conflict, the human impacts of climate change and food and sustainability.
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