Our world today is facing an unprecedented level of extreme events impacting people and nature, evident in the ever-increasing frequency of severe weather events, epidemics and human-made disasters. In 2020/2021, the world witnessed a number of record-breaking disasters that showed us clearer than ever before how interconnected we are, for better or worse.
2021 Executive Summary
Society will likely remember most of these disasters as tragic, but largely isolated events that affected certain parts of the world for a period of time. This report explains that these events are only the tip of the iceberg, by highlighting how these events are interconnected with each other, with other larger processes, as well as with our action or inaction. They can lead to future disasters or will worsen existing problems such as biodiversity loss or poverty.
The report analyses 10 interconnected disasters that took place in 2020/2021. They were selected for their notoriety and representation of larger global issues, which have changed or will change our lives across the world:
In 2020 alone, an area of the Amazon forest burnt down that was larger than Fiji. While fire is often a natural process to manage vegetation, 9 out of 10 of the Amazon fires in 2020 were intentionally set to convert tropical rainforest into commercially used land.
In 2020, the Arctic had the second-highest air temperatures and second-lowest area of sea ice coverage on record. Temperatures reached 38.0°C in Verkhoyansk, provisionally the highest known temperature anywhere north of the Arctic Circle.
On 4 August 2020, more than 200 people lost their lives and more than 6,000 were injured when a massive explosion of ammonium nitrate destroyed much of the port area of Beirut.
From October to November 2020, 9 storms in 7 weeks caused widespread flooding in central Viet Nam. As a result, a total of 7.7 million people were affected by the disruption to basic services and 291 people lost their lives.
Chinese Paddlefish have been around for an estimated 200 million years, but were declared extinct in 2020. While overfishing and pollution played an accelerating role, much of its demise can be attributed to the multiple dam constructions on the Yangtze River.
Beginning in late 2019, the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread among the world population, infecting and killing millions of people, disrupting social life, travel, business and education across the globe.
On 20 May 2020, Super Cyclone Amphan hit the Sundarbans region bordering India and Bangladesh as a Category 5 storm, with wind speeds over 260 km/h, killing over 100 people and displacing over 4.9 million.
Between 2019 and 2021, swarms of desert locusts formed and spread across 23 countries on multiple continents, including Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya. They devoured their weight in vegetation every day. One mega-swarm alone, measured in Kenya in 2020, was the size of the country of Luxembourg.
During summer 2020, around 2,300 km of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia was affected by a record mass bleaching event where corals expel their algae and turn white. Over 25% of the Great Barrier Reef suffered severe bleaching, seriously threatening them with extinction.
From 11 to 20 February 2021, a powerful cold wave swept across North America. In Texas, the freezing temperatures killed at least 210 people and caused the power grid to fail, leaving 3.5 million people without electricity and heat.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which was facilitated or amplified by our hyper-connected society, demonstrated in clearest form possible that there are no borders or boundaries that can contain disasters. While this interconnectivity has been globally recognized for COVID-19, it equally applies to many other large-scale disasters which took place in 2020/2021.
Disasters are interconnected
One example of this interconnectivity is the link between the Arctic heatwave and the Texas cold wave. In 2020, the Arctic experienced the second-highest air temperatures and second-lowest amount of sea ice coverage on record. These changes have impacts on the climate outside of the Arctic and can lead to intense cold spells and heatwaves in Europe and North America, as evidenced by the Texas cold wave in February 2021. During 86 hours, in temperatures below freezing in a state that is used to year-round warm weather, around 4 million people were without electricity as the power grid froze up, leading to deaths of 210 people. The cold spell was influenced by increasing temperatures in the Arctic which destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing it to move southward into North America. If greenhouse gas emissions are continued to be released at the current level, the Arctic will warm by 4°C year-round by 2050 and the cold wave in Texas will only be the beginning of more similar climate shocks.
Interconnections of disasters are not limited to those between faraway locations; they can also compound each other as happened with the COVID-19 pandemic and Cyclone Amphan in the border region of India and Bangladesh. In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without income options, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine. On 20 May 2020, super cyclone Amphan hit the region causing over 100 fatalities, damages in excess of $13 billion and displacing 4.9 million people. Many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided evacuating to shelters. While the pandemic made it more difficult to prepare for the cyclone, the cyclone in turn also worsened the conditions for pandemic response in its aftermath, as health centres were destroyed and COVID-19 cases spiked in some areas. The pandemic also influenced response capacities to the desert locust outbreak, for example by disrupting supply chains for pesticides. As the number of disasters per year continues to rise, co-occurring disasters will become much more frequent.
