Earth Day highlights the need for climate action, but what role does human-caused climate change play in creating disasters? Science paints a nuanced picture, instructing us to focus on reducing vulnerabilities to weather and climate, irrespective of how the environment is changing.
Starting with the basics, a disaster is a situation requiring outside help for coping, so it is only a disaster if it involves people. Climate means weather statistics over decades. Climate change refers to changes to these statistics. Neither climate nor climate change mention people.
Yet human-caused climate change is rapidly affecting environmental phenomena such as floods, storms, some droughts, and air temperature extremes. If we could deal with this weather without being harmed, then no major concern arises. Typically, unprepared people and infrastructure are in the way, so weather becomes hazardous.
This is vulnerability: The social and political processes forcing people to become adversely affected by regular environmental phenomena such as severe weather. Sometimes we choose to live in harm’s way, perhaps purchasing a floodplain house to enjoy beautiful ocean views without taking adequate measures to reduce flood damage. More often, vulnerable situations are inflicted on people; women or ethnic minorities might choose not to evacuate, for example, because they fear and expect abuse and violence in the public storm shelter.
A disaster cannot happen without vulnerability. Consider warmer air due to climate change holding more moisture, leading to more intense rainfalls. Without addressing storm and flood vulnerabilities, worse flood disasters can happen under climate change. If we tackle vulnerabilities, then the changing rainfall is not hazardous.
Not all aspects of storms worsen with climate change. Projections for hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones under human-caused climate change suggest that fewer will form, but they will be more powerful. No matter which storms form, we can choose to deal with them by doing what we ought to do anyway. We shouldn’t build in floodplains without flood-related measures. We should evacuate if infrastructure will not withstand the wind and water. We shouldn’t marginalise people through racism, sexism, and homophobia so that they fear getting help to prepare or they stay in harm’s way.
The same holds true for many other environmental phenomena influenced by climate change.
But not all.
Increased heat and humidity curtail outdoor agricultural work, while people and animals require more water to stay healthy, increasing the likelihood of drought. Crops suffer as evaporation rates increase, although we could substitute with plants having different tilling and irrigation requirements. When heat-humidity-time combinations beyond human tolerance are reached, then outdoor work must stop, rather than simply going slower.
Ultimately, without tackling climate change, large swathes of land may become too hot for living or working—extremes we have never before encountered—leading to large-scale mortality or migration and possible knock-on effects on food supplies. Future heatwaves could be disasters from human-caused climate change for which we have little comprehensive opportunity to reduce vulnerability.
It might be the same if human-caused climate change leads the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets to melt. In worst-case scenarios, over several centuries, seas would rise higher than a twenty-storey building, drowning around a dozen island countries and many coastal cities. Much of Amsterdam, Manila, and New York City could be transformed into territory for snorkelling or scuba diving.
These long-term extremes of heat-humidity combinations and ice sheets melting are frightening—as might be the oceans acidifying when they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—and could be devastating for us. More day-to-day, we still need to highlight that science is clear about vulnerability, not the environment, causing disasters. Natural disasters do not exist because we choose where and how to live, and how we treat people, so that weather and other natural forces can harm us.
Earth Day should draw our attention to the people being forced to be vulnerable, living on the slopes of the active volcano overshadowing Mexico City, the floodplains of Manila and New Orleans, and the landslide-prone hills of La Paz and Freetown. Climate change does not engrain the sexism which normalises gender-based violence in storm shelters, discouraging some from evacuating. Nor does climate change dictate the privatisation of energy companies, making it unaffordable for many to heat their homes in winter and cool them in summer.
All these create vulnerability through human choices. And thus, irrespective of what we are doing to the climate, must disasters be born.
Featured image: public domain by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash.