Climate change does not cause disasters, it’s more complicated than that

Dr. Nuttavikhom Phanthuwongpakdee | SDG Move

One of the stiffest challenges of our time is that of convincing the masses of people that it is a fact that humankind is the leading causes of climate change. However, one of the equally-pressing challenges is that of promoting the public recognition that climate change is not the reason for all of the damage from environmental disasters. For years, the majority of the people have all too often been too quick to point the accusing finger at climate change during these latest years, for the damage and the destruction caused by calamities. There is no exception for the many events in 2017; several hurricanes hitting the southern region of the United States and the Caribbean, Typhoon Hato that hit Hong Kong, Macau and parts of China, as well as the mega-earthquake off the Pacific coast of Mexico. Climate change may have worsened certain environmental disasters, especially the climate-related ones, like hurricane, typhoon, flooding and drought. However, it is vital to realise that climate change does not cause disasters to transpire as it is not a causal agent. “Climate change” is barely a descriptive term that describes the fact that climate is changing.

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If you are one of those that have been talking about climate change being the sole/root cause of all of the damage and the destruction unleashed during and after every disaster, then, indeed, sad to say, you are guilty of missing out on issues being far more direct and immediate. Suffering harm from environmental disasters is equally as much about the way we live and not just the strength or the frequency of the storms that come. Look at the history of Hurricane Katrina (Mulcahy, 2006) or the 2011 Thailand Mega-Flood (Phanthuwongpakdee, 2016) whereby the poor suffered far more because of where they lived and the types of dwellings that they lived. We make social and economic choices about where to build in the face of risk.

Let’s compare the exposure to disaster between Texas and Florida. It is an extra-important point to note that the State of Texas is far-less exposed than that of Florida, in terms of natural terrain. However, Texas, historically, has been suffering far more damage from disasters like flooding than Florida does, despite Florida having far more “flood hazard” areas and hurricane exposure. What, all along, has been the reason for the difference? Texas, as a state, has far-inferior governance about zoning to control development in high-risk areas. Whereas, Florida’s laws are stricter about building in high-risk areas. Hence, Florida’s, which has larger hazard areas and triple the population density (with similar per capita incomes), suffer fewer losses due to this kind of regulation. Texas, which has less of environmental-hazard exposure, still falls prey to the suffering of more loss, solely due to the poorer regulation of building and land-zoning.

To further illustrate my argument, another comparison can be drawn between the State of Florida and the northern coast of Australia. Both places face a similar risk of hurricanes in any given year (Mustafa, 2009). Still, the potential devastation experienced in Florida is greater since the density of development along the coast is much higher in Florida than in northern Australia. In this manner, the coastal areas of Florida are more exposed to disaster than the northern coast of Australia.

In both comparisons, an entire series of interacting players bringing about differing vulnerability; for instance, property developers that just want to sell, residents who want long-term homes, business owners and, indeed, politicians that do not care about the externalities of coastal and riverine developments. My point is that we should take our concerns out of the higher and ‘more abstract’, or even divinity levels, and discuss more the nature and the underlying causes of our local vulnerabilities. Discussions like this on a more local level are far more efficient to help communities deal with climate change adaptation, and they address the local economics and politics that may be pushing us towards greater vulnerability, regardless of the disasters’ strength or frequency.

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Reference:

Mulcahy, M. (2006, June 11). Hurricanes, Poverty, and Vulnerability: A Historical Perspective. Retrieved September 12, 2017, from http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Mulcahy/

Mustafa, D. (2009). Natural Hazards. In A Companion to Environmental Geography. Hoboken, NJ, USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Phanthuwongpakdee, N. (2016). Living with Floods: Moving Towards Resilient Local-Level Adaptation in Central Thailand (PhD’s thesis, King’s College London & National University of Singapore, 2016). Singapore: National University of Singapore.

 

 

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