Natural Disasters, International Institutions, and Shared Responsibilities

A brief introduction to climate change and natural disasters

Some serious consequences of climate change, like sea level rise and loss of biodiversity, are taking place gradually and not immediately felt by the majority of people. The increase in extreme weather events, however, is not one of those slow consequences. Climate change is already causing more frequent and more severe floods, droughts, heat waves, and storms all over the world, affecting over 200 million people annually. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction explains that such disasters disproportionally affect people who are already in vulnerable positions, for example refugees and women and children living in poverty, and are a huge setback to sustainable development. Because of their noticeable and shocking impact, natural disasters are a big topic of discussion in international climate politics. On the picture above, 12 year old Timoci Naulusala is being congratulated by world leaders after speaking at the COP23 in Bonn. Timocis home and entire village in Fiji were destroyed by a tropical cyclone, which according to a majority of climate scientists are becoming more frequent and more destructive as the surface ocean warms and atmospheric moisture increases. On top of that, rising sea levels lead to more floods that threaten the livelihoods of people from small island states like Fiji. Timocis story brought attention to the threat of climate change to both current and future generations, and it was a plea for stronger political action against climate change. But who is responsible for preventing these disasters and protecting the most vulnerable? How are disasters governed internationally? In this blog post, I aim to briefly explore these questions through a focus on international environmental institutions.

Which actors play a role? 

Natural disasters are a complicated problem and require different approaches in different areas around the world. In some areas awareness of disaster risk is much higher than in others, and the financial capacity to deal with disasters also differs significantly. Simply put, there are two categories of actors involved in the preparation for and dealing with disasters: states and non-state actors. The states have primary responsibility in protecting their population, through national government action as well as local actors. However, serious natural disasters often cross borders because they affect multiple countries at once, and collaboration is essential both bilaterally and on an international scale.

Different UN agencies provide supplies and aid to countries where disaster has struck. 
The need for international collaboration leads to a multitude of actors involved in the different stages of a disaster, which UC Berkeley professor on international relations and the environment Kate O’Neill categorises as international organizations, the global environmental movement, the corporate sector, and expert groups. This network graph shows the most important actors in each category (the coloured nodes), and the relationships between them (the arrows):


The green nodes are international organisations, with dark green meaning an organisation and light green an international agreement. Blue are expert groups, with blue-green indicating an IO that functions as an expert group. Pink are nation states, with four example states presented to show their interconnectedness in the issue area (these states are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events). Purple are examples of private sector companies, with the darkest purple those responsible for a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions, medium those who may profit from relief and adaptation efforts, and light purple those local companies negatively affected by extreme weather events. Finally the yellow-orange shades are different NGOs, with yellow focusing on disaster relief, light orange on adaptation, and dark orange on mitigating climate change. The bigger nodes are more prominent in the international field around extreme weather events. Grey arrows represent a directional relationship of contribution, which can include funds, knowledge, collaboration or co-founding. Red edges represent directed criticisms or imposed restrictions. 

We know that extreme weather events and climate change are causally related. From this graph we can learn that the issues are also intricately interlinked through international relationships between different actors. Some of the actors in the graph focus on adapting to extreme weather events, such as the Sendai Framework and the Asia Pacific Adaptation Network, and some are centred around the mitigation of climate change such as the IPCC and XR (Extinction Rebellion). Other actors actually contribute to the cause of climate change, like the big corporations as well as powerful states like the US and China. However, few actors actually combine both disaster relief and climate change within their mandate or mission. This is one of the main complexities in the regulation of disasters. 

Dual tracks for institutions

International institutions thus take one of two directions to prevent natural disasters from causing damage and victims. The first way is through mitigation: stopping the increase in natural disasters around the world by fighting the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. The most important institution doing this is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with the 2015 Paris Agreement as its most recent legally binding treaty. The second way is adaptation to disaster risk by increasing preparedness and resilience, which is the mission of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). The UNDRR is responsible for the execution of the 2015 Sendai Framework, which was endorsed by the UN and aims to increase international cooperation but is not legally binding like the Paris Agreement. Lets take a look at the two institutions side by side:

There are a few key differences between these dual regimes of mitigation and adaptation, first of all that the Paris Agreement is legally binding while the Sendai Framework is not. Both regimes do rely on the voluntary commitments of member states, as the Paris Agreement requires states to submit NDCs which are not internationally regulated. However, the NDCs and the Paris Agreement itself create fierce political pressure on governments to comply, and a legal precedent is even being set by the global environmental movement taking governments to court, for example in the Urgenda Foundation v. Kingdom of the Netherlands case. The Sendai Framework on the other hand requires voluntary funding contributions and commitments from states to monitor, evaluate, and share their disaster strategies. Governments do not face as much pressure to comply because relatively little attention is paid to the disaster risk reduction regime in international politics, media, and civil society, which is a second significant difference between the two regimes. Finally, funding committed to the two regimes is also distinct with the Paris Agreement having a Financial Mechanism that member states pledge contributions to, and the Sendai Framework having a much looser structure where most states do not pledge funds in advance.

Complexity and effectiveness

The connection between the mitigation of and adaptation to natural disasters is made by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement and the Sendai Framework, as well as the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development and an annual High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development for review and follow-up. However, the direct links between the two regimes are vague, and this makes the governing of natural disasters more complex. Alter & Meunier and Oberthür & Gehring examine some of the negative consequences of having multiple organisations govern aspects of one problem, instead of creating a single overarching organisation which could govern both the mitigation and the adaptation of disasters. Complexity creates ambiguity around rules, making it more difficult for international law to be applied. It becomes less clear who is responsible for what aspect of governing disasters, which is really important in securing funding. It also becomes more confusing for governments what they should be doing, and for smaller and poorer states it is hard to keep up with the different regimes as they may lack staff and funding. With multiple organisations, mobilising the transfer of resources from the countries in the richer Global North to the Global South becomes less efficient. Those resources are not just monetary, but involve knowledge, practical expertise, and technology that are crucial both to predict and prevent disasters and to make progress in reducing GHG emissions. This also goes for the collection of data and analysis, as well as distributing the findings from that data, which end up scattered across the regimes and contain gaps. The Sendai Framework is the lesser-known institution of the two and is more hindered in its effectiveness by missing funds and knowledge, but why is that?

The participation problem of the Sendai Framework 

An international institution like the Sendai Framework relies on its member states. Without their commitment and active participation, the institution will struggle to achieve its mandate, which for the Sendai Framework is reducing the impact of disasters and increasing risk preparedness and international cooperation. This video introduces some of the issues around the participation of states in the UNDRR and the Sendai Framework: 

So, we know that the Sendai Framework is endorsed by the UN and all UN states are thus members. However, not all members are equally committed to disaster risk reduction, which is significant because the Framework relies on voluntary reporting and funding commitments. For funding, only one state pledged a concrete amount from the start Japan, where the Sendai Framework was signed (the city Sendai suffered catastrophic damage from the 2011 tsunami). The UN Special Representative for disaster risk reduction Mami Mizutori has called attention to the need for greater and more direct funding to the Framework especially to aid small island developing states and least developed countries. Disaster resilience building requires human and material resources as well as data, which many of the countries most vulnerable to disasters do not currently possess. For the same reasons, timely and comprehensive reporting is also a challenge for these states, but the reporting gap goes further than just them. All member states are supposed to submit national targets and disaster risk reduction plans to the Sendai Framework Monitor, but in 2020, after five years, 94 out of the 195 states had not even started creating their plans.

Mami Mizutori as Special Representative, advocating for greater international cooperation on disaster risk reduction.

Sprinz and Vaahtoranta explain that state motivations to be active participants in an environmental regime are affected by their domestic context. Being vulnerable to an environmental problem, in the case of the Sendai Framework a natural disaster, leads to higher motivation because the state wants to reduce its vulnerability. At the same time, the state aims to minimise the cost of disaster risk reduction, so it balances the two factors. This results in some states becoming draggers as mentioned in the video, because for them participating in the regime is costly while they are not very vulnerable to disasters. Others are bystanders because of their low vulnerability to disasters and at the same time low costs due to a high level economic development. Lobbying by industries that benefit from the status quo, such as heavy polluters or those who currently profit from weak state response to disasters, can further decrease a states motivation. 

Bernauer et al. think that the way an institution like the Sendai Framework is designed affects state participation, and they list design elements conductive to participation. Some of these are too limited in the Sendai Framework, particularly positive incentives of financial and technical assistance which could encourage developing countries to participate more actively in reporting. Stating targets more clearly, monitoring and enforcing them is sometimes thought to decrease participation in an agreement, but Bernauer et al. found that this is not the case. Thus the Sendai Framework being non-binding and based on voluntary targets is not necessary for ensuring state participation, and furthermore makes it less effective in fulfilling its mandate. One final issue linked to participation is the relatively narrow scope of the Sendai Framework, as it focuses on adaptation to risk and distributing best practices.

Koremenos et al. explain that in a regime with a wider scope, states with diverging interests can find more opportunities for agreement and mutually beneficial exchanges. Distributional obstacles can also be overcome more easily. But because the scope of the disaster risk reduction regime does not include climate change as the cause of increased disasters, it is also not possible for states to negotiate using different aspects of emissions reduction and responsibilities, in the way that they can and do in the Paris Agreement. With only a weak link between the climate change and disaster risk reduction regimes, states feel less responsible and less interested to commit, and media attention is also limited.

Some last reflections

Disasters like the one young Timoci Naulusala experienced receive a lot of attention in the emissions reduction regime and contributed to the creation of the Paris Agreement. Of course, it is really important to combat climate change and stop the increase in natural disasters that harms millions of people around the world. However, from the dual regimes of mitigation and adaptation the adaptation side of these frequent disasters is often forgotten. The main international agreement, the Sendai Framework, suffers from a lack of funding and active participation, related to its narrow scope, non-binding nature, and the weak motivations of those member states not directly affected by disasters. States who have historically been most responsible for GHG emissions that cause climate change are indirectly also responsible for the increased disasters taking place now, but this responsibility is not seen in the disaster risk reduction regime. Mitigation and adaptation of the harmful effects of climate change should go hand in hand, and all states should feel responsible for both, because we will not be able to mitigate climate change fully in the next few decades and without adaptation disasters will inevitably hurt more vulnerable people like Timoci.