Disasters can be connected to individual and collective human behaviour
A high global demand for meat means that there is also a high demand for animal fodder, such as soy, which requires large plots of farmland. Combined with local political decisions and limited monitoring and enforcement, this has led to a record rate of deforestation and wildfires in the Amazon. Through the interconnections of global supply chains, meat consumption is one of the root causes contributing to the destruction of the Amazon. The impacts of forest fires and widespread deforestation are already felt globally as they exacerbate climate change and threaten biodiversity. Therefore the individual decision to eat meat and poultry can contribute to disaster risks.
Disasters share the same root causes
Root causes are the underlying factors that create conditions for disasters to occur. If we think of an event such as the Texas cold wave as an iceberg, the unusually freezing temperatures that led to power outages and suffering were just the tip of this iceberg. However, this tip is how we perceive disasters, and this is where the media and discussions usually tend to focus on. Far below the tip, there are deeper structures that allowed the disaster to occur, and they are surprisingly similar for many seemingly unrelated events. After identifying sets of root causes for each event, the three most commonly identified root causes shared between these ten events are human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management and under-valuing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making. Human-induced greenhouse gas emissions were one of the reasons why Texas experienced the freezing temperatures to begin with, but they also contribute to the formation of cyclones such as Amphan or the Arctic heatwave, for example – entirely different disasters in entirely different parts of the world. Insufficient disaster risk management led to the large impacts of the Texas cold wave, where there was inadequate cold weather protection in place even though similar cold waves had already disrupted the delivery of electricity in 1989 and 2011, and there had been warnings of another cold winter. This same root cause also played a role in other events such as the Beirut explosion or the desert locust outbreak.
Far below the tip, there are deeper structures that allowed the disaster to occur, and they are surprisingly similar for many seemingly unrelated events.
Disasters should no longer be viewed in isolation
When we recognize common root causes and emerging risks resulting from disasters like these and become aware of the interconnectivity between them, we will understand them better. This will also enable us to take collective actions at the global level that will change the larger, systemic processes behind them and ideally prevent similar events from occurring in the future.
Interconnected root causes call for interconnected solutions
As the interconnected nature of events and their underlying root causes are increasingly creating emerging risks at all scales, it is time to recognize the shortcomings of fragmented responses. Ideally, the solutions we implement will have benefits across different dimensions. Cutting our greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, could eventually prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards linked to atmosphere and ocean warming (such as the Central Viet Nam floods, driven by a series of tropical storms and cyclones), thus reducing risk in vulnerable areas. Additionally, slowing down and ultimately holding climate change is beneficial for biodiversity and ecosystems as it gives more time for ecosystems and species to adapt to changing conditions. This would not only help to protect biodiversity, for example in the Great Barrier Reef, but would also allow us to maintain the benefits a healthy reef provides to society such as coastal protection, recreational value and fish for consumption. These types of solutions use interconnectivity to our advantage to reduce risks and the severity of impacts, and they also help to avoid a cascade of disastrous events and therefore the emerging risks they contribute to.
Solutions that address the tip of the iceberg rather than the underlying root causes are not only bound to be less efficient, but they also bring with them additional risks. Actions designed to reduce risk in one system can have negative impacts on another. For example, one solution to reduce disaster risk is to build sea walls or river dams that come with negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem health. A better solution would be to integrate ecosystem-based measures along with built infrastructure that can help reduce disaster risk, while also protecting biodiversity. Addressing any potential trade-offs is important to ensure that implemented solutions don’t become part of a further problem.
We as individuals can be part of the solution
While many of the solutions require actions on international, national or regional scale, individual actions or inactions also matter. Because disasters can be connected to individual and collective human behaviour, we can be part of the solution if we take actions, which support solutions or avoid further risk creation. We can be agents of change if we learn about risks and adjust our own behaviours at the individual level, while also demanding change and action from the society we live in.