Image: Wikimedia Commons / Metropolitan
Image: Metropolitan Transport Authority / Wikimedia Commons

Disaster mitigation in the face of climate uncertainty

As climate change continues to endanger human life, stronger mitigation policies could help scale back the damage. 

Last year, the summer heat was fatal, with over 4500 recorded deaths linked to the record-breaking temperatures. This past summer, Brits rushed with slightly less apprehension to the beaches as temperatures soared into the 30s. Climate-related fatalities persisted, however, though this time heavy rainfall was the culprit. October’s Storm Babet was severe, leading to the wettest day on record for Angus, a Scottish county. Across the UK, at least seven deaths were linked to the subsequent flooding. December has continued to bring heavy rainfall, with Storms Elin and Fergus. 

The casualties were significant 

In North America, a different kind of elemental threat has dominated the headlines – fire. Wildfires raged across the region in 2023 at a record-breaking scale. The damage spanned at least eight US states, Mexico, and Canada. As reported by ABC News, over 42 million acres of Canadian land has burned this year, with wildfires fuelled by vast forests, high temperatures, and drier conditions. For many of us outside the region, it was the image of New York’s skies, turned orange by ash obscuring the sun, that communicated the sheer scale of the situation. The casualties were significant. 

The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert described the Maui wildfires, which killed over 100 people, as an “unnatural disaster.” Whether in the US or here in the UK, extreme weather events are getting more frequent and more deadly due to climate change. Alongside addressing global warming, reducing climate-related fatalities is crucial.  

…many families warned of flooding after the flood had already occurred

For the UK, this means better flood preparation. Earlier this year, Unearthed reported that thousands of flood defences were deemed to be in poor condition. That same article highlighted failings of communication, with many families warned of flooding after the flood had already occurred. An improved approach to flood defences is needed – a sentiment echoed by Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer as Storm Babet swept across the country in October. Steve Reed, the Shadow Environment Secretary, went further by accusing the Conservative government of a “sticking plaster” approach to flood mitigation, which has left communities devastated. 

Efforts are being made to reduce the risks posed by extreme weather – Unearthed noted that the majority of the UK’s flood defences are up to scratch. However, the rising risk of extreme weather calls for a proportionate increase in protection. Instead, spending cuts mean that 40% fewer homes than planned will benefit from increased flood protection. A familiar foe, inflation, is to blame. 

Most fires begin with human action

The US faces different challenges, particularly as humans have a more direct influence on wildfires than on floods. Although climate change plays a role in the increased incidence of wildfires, most fires begin with human action. Following the wildfires in Maui, the local authority have engaged in an ongoing lawsuit against a utility company. The county alleges that this company’s negligence contributed to the wildfires. This means that beyond responding to fires with policy, the focus should also be on providing wildfire protections for homes and continuing efforts in education.

With the historic global agreement at COP28, we appear closer than ever to slowing global warming. However, some commentators doubt that the 1.5°C  temperature target is still feasible. Furthermore, the COP28 agreement leaves countries open to set their own performance baselines and presents a vast scope for emission-reduction policy. As uncertain as the future outlook is, it is clear extreme weather events represent the most obvious near-term threat to human life arising from climate change. As such, more immediate policy changes that reduce fatalities and protect against the original causes of these events are perhaps just as important as ambitious, long-term climate goals.  


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