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Handling climate catastrophes in the face of coronavirus

Bayou River in Houston

The flooded Bayou River in Houston during Hurricane Harvey.

A lot can change in three months. As the year got underway, climate change was widely viewed as the most serious threat to global prosperity. The annual risk perception survey of the "2020 Global Risks Report," published by the World Economic Forum in partnership with Marsh & McLennan, saw climate-related risks dominate the rankings in terms of both likelihood and impact.

Since then, climate change has fallen down the agenda as COVID-19 has risen up it. Although decision-makers apparently were blindsided by a virus, it does not mean their assessment of the risk posed by climate change was wrong. If anything, the pandemic has increased the threat.

Increasing vulnerability to climate impacts

Consider extreme weather, ranked the No. 1 global risk in terms of likelihood. While the chance of catastrophic floods, heatwaves, storms or wildfires is unaffected by the pandemic, vulnerability to these events has increased massively. Governments, companies and households are stretched to a breaking point: They are all less able to cope and less able to recover.

The national progression of COVID-19 is increasingly familiar: Exponential growth in infections overburdens health services and a de facto or de jure national emergency follows, as governments seek to "flatten the curve" through restrictions on movement, triggering job losses and sharp economic contraction. Governments can only hope that they come out the other side before the next climate-related disaster hits.

Near misses and gathering storms

There have already been some notable near misses. Severe flooding in the United Kingdom preceded the country’s first domestic coronavirus infection by a matter of days. On the other side of the world, Australia’s worst bushfire season in history drew to a close just as the first cases of coronavirus emerged. What if COVID-19 had taken hold a month or two earlier, as attention and resources were focused on tackling the fires? How bad could things have become if the outbreak of a deadly respiratory disease coincided with a choking bushfire smog estimated to have killed hundreds and hospitalized thousands? 

Upfront investments in risk reduction will yield future dividends in the form of enhanced resilience.

In Europe, the first hurdle to get over will be the summer. Recent years have seen intense heatwaves that have contributed to wildfires and caused spikes in death rates, causing particular problems for the elderly and those with underlying respiratory and cardiovascular problems — precisely those most vulnerable to COVID-19. Hope among Europeans that the summer months will bring respite from the virus may be misplaced as it has spread rapidly in warmer countries.

India’s outbreak is further behind Europe’s and on current trajectories, may peak in June — the start of the monsoon season, which routinely brings extreme flooding. It remains to be seen how bad things will get in India, but a chronically underfunded health system, densely populated cities with many living in slums and the worst air pollution in the world (known to increase COVID-19 mortality) will not help. Disastrous floods would make things far harder.

Among U.S. states, spring floods pose the most immediate risk of a coronavirus-climate double whammy. The National Weather Service has forecasted that one-third of the country, including 128 million people, is at risk of flooding this spring. 

After spring comes the Atlantic hurricane season, with hurricane activity already forecast to be 40 percent above average, including eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes.

Now is the time to act

Against this backdrop, the United States government must remain keenly focused on the pandemic response while preparing for these looming disasters risks — this at a time when the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s workforce is already stretched

FEMA is taking proactive steps to confront these challenges. In addition to conducting its normal hurricane readiness activities, it has set up a second command center at its headquarters to focus on non-pandemic risks and is redeploying staff from existing disaster sites around the country.

The responsibility to prepare for dueling disasters goes beyond just FEMA. The entire U.S. government must be prepared to mobilize its resources should the need arise. A number of federal agencies fully engaged in the pandemic response must take similar actions as FEMA to ensure they will be capable of mustering additional assets. Agencies not currently responding to the pandemic need to dust off their response plans to ensure they also are ready for what could be a busy spring and summer. 

State and local governments must be prepared, too, as the federal government unlikely will be able to make up their shortfalls, especially given the potential 50-state impact of COVID-19.

The best way to ensure that agencies at all levels of government are ready is to test their response plans. Exercises normally would be happening now, but many have been disrupted by the coronavirus. FEMA recently canceled its National Level Exercise 2020, a major cybersecurity exercise involving federal, state and local agencies that had been scheduled for the spring. Although large-scale exercises may be infeasible, all government agencies should be looking for opportunities to test their plans before the next crisis strikes.

From one crisis to the next

The challenges faced by the U.S. show how even the best-resourced governments are struggling to prepare for the threat of a climate-coronavirus double punch. 

Consider Japan, which has developed one of the most advanced disaster risk management frameworks in the world, combining resilient infrastructure with early warning systems, well-drilled emergency plans and strong governance. Yet even Japan’s resilience looks set to be tested. With the typhoon season about to begin in May, a rebound in coronavirus cases has caused the government to declare a national emergency, and doctors warn the health system could collapse.

COVID-19’s resurgence in Japan could be a sign of things to come for many countries, as governments find themselves caught in a cycle of loosening and tightening lockdowns in response to recurrent outbreaks until we reach herd immunity or create a vaccine. Consequently, avoiding a climate-coronavirus double punch may require more than simply getting through the next storm or rainy season. Governments may need to navigate several more hazardous seasons with coronavirus lurking in the background. They should plan accordingly. 

Climate change and coronavirus demonstrate why governments must have a long-term commitment to risk management. Public sector leaders should ensure they have dynamic plans and strategies that guide their preparedness and response efforts not only for the current crises but also for evolving risks in the future.

This will require decisive action as well as sustained implementation, testing and constant reevaluation to be successful. Governments also must prioritize their budgets to mitigate these risks. Upfront investments in risk reduction will yield future dividends in the form of enhanced resilience. While these efforts will take significant time and resources, the cost of inaction is simply too great.

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