'It's connected to you': Shared causes fuel surge in floods, wildfires, deforestation

A major driver of Amazon deforestation in Brazil is expansion of soybean fields.
A major driver of Amazon deforestation in Brazil is expansion of soybean fields.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - When powerful Cyclone Amphan roared into the low-lying coastal Sundarbans region of Bangladesh and India last year, families trying to stay safe faced a dilemma.

Many storm shelters were already occupied by quarantined migrant workers who had returned home as the Covid-19 pandemic shut their workplaces, leaving local people a choice between facing the cyclone at home or braving the virus in shelters.

From Arctic heat and wildfires to Texas cold-weather power outages and Amazon deforestation, threats around the world that may seem unrelated are increasingly compounding each other, United Nations researchers said in a report released on Wednesday (Sept 8).

The underlying causes of the rising risks - from climate change to lack of cooperation among governments and ignoring the value of nature in economic decision-making - are common across many of them, researchers said.

For instance, putting a price on timber but not on the services forests provide when left standing to absorb carbon and regulate rainfall helps drive everything from climate change to species extinctions, droughts and pandemics, the report noted.

Reworking how economic benefits are measured could help reduce a wide swathe of disaster risks, said Dr Jack O'Connor, a senior scientist at the United Nations University's Institute for Environment and Human Security.

"The disaster is the tip of the iceberg and there's a whole mass of things behind it. And the base of the iceberg is the same thing shared across all the events," Dr O'Connor, a lead author of the report, said.

Many everyday individual choices, like eating a chicken sandwich for lunch, have direct links to threats ranging from forest and species loss to climate change, researchers noted.

A major driver of Amazon deforestation in Brazil is expansion of soybean fields - and 77 per cent of the soy grown goes to feed animals, especially chickens, the report noted.

With meat-eating on the rise around the world, particularly in Europe and China, the researchers wrote that even when not directly produced in the Amazon, "through the interconnections of global supply chains, meat consumption is the root cause of the destruction of the Amazon".

Dr O'Connor, an Australian ecologist, said researchers hoped that looking at fast-surging disasters as something other than unconnected crises would drive stronger action on them.

"They're happening more frequently, all over the world, and when you see them in the news every day you can get a little overwhelmed," he said. "We're saying, 'This is not just a fire in Brazil. It's connected to you and to other disasters.'"

Busy governments

Recognising the linkages between risks - and their common drivers - remains a challenge for most individuals and governments, said Ms Mami Mizutori, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction.

As the pace of threats picks up, many governments are too busy responding to current crises to work on avoiding future ones, and those that try often focus on just the most serious local risk, whether it is a flood, pandemic or fire, she said.

Budgets and expertise are also limited, she added, handicapping efforts to deepen understanding of interconnected risks and join up efforts to reduce them.

Without acknowledging that biodiversity loss threatens to ignite future pandemics, "no matter how much you make your hospital system resilient or develop better vaccines or get better prepared, you won't prevent" health crises, she said.

"Avoiding biodiversity losses is not only about making sure that animal doesn't go extinct. It really directly relates to our lives and livelihoods," she said in a phone interview.

While effectively reducing risks depends on recognising and tackling the root causes of disasters, that is proving hard in practice, researchers admitted.

Stronger international cooperation, for instance, could supercharge responses to pandemics, climate change or nature loss. But the Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated how crises often spur competition among governments, researchers said.

Still, there are signs of progress. The World Health Organisation last week launched a new global hub to boost collection and sharing of pandemic and epidemic intelligence.

G-20 countries and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, meanwhile, plan to set a minimum global corporate tax rate of 15 per cent, to limit tax avoidance and provide more government revenue to address growing challenges.

Face complexity

Helping government leaders - and others - understand that the growing drumbeat of disasters in the headlines is not about individual crises but a symptom of wider structural problems is crucial to reducing those threats, the report noted.

"The way we understand and perceive risks influences our ability to respond to them," it said.

"Since the risks associated with these disastrous events are interconnected, thinking in fragmented, isolated and insular ways is no longer tenable."

Berlin-based Dr O'Connor said Germany's catastrophic floods in July would likely spur efforts there to improve flood prevention infrastructure and early warning systems.

But "if we don't look at why there was such an extreme event in the first place, it won't matter how well we prepare", as climate change drives wilder weather, he warned.

"Politicians tend to shy away from tackling these very complex issues. But we're getting to the stage where we can't afford to do that anymore," he added.