There is widespread agreement that climate change poses a serious threat to the well-being of the earth's environment and the strength of its economies. The build-up of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide requires action be taken to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels in industrialized countries if the rate of climate change is to be reduced to a level which will allow the implementation of adaptations that will reduce negative impacts. These countries account for more than two-thirds of annual carbon dioxide emissions world-wide. Developing countries have much lower per capita emissions, and are more concerned with providing for the basic needs of their people, rather than climate change. Because it is projected that by the year 2020, the emissions from developing countries will exceed those of industrialized countries, the time is right to pursue a more sustainable path of development.
Natural disasters occur when an event such as an earthquake or storm reveals social vulnerability, and consequent damage to the physical and social fabric exceeds the ability of the affected community to recover without assistance. Societies respond to a disaster by means of three overlapping activities: response and recovery, mitigation and preparedness. These activities alter future vulnerability, reducing risk if they are done well or not if they are done badly. This relationship is shown in Figure 5.1 (Etkin 1999) and depicts a dynamic, interactive system, composed of both natural and social forces.
None of the boxes in this figure are static. It is the box in the top right corner, labelled 'Hazard', that is relevant to climate change. The frequency and intensity of heat waves, cold waves, droughts, floods, tornadoes, etc., are likely to change in the future, altering our risk. Of course, vulnerability changes over time as well, due to a host of socio-economic and environmental factors. While there are other factors that affect the vulnerability of a given society, in this chapter we concentrate on the impacts of climate change that are likely to be revealed largely through changes in the pattern, severity and frequency of climate-related natural disasters.
Working Group I of the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that the globally averaged surface