Placing climate change amongst the causes of disasters

Alex Randall

Alex is the programme leader of the Climate & Migration Coalition.

Image above: Shahriar Islam, AusAID (CC BY 2.0) from Flickr

Debates about whether climate change has played a role in a particular disaster tend to polarise very quickly.

As most of the commentary is in response to someone else’s commentary, it is often rare to see climate change placed properly amongst the many causes of disasters.

Commentators often feel the need to redress the balance and emphasis on the role of climate change if they feel it is being ignored. Or to downplay the role of climate change if they feel it’s being overplayed. The debate is also filled with language which has both a ‘common’ and a highly specialised, technical meaning.

This post is an attempt to place climate change amongst the forces that create displacement and chaos after disasters.

Climate change and disasters

Climate change does have an impact on a number of different kinds of events – including hurricanes (or tropical storms to give them their universal name). But the relationship isn’t simple. It seems that climate change will increase the number of the most powerful tropical storms. But not necessarily the total number of storms. Tropical storms may also carry more water as the planet warms, making flooding worse. The impact of a warming planet on hurricanes is also regional – not everywhere is affected in the same way.

There is often a desire to label a particular event as being caused by climate change. However, this is difficult.

The simplest way to express the relationship in ordinary language is to say that climate change is altering the patterns of some disasters.

A useful analogy is health issues that are caused by multiple lifestyle factors. It isn’t possible to say that someone’s heart attack is caused by eating bacon. But a lifetime of eating a lot of bacon, combined with other factors, made a heart attack more likely.

Now and in the future

An important distinction is whether we are talking about the role of climate change in a current specific disaster. Or whether we are talking about the potential role of unchecked climate change in future disasters.

Existing evidence points to climate change altering patterns of some disasters at the moment. For example, scientists are able to connect increasing global temperatures with increased levels of drought in East Africa using existing historical data.

But scientists are also able to make predictions about how a warming planet will also alter patterns of disasters in the future using predictive computer models. These are two very different things. These predictions are based on particular scenarios about how much we decide to reduce our emissions by.

When thinking about the role climate change plays in disasters it is important to distinguish between what is happening now, and what will happen in the future.

Hurricane Katrina was an extremely destructive and deadly tropical cyclone that was the costliest natural disaster and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. The storm caused severe destruction along the Gulf coast from central Florida to Texas, much of it due to the storm surge and levee failure. Image: US Navy

Hurricane Katrina was an extremely destructive and deadly tropical cyclone that was the costliest natural disaster and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. The storm caused severe destruction along the Gulf coast from central Florida to Texas, much of it due to the storm surge and levee failure. Image: US Navy

Wealth

Wealth plays a huge role in what happens to people when disasters strike. It is probably the biggest factor that determines whether someone is displaced, injured or killed by a disaster. This applies at a number of levels. Wealthy countries are able to invest in infrastructure and emergency responses that save lives and keep people safe. In the absence of state-level action, wealthy individuals are able to buy insurance, arrange their own evacuation or afford to live in places less likely to be badly hit by disasters. Wealth doesn’t necessarily ensure safety. Wealthy places can still be badly affected by disasters. Sometime disasters overwhelm even the richest countries. However, when we look across the world it is usually the poorest countries and the poorest people who are hit worst by disasters.

Even wealthy places can plan badly for disasters. A nation’s high GDP is not an automatic safety net against the impacts of disasters.

Infrastructure

Even wealthy places can plan badly for disasters. A nation’s high GDP is not an automatic safety net against the impacts of disasters. To create safety, countries have to invest their wealth in things that create safety in the face of disasters. What this means varies hugely from place to place, and depends entirely on the disasters a country faces. But it might include the building of levees and dams, emergency shelters, water storage or irrigation systems.

When places with enough wealth invest some of that wealth into the right kind of infrastructure, people very often suffer much less in the wake of big disasters.

However, a country’s wealth is not a guarantee that spending on infrastructure happens evenly across the country. It is possible that for various political reasons governments choose not to invest in particular places. An expensive sea wall does nothing to protect people 1000 miles further along the coast, even if they are citizens of the some country.

A man points to the level that the water came up to on the side of his home when floods swept through his village in Pakistan’s Sindh province in August 2010.
The fields in the background are still flooded, under three feet of water. At their peak, the flood waters were up to 20 feet deep. This man’s house stands a good 10 feet above the ground water level, and the water came five feet up the wall. His fields are still under two feet of water. Image: DfiD / Vicki Francis (CC BY 2.0) from Flickr

A man points to the level that the water came up to on the side of his home when floods swept through his village in Pakistan’s Sindh province in August 2010.
The fields in the background are still flooded, under three feet of water. At their peak, the flood waters were up to 20 feet deep. This man’s house stands a good 10 feet above the ground water level, and the water came five feet up the wall. His fields are still under two feet of water. Image: DfiD / Vicki Francis (CC BY 2.0) from Flickr

Decisions and policies

It would be wrong to assume that money and infrastructure can buy safety. There are some situations in which even the best infrastructure cannot protect people. Where people live and work is vitally important and some places are almost impossible to protect from some kinds of disasters. This was one of the key issues raised in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Planning and zoning are vitally important. One of the key ways in which governments can protect people is to restrict certain kinds of development in specific areas that are known to be at high risk and difficult to protect. Failure to do this can leave even wealthy places with good infrastructure facing displacement and chaos in the wake of disasters.

Emergency planning

Even the best infrastructure and zoning does not guarantee safety. The nature of sudden disasters is that they are extreme. They usually overwhelm the day to day running of society. When this happens, having emergency plans becomes vital. Places that have created plans for how they will deal with various disasters always cope better than places that have not. There are some places in the world that have no emergency response plans. These are often rural areas in the world’s poorest countries. But emergency response isn’t ‘all or nothing’. Wealthy places that have not invested in emergency planning have added to their vulnerability. Places that invest more time and money in their planning – and places that invest more in the equipment and training they need to cope with disasters – inevitably suffer less.

Inequality

We’ve looked at differences in wealth between nations and people and pointed to this as a key factor. However, other differences between people – even people living next door to each other – play a huge role. Older people, people with disabilities and young children are often hit worst by disasters. These are people for whom moving could well be difficult. This leaves them less able to get out of harm’s way.

Race, ethnicity and religion often play a huge role in how badly people are impacted. However, this is an effect of how and where governments choose to invest money, infrastructure and planning.

Governments frequently underinvest in places that are home to minorities. This became very apparent in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Similar patterns of government underinvestment based on race and religion exist all over the world.

What this means is that some people – even those living in the richest countries with the best emergency planning can still find themselves badly impacted by disasters.

However, it is most often the poorest people living in the poorest places that are hit the worst.

Climate change will alter the patterns of some disasters. Governments will have to decide how they respond to these changing patterns. The first victims of these altered patterns will be the less wealthy, elderly and disabled who are hit worst by current disasters.

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