Natural disasters are increasing. The world’s poorest are left to fend for themselves.

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Members of the Red Cross help evacuate people living near the Bambito River in Panama on November 5. Due to the heavy rains caused by Hurricane Eta, the river flooded causing landslides. | Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images

Help is available, but it’s not getting to those who need it most.

More than 100 disasters — many of which were climate– and weather-related — have affected more than 50 million people around the world since March, when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. And though the money needed to protect against these disasters in the countries at risk exists, it’s not getting to those who need it most.

Those are the key findings of a new report from the Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) released Tuesday. In it, the authors make clear that while global attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic — for good reason — the climate crisis and the resulting disasters facing communities around the world are just as catastrophic.

“It’s a very, very serious crisis the world is facing currently,” IFRC Secretary General Jagan Chapagain said of the Covid-19 pandemic, speaking at a virtual news conference on November 17. But he noted that while there is some good news regarding the possibility of a vaccine for Covid-19, “unfortunately, there is no vaccine for climate change.”


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A member of the Red Cross wades through a flooded street due to the heavy rains caused by Hurricane Eta in Guatemala City, on November 5.

The IFRC report, titled “World Disasters Report 2020: Come Heat or High Water,” uses what’s known as “extreme event attribution” to show that over the past 10 years, climate– and weather-related disasters such as storms, floods, and heat waves have impacted 1.7 billion people. Over that same period, an additional 410,000 lives were lost, the majority of which were in lower- or middle-income countries.

Extreme event attribution is an emerging scientific field that has allowed scientists to study how human-induced climate change is connected to extreme weather events. As Vox’s Umair Irfan explains, in this field, “scientists construct models to evaluate the counterfactual of what would have happened in a certain event without climate change and compare it to observed results.”

And they have found that although global warming caused by fossil fuel emissions does not directly cause hurricanes or droughts, it is magnifying the risks and frequency of such events.

The authors of the IFRC report found that such catastrophes have been rising in number since the 1960s — and that a sharp increase of 35 percent has been recorded since the 1990s. The proportion of all disasters that can be attributed to climate change has also grown, from 76 percent in the 2000s to 83 percent in the 2010s.

Making matters worse, the report found that the world’s most vulnerable people aren’t getting the financial assistance they need to withstand such disasters, even though the funds they require exist.

The report’s authors argue that the speed at which governments and banks worldwide have developed economic stimulus packages is proof that funds can be assembled rapidly to meet existential threats. And they want to see governments mirror that energy when it comes to addressing the climate emergency.

A recent study, for instance, found that the money pledged globally for pandemic recovery thus far has surpassed $12 trillion. According to the IFRC, the stimulus model created during the pandemic would be a good model for governments to generate the $50 billion needed each year over the next 10 years to help 50 developing nations adjust to the worst impacts of climate change.

But they also warn that any money raised in the future can’t be distributed as aid has been to date: The report found that when it comes to receiving funding, the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are being left behind.

Why the countries most in need of climate change aid money aren’t getting it

Of the 20 countries considered most vulnerable to climate change and associated disasters, the IFRC found that none were in the top 20 countries receiving funding.

In climate science, vulnerability generally describes the likelihood that a country will experience negative impacts from storms and other extreme weather events. A community’s or country’s vulnerability can be measured in the long or short term, but it basically involves sensitivity to harm like natural disasters and the ability to adapt, or cope through processes like evacuation plans.

It’s also an issue of social protection. If homes are damaged, do people have funding available to make repairs? Do people have savings? Or do they need to rely on selling livestock and then have no means to make a living?

Somalia was ranked as the most vulnerable country in the IFRC’s report due to high levels of food insecurity and drought, but it only ranked 71st in per-person funding disbursements. None of the countries with the five highest disbursements had high or very high vulnerability scores, suggesting that more can be done to reach those most in need.

The main reason money isn’t flowing to where it is most needed is that, as IFRC’s senior analyst of humanitarian policy and project coordinator Kirsten Hagon told me, there is no framework for giving climate-related aid to countries that are seen as being unable to manage large influxes of capital.


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People affected by floods receive aid in Khartoum, Sudan, distributed by the Turkish Red Crescent, part of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), on September 20, 2020.

Donor countries give aid mostly to governments. This means that to receive assistance, countries must have governments able and willing to meet criteria set by donors, such as putting forth funding proposals and showing financial capability. People living in some of the most affected countries often do not have governments that can meet these criteria, making it difficult for them to be eligible to get international help.

The result, as Hagon told me, is that “the vast majority [of donor countries] think they will invest in safe countries and someone else will in the ones that are trickier and nobody does. And so you see examples like the Central African Republic where nothing’s being invested there.”

Although the outlook for disaster preparedness looks bleak, there are ways to save lives

According to the report, a few things can be done immediately to help people prepare for the increasing frequency of extreme events and prevent the loss of lives.

One of the biggest is to focus on disaster preparedness plans at the local, rather than national, level — ensuring that communities have individually tailored plans that include designated signals to communicate when it is time to evacuate and transportation to shelters that can keep them safe.

Because, as Hagon told me, “without those basic things that have to happen at the community level, that have to be designed with and by the community, then you’re not going to save lives.”


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Peter Maurer, left, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, examines renovations at an outpatient clinic damaged after a shelling attack in Ukraine, on November 6.

Donors must also work together to identify which countries are being left behind and then find a way to fill the gaps. They should also consider more flexible criteria that different countries can meet and be able to apply for funding.

The IFRC has also called on organizations and governments to examine their own practices — and says it will begin with itself, in order to make sure its work is “climate smart,” taking climate change impacts like warmer temperatures and sea level rise into account when doing its work.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown how international solidarity can actually work to address global crises and how massive amounts of money can be generated to save lives and invest in solutions. Now, climate experts hope a similar effort can be applied in a global mission to save lives and prevent deaths from climate-related disasters in the most vulnerable communities.

“We have to scale up all of the things that we already know, but we have to take them to another level because this is a crisis like none that’s ever really faced humanity before,” Hagon said.

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