Moderator Patrick Illinger interviewed Dr. Thorsten Klose, Prof. Annegret Thieken, and Prof. Peter Höppe.
Students from the University of Applied Sciences listened carefully.

Save the world: are we prepared?

Dialogue forum on 21 May 2015 at the Munich University of Applied Sciences

In recent decades natural disasters have increased both in frequency and intensity, losses are reaching vast proportions. Climate change is one driving factor. Therefore, it is even more important that people prepare themselves against disasters. Possible approaches were discussed during the dialogue forum at the University of Munich by Prof. Annegret Thieken from the University of Potsdam, Dr. Thorsten Klose from the German Red Cross, and Prof. Peter Höppe from Munich Re.

The trend is unmistakable: "Since 1980, the annual number of natural disasters has tripled from approximately 350 to 1000," explained Peter Höppe, drawing on information from the database built up during recent decades by Munich Re. It shows that of the more than 35,000 recorded loss events worldwide, weather-related disasters such as storms, floods and extreme temperatures in particular are on the rise. There are many strong indications that humanity is accelerating this development through the increasing emission of greenhouse gases such as CO2. "We are now experiencing the warmest period since the beginning of temperature records," warned Höppe. Following the record year of 2014, the first months of 2015 were again exceptionally warm, prompting the Head of Geo Risks Research at Munich Re to add: "I would go as far as to bet that 2015 will even be hotter than last year."

Flow of climate refugees continues to grow
He hopes that this development will spur on negotiations at the UN Climate Conference in Paris at the end of the year. The consequences of global warming are dramatic. More frequent and more extreme weather events will increase the losses and their variability, the number of fatalities will continue to rise. Climate change and increased migration from the disaster areas will ultimately also become a security issue.

This is a challenge which the German Red Cross also will have to face. Today the organisation is already managing roughly 280 projects in 45 countries, ranging from emergency relief measures to reconstruction and long-term development aid cooperation. "Our focus is on disaster preparedness, precisely because natural disasters are increasing," explained Klose, who works in the General Secretariat of the DRC as an advisor on disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation. "The main point is to pursue a development-oriented approach and to think about where we actually want to go." It is important to connect government and civil society actors with each other and create the smoothest possible transitions between the different working areas such as health, nutrition, water supply and sanitation. The goal is to strengthen the resilience of local populations.

Using early warnings consistently
As a national aid organisation, the Red Cross inherits a special role as it is obliged to assist the authorities in the field of humanitarian activities when they have reached the limits of their own capacities. Klose considers the insufficient utilisation of scientific information on extreme weather events as one major flaw in climate change response. The humanitarian system generally reacts much too slowly and usually only when disaster already has struck. "We need to increase the use of early warning systems, even though there are uncertainties," insisted Klose.

In Germany there is namely no lack of information. Very often, however,  there are no ways of connecting it up with individual contingency planning. Although the flood in the summer of 2002 opened many people's eyes to the potential risks, "analysing the flood disaster of 2013, you could really begin to wonder whether the damage in the past has made us any the wiser," concluded Thieken. Legislation amendments on flood protection were indeed adopted in 2005 and the EU has also responded with a directive on flood risk management. At the same time, disaster prevention measures have been improved and with the foundation of the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, Germany now has an institution where all information in the event of a disaster is channelled.

Risk of power failure
Prof. Thieken considered the fact that the authorities rely too strongly on protective systems when demarcating flood control areas as critical. "Dikes can break, they do not offer absolute protection," she warned. For this reason, the now partly stricter building regulations should be extended to these areas. She also considers Flood Certification, with which home owners throughout Germany can size up their individual flood risk, to be an appropriate instrument. The population is largely unprepared for an extended power outage, she says. "Every household should have food and drink for two weeks in stock but most of them only have stocks for two to three days at the most," cautioned the professor for Natural Hazards Research at the University of Potsdam. 

When it comes to curtailing climate change, all individual efforts are of course to be welcomed. "But without legislative regulation, it will not work," Thieken was convinced. However, the political mills grind slowly, which is why many cities and towns are now setting up their own climate protection programmes. If we are not to lose control of climate change, the temperature must not rise by more than two degrees higher than it was in pre-industrial times. "Right now we are on a path going in the direction of four to five degrees," warned Höppe. The requisite reduction of the CO2 emissions to near zero by 2050 is not foreseeable. A rethinking process has at least begun to take place in industry and business. China, for example, used less coal in 2014 than in the previous years. "There are good chances that, for the first time, all signatories to the UN Framework Convention in Paris will enter into binding commitments to reduce CO2 emissions," Höppe observed.

The "Sendai Framework" for the reduction of disaster risks adopted in March is merely a declaration of intent. It offers tools for risk management and is intended to limit the impact of natural disasters. "The negotiations were very tough," reported Klose. But, for the first time ever, goals such as the reduction of disaster damage and fatalities were formulated that at least exert a degree of pressure on the governments.

The promotion of insurance solutions
To make life easier for the affected people in the developing countries, ten years ago Munich Re launched the "Munich Climate Insurance Initiative". Particularly in countries with low insurance penetration, people should be given the chance to protect themselves better and also overcome disasters in material terms. MCII activities include the active introduction of solution concepts at climate negotiations as well as the creation and development of a pilot insurance programme in the Caribbean. "I am optimistic that the G7 Summit in early June in Elmau will pass resolutions to promote insurance solutions for poor countries against weather-related disasters," said Höppe.

If at least natural disasters cannot be prevented, then there is a glimmer of hope that people in the developing countries will also have a better chance in the future of coping with the impacts. However, there is still a long way to go before this is possible and if what is being done today is merely continued without change, the goal will remain a long way off.  

NSCH 3 June 2015