Impact Of Climate Change Leaves Japan Preparing For Different Kinds Of Disasters

The island nation of Japan famously lies upon the Pacific Ring of Fire and deals with regular earthquakes along with volcanic activity born from shifts along the geological fault line. Japan has rapidly developed methods to withstand all but the strongest of quakes, of which it has close to 1500 annually. Infrastructure must pass a series of strict safety standards which prevent a catastrophic collapse in the event of an earthquake in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. In the domain of disaster prevention and management, the resilient Japanese people have become experts.

However, over recent months the country has had to contend with different kinds of disasters which experts believe will become more common as a result of a changing global climate. On the back of a deadly heatwave in July, Japan also experienced severe flooding and rainfall in the west of the island of Honshu. Last week Typhoon Jebi landed in Osaka leaving a trail of destruction while the northern island of Hokkaido was struck by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake. The collective fallout for these disasters has carried a great human cost, with as many as 200 deaths in the flooding alone per Reuters, as well as much infrastructure damage. While Japan is no stranger to natural disasters in general, the trend that is worrying experts is the increased occurrence of extreme weather events, as opposed to the more familiar earthquakes and accompanying tsunamis.

These weather-based tragedies have many concerned about possible future impacts of flooding in the region, particularly in major cities. Professor of Disaster Engineering at the University of Tokyo Toshikata Katada told Reuters that “Japan’s major metropolitan areas are, in a way, in a state of national crisis.” As 1.5 million Tokyo residents live below sea level and near the Arakawa river, their homes are particularly susceptible to flooding. Meanwhile, the head of the Japan Riverfront Research Center, Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, argues that if the 1000-millimetre rainfall seen in the flooding in western Japan was to happen in Tokyo it would cause extensive damage. In fact, these experts envision as many as 5 million needing to be evacuated and many thousands of lives at risk should such an event occur, Reuters reports. The Japan Society of Civil Engineers predict a similar 2000 deaths and 62 trillion-yen (US$550 billion) of destruction.

Of further concern is how well-equipped Japan’s infrastructure is to hold up to severe winds caused by the events such as Typhoon Jebi. The significant Kansai airport in Osaka has faced a test of its resilience in recent events but it is one which has strained the airport and economy. The airport rests in the middle of Osaka Bay and as such is vulnerable to weather events such as the typhoon. The airport itself faced winds that grounded flights, caused flooding and most importantly damaged the bridge connecting it to the mainland. This damage was caused when a tanker collided with the bridge after the winds set it on a collision course. This left around 3000 passengers stranded on the island awaiting alternative transport, reports SBS News. While repair work has already begun on the bridge, the airport is operating at a significantly reduced capacity, only servicing 88 flights on September 12th as opposed to the 480 daily before the typhoon, per the Japan Times. Apart from the repair costs, concerns over the effects of tourism are increasing as the airport is responsible for 22 million international passengers and 5.3 trillion-yen (US$47 billion) worth of exports, per Reuters. The longer the airport operates at reduced capacity, the more damage it may continue to do to Japan’s economy. Furthermore, with the 2020 Olympics approaching and to be held in Tokyo, the country is aware of the problem that such natural disasters could pose.

Nowhere is the need for infrastructure to combat the increasing risk weather-related events more recognized than Japan itself. The transport ministry has requested a 19% increase for next year’s budget in order to reinforce their levee infrastructure and evacuation preparedness reports the Japan Times. Meanwhile, Satoshi Fujii, an advisor to PM Shinzo Abe, has spoken of the need for action saying that the problem “…need(s) to be taken care of as soon as possible.” While these steps are important and Japan’s persistence in the face of repeated disasters is admirable they are not the only method to combat these natural disasters, though of course a necessary one. Though the recent events have not yet been subject to much scientific analysis it seems that the rapid onset of extreme weather is indicative of the kinds of meteorological shifts predicted to be a result of increasing global atmospheric climate change.

Japan’s heatwave, for example, coincided with incidents of increased temperatures across the world from wildfires in Greece and Sweden to heatwaves across Canada, ABC News reports. Temperatures have risen on a global scale since the industrial revolution by 1 degree Celsius and while countries promised to limit this increase to “well below” 2 degrees, investments in oil and gas have risen per the Economist. This rise in temperatures not only creates more extreme global heat but also has been argued to increase the severity of all-weather events from winds to rain. This at least anecdotally has played out to the detriment of Japan, which continues to bear the brunt of more than its fair share of natural disasters.

The increasing disdain in developed countries for global environmental regulations matches the increasing urgency that they be enforced. The Paris Agreement has faced challenges as Donald Trump’s skepticism has led to the US announcing their pending withdrawal from their commitment. While this may not necessarily go through, as the US is forced to wait until 2020 to officially pull out, it weakens the regime as it sets a poor precedent and prevents the US from acting as a diplomatic leader in this space at least until the end of the Trump administration. While China has somewhat stepped in to fill the void, the more proactive action on these targets, the more effective they become.

Having seen first-hand what the impacts of climate change may be for the world and being in the position of a wealthy and diplomatically influential country, Japan has a chance to make a difference in this area. While for now implementing mitigation measures may be a priority, to address these events on the international stage, Japan has a uniquely insightful position and platform to advocate for better climate management. While tiny Pacific island nations may face the most existential threat from climate change, Japan has the political clout to bring this issue into the forefront as well as the necessary motivation. Japan has long contended with earthquakes against which it could do naught but brace for impact; here they have a real chance to address the root of weather-based disasters for the betterment of the whole global community.

Ethan Beringen