The news sounds grim: mounting scientific evidence indicates climate change will lead to more frequent and intense extreme weather that affects larger areas and lasts longer. However, we can reduce the risk of weather-related disasters with a variety of measures, according to Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Chris Field.

Field discussed how to prepare for and adapt to a new climate at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston on Feb. 16. Field’s talk, “Weather Extremes: Coping With the Changing Risks,” was part of a symposium called “Media: Communicating Science, Uncertainty and Impact.”

Without adequate preparation for extreme weather, “even a modest event can trigger disaster,” Field said. Such preparation can be beneficial in multiple ways, Field added, calling climate change adaptation, disaster risk management and sustainable development “all same sides of the coin.”

While climate change's role in tornadoes and hurricanes remains unknown, Field said, the pattern is increasingly clear when it comes to heat waves, heavy rains and droughts. Field explained that the risk of climate-related disaster is tied to the overlap of weather, exposure and vulnerability of exposed people, ecosystems and investments. While this means that moderate extremes can lead to major disasters, especially in communities subjected to other stresses or in cases when extremes are repeated, it also means that prepared, resilient communities can manage even severe extremes.

During the past 30 years, economic losses from weather-related disasters have increased.  The available evidence points to increasing exposure (an increase in the amount and/or value of the assets in harm’s way) as the dominant cause of this trend. Economic losses, however, present a very incomplete picture of the true impacts of disasters, which include human and environmental components. While the majority of the economic losses from weather-related disasters are in developed world, the overwhelming majority of deaths are in developing countries.

Withstanding these increasingly frequent events will depend on a variety of disaster preparations, early warning systems and well-built infrastructure, Field said. A good strategy, Field said, should include a variety of actions such as communicating risk and transferring it through vehicles such as insurance, taking a multi-hazard management approach, linking local and global management, and taking an iterative approach as opposed to starting with a master plan.

The most effective options tend to produce both immediate benefits in sustainable development and long-term benefits in reduced vulnerability. Solutions that emphasize a portfolio of approaches, multi-hazard risk reduction and learning by doing offer many advantages for resilience and sustainability. Some options may require transformation, including questioning assumptions and paradigms, and stimulating innovation.