Why natural disasters are not natural
Why natural disasters are not natural
Storms don’t know if people are rich or poor, but poor people always suffer more from them, writes Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik
Recently the world has seen many monsoons, very big storms, droughts, fires, very high and very low temperatures. The environment is suffering.
The Caribbean and East Asia has had very big storms – Hato, Harvey and Irma. Most buildings in Barbuda and St Martin have been destroyed, and thousands of people now have no homes. There are too many people for the shelters. Monsoon floods in Southern Asia, destroyed tens of thousands of homes and schools, killed more than 1,200 people, and left a third of Bangladesh under water; 41 million people were directly affected. Hundreds of people died because of the mudslides and rains in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Wildfires have destroyed parts of Southern Europe, Siberia, Western America, and Greenland. Croatia, Yemen, Nigeria and Argentina have had very heavy rain.
We often think and say this extreme weather is not normal. We say ‘mega-drought’, ‘flash flood’, or ‘superstorm’ – all these sound like natural disasters from the Bible. But climate disasters are never ‘natural’; they are an effect of both conditions in the atmosphere and in society.
Monsoons, hurricanes, torrential rains, wildfires, droughts and heat waves are all natural parts of the weather on our planet. People have learnt to live with these for thousands of years.
Now world temperatures are rising, this changes the extreme weather. Climate change doesn’t cause extreme weather – but it makes it worse and makes it happen more often.
Now the world is warmer, the seawater is warmer and this feeds strong storms. The atmosphere is hotter so it can hold more water vapour so we have heavy rain. Sea levels are rising so the storms affect more of the land. Glaciers melt in the Himalayas so more water flows into the rivers.
There has been three times more extreme rain in central India in the last few years.
Warmer temperatures make forests drier so the period for forest fires is longer. The forests near the arctic circle are now burning faster than ever before.
Our climate models are still developing, but now know that we can see the effects of humans in most types of extreme weather. There are now four times more big weather events than in 1970.
Storms do not discriminate, but the societies do that they affect. People experience the extreme weather in different ways. This depends on the resources, the opportunities and the problems they have.
When we have disasters, we see how unequal and unjust our society is. Disasters test how strong our protection systems are and how good the other systems are: power, sanitation, telecommunications, medical and transportation. Disasters test how much empathy we have in difficult situations.
The recent disasters have shown the problems we get when we don’t plan well and cities grow too fast. If we destroy the lakes, build where the rivers flood and take away the natural trees, we will have these problems.
We can also see the injustice of the past. We saw the poverty of many islands in the Caribbean after Hurricane Irma. This is because no-one helped when they were a colony. They became tax havens and places to keep secrets. When the hurricane was destroying many houses and lives, Richard Branson was waiting in a concrete wine cellar on his home on a private Caribbean island.
The International Monetary Fund said that Barbuda, badly affected by the hurricane, had to pay back the money it had borrowed. They did not even allow them more time to pay. Barbuda needs so much money to rebuild – 95% of the buildings and vehicles were destroyed.
In Puerto Rico, the Hurricane Irma destroyed the electricity grid. This was weak even before the hurricane because the government had not invested enough money in it. Now, they think they will need six months to repair it. Puerto Rico has a lot of debt and their emergency fund is only $15 million.
Hurricane Harvey was the biggest rainfall event in US history. It showed the risks from petrochemical, oil and waste industries in Houston. With the floods, a lot of dangerous pollution got into the air and the water.
The US Navy helping people leave the Virgin Islands during Hurricane Irma, September 2017. Picture: US Navy
The right to survive
In our societies, you can live or die because of your money, documents, the area you live, your job, your insurance or what your house is made of. Because of climate violence.
You can also be lucky or unlucky because of your nationality or the papers you have. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has 155 times more money than the same agency in India. But you need to be a citizen before you get support from FEMA. In Houston, there are hundreds of thousands of migrants with no documents who cannot get any support from FEMA. The migrants also have little money and no insurance.
If you have more money, this can help you survive. Money can help families move to a different area or buy a more protected house. But how can the poorest people buy protection for their home? How can you leave your home if you have no car or money for transport?
With all this extreme weather, the poor, the old, people with debt and other groups that society does not think are important suffer much more. And these people live in the areas with more risks to the environment.
Suffering in silence
We talk about how many people have died and how much it all costs. But it is difficult to say more. The media uses numbers to talk about climate violence: wind speeds and rain levels, number of deaths and cost of rebuilding.
But there is a lot more suffering that we do not see. People spend all the money they have to find a new place to live. Prisoners get two dollars an hour to fight wildfires. Families try to find their documents, poems, love letters and photos after floods. Food, hopes and dreams are all under water. Migrants with no documents build up the areas that are destroyed.
This extreme weather is what we will soon have all the time.
If we get to the level of 2 degrees C of global warming, scientists say we will have ten times more tropical storms.
The heat and rain, or no rain, are all linked. In the last months, nearly half of India’s districts have had drought; at the same time a quarter of the districts have had extreme rainfall.
We need to do a lot, both to reduce climate change (‘mitigation’) and to prepare for the climate change which will come (‘adaptation’).
And if we cannot stop global warming, we need to stop the injustice. Politics needs to find ways to keep more people safe – not just the rich people.
We have taken too long – now we need to find solutions very quickly.
Thumbnail image: NASA/NOAA GOES Project; Header image: NASA. Front Page Banner: RIBI Image Library, European Commission DG ECHO, Gita Dhoj Karki
NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2017/09/15/social-climate-disasters