Mexico's storms: Should governments put emphasis on climate change prevention?

The destruction from the severe weather double whammy that pounded Mexico sparks questions about whether there could've been more advance preparations.

By , Staff writer

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    Residents make sandbags to help out their neighbors who were flooded out in Chili, N.M., about 5 miles north of Española, Sept. 18, 2013.
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A week after twin storms pounded Mexico's Pacific and Gulf coasts, questions are swirling as to how the floods, landslides and overall devastation from the rains could have been prevented.

Many point to the need for better advance planning: flood prevention, building-code enforcement, and political capital to plan for the long term, among other measures that may have helped curb the damage and minimize the still-climbing death toll.

"It's not surprising. We develop in unbuildable areas. We build with garbage and we design without planning," Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez, a law professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, wrote in the Mexican daily Reforma.

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“Prevention [in Mexico] is moving things to the second floor so they don’t get flooded out,” says Gerardo Priego, previously a gubernatorial candidate in Tabasco for the right-leaning National Action Party.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced this week that the death toll from tropical storm Ingrid and hurricane Manuel had reached about 115 people. The Interior Ministry said Monday that that number could climb as high as 200 deaths, and 1.5 million homes have been damaged to some extent, reports Agence France-Presse. The government estimates 29 of Mexico’s 31 states have experienced some form of damage – including landslides and floods – due to the hurricane double whammy, Reuters reports.

This was some of the worst rains Mexico experienced in decades.

But prevention shouldn’t be limited to urban planning and flood insurance, according to an initiative launched Tuesday by seven countries on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly and chaired by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón.

The New Climate Economy, part of The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, aims to address how to link economic incentives with environmental responsibility and climate change prevention, in hopes of addressing some of the devastating effects of climate change worldwide.

The project will…engage directly with finance ministries, business leaders, city mayors, and major investors to analyze how economic decisions affecting climate change are being made, and to inform its conclusions on how climate risks and opportunities can better be taken into account in policy and investment.

“Most of the time you hear consequences of climate change in the future,” Mr. Calderón told The Christian Science Monitor. He cited economic tools like discount rates that play into how much is invested in environmental policy today, but may not have a payoff for a century.

“We are already paying very high costs due to the consequences of climate change,” Calderón says, referring to investment during his time in office, from 2006 to 2012, and the costs of Ingrid and Manuel in Mexico today. He says climate change is a phenomenon “without borders.”

“But the point is we are paying [the] consequences … from our own lack of actions,” says Calderón, who passed Mexico's first climate change law before leaving office. Natural disasters often hurt the poor disproportionately, exacerbating inequality and creating greater challenges for growing economies, he says.

A median 65 percent of Latin Americans see climate change as a major threat to their country, according to the Pew Research Center. That compares to a median 54 percent in countries worldwide and 40 percent who see climate change as a big threat in the United States. 

In a written statement introducing The New Climate Economy, Calderón and Nicholas Stern, who is co-chairman of the commission and a professor of economics at the London School of Economics, wrote:

In recent years, a series of extreme weather events - including Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey, floods in China, and droughts in the American Midwest, Russia, and many developing countries - have caused immense damage. Last week, Mexico experienced simultaneous hurricanes in the Pacific and in the Gulf of Mexico that devastated towns and cities in their path. Climate change will be a major driver of such events, and we risk much worse.

This puts a new debate center stage: how to reconcile increased action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with strong economic growth.

It is a debate that is already mired in controversy. As most countries have started making serious investments in renewable energy, and many are implementing carbon prices and regulations, critics complain that such policies may undermine growth. With the global economy still recovering from the 2008 financial crash, higher energy costs – not yet fully offset by greater energy efficiency – are worrying business and political leaders

Next September, the $9 million study will be released with recommendations to government, business, and financial leaders worldwide on how to work toward achieving economic growth and development with an eye toward climate change prevention and lower-carbon output. The research will be conducted by research institutes on five continents.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is one of the seven world leaders behind the commission, along with high-level representatives from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Korea, Norway, Sweden, and Britain. “Our commitment stems from two facts. One, we have been experiencing devastating climate change-driven impacts,” Mr. Santos said at the project launch.

“And two, we are fully aware that our efforts in poverty eradication and development will be shortlived unless we tackle the climate change challenge,” Santos said.

Estimates of the financial costs of Mexico’s rains and flooding this month are just starting to be calculated, with the Mexican Congress announcing this week that it would need to recast its 2014 budget due to postdisaster recovery costs, Reuters reports.

The government earlier this month said it aimed to run a budget deficit this year and next as it forges ahead with spending on infrastructure. It must now find additional funds to repair roads and infrastructure hammered by the storms.

Pena Nieto said Mexico's Congress "will absolutely have to adjust" the federal budget in light of the mounting damage caused by Tropical Storm Ingrid and Hurricane Manuel over the past week.

He did not specify new funding levels beyond the roughly 12 billion Mexican pesos ($938.97 million) available in emergency funding.

In the meantime, Mexico continues to focus on the present: the 800,000 who reported power loss across the country, the estimated 59,000 evacuated from their homes, the 72 damaged roads and transportation arteries, and the scores of people still missing. 

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