It’s a Convenient Excuse to Say “Climate Change Did It!”
Yes, climate change will worsen disasters, but the underlying issues must be addressed as well.
Extreme weather events such as torrential floods, droughts, and hurricanes will become more common (and often harsher) as a result of climate change. For regions that do not have the capacity to cope, this can be disastrous.
So, can we blame climate change for the disasters that follow these extreme weather events?
Natural catastrophes such as floods, droughts, and heatwaves are caused by social vulnerability, or the proclivity for individuals, societies, and ecosystems to be affected. The nature of uneven and disproportionate impacts is frequently determined by people’s social, political, and economic status1. Furthermore, many natural hazards are not simply natural processes that have been exacerbated by human-caused climate change2. Despite the fact that this has long been recognized3,4,5, disasters are nevertheless seen as an ‘Act of God’ or termed as ‘natural.’
We suggest that a dialogue that clearly communicates the role of human activity in catastrophes, rather than blaming Nature or the Climate, will be more conducive to a proactive, egalitarian, and ultimately successful strategy for mitigating disaster consequences.
“By blaming natural disasters, a politically palatable crisis narrative is created, which is then utilized to support reactive disaster legislation and policies.”
From danger to catastrophe
Climate-related hazards such as floods, droughts, and heatwaves are referred to as “climate” or “natural” catastrophes, implying that disasters are unaffected by vulnerability. No, they aren’t. Unplanned urbanization processes, systematic unfairness (such as some individuals being denied access to resources), and marginalization due to religion, caste, class, ethnicity, gender, or age are all manifestations of vulnerability1. As a result, vulnerability is a result of social and political processes that involve components of power and (bad) governance. These structural inequities are often deliberate, and they are rooted in social and political structures6.
Natural hazards, for example, become disasters in urban settings as a result of risk-informed urban planning processes. Inadequate infrastructure, a lack of social support structures that could mitigate the effects of prior disasters or assist with recovery, and practices that force the most vulnerable groups of people to live in risky regions are the results. This has disproportionate consequences (visible and unseen loss and damage)7, particularly when many dangers are present at the same time. These kinds of consequences have been observed during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic8: the COVID-19 pandemic, in conjunction with other natural disasters in many parts of the world, may have pushed already vulnerable populations into even more vulnerability, a phenomenon known as compounded vulnerabilities. During the pandemic, for example, a lack of access to health care systems in many areas, combined with a lack of other social protection systems, as well as weak disaster risk reduction measures and governance, amplified the effects of these risks.
Blaming calamities on nature or the climate absolves people of responsibility. Vulnerability is mostly caused by human involvement. By blaming natural disasters, a politically palatable crisis narrative is created, which is then used to support reactive disaster legislation and policies9. For example, it is easier for city administrations to blame nature rather than address social and physical vulnerabilities caused by humans. Deflecting responsibility also perpetuates an inequitable status quo in which the most vulnerable members of society are disproportionately affected by disasters. A discourse that blames natural disasters creates a back door for those who are responsible for creating vulnerability.
Aiming for a shift in perspective
Climate-related hazard assessments frequently focus on indicators on spatial scales based on climate model grid points, such as the warmest day of the year to indicate a change in extreme heat10 or the meteorologically most extreme events11. Rather than estimating country-scale heat extremes, it would be more informative to assess hazards at the temporal and spatial scales that are relevant from a risk and vulnerability standpoint, such as looking at heatwaves that cross a particular temperature threshold in cities over a day or a few days. The 2018 European heatwave was expected to have been 30 times more likely as a result of climate change, whereas extreme heat for the three days when death was highest only became 2–5 times more likely in individual European cities12.
For example, disentangling where human-induced climate change is a primary driver of hazards14, climate science and attribution plays a crucial role13. This is significant because, where climate change has increased risk, the hazard is likely to deteriorate with time, making previous observations less relevant. Climate change attribution must also be utilized to convey which disasters are currently occurring as a result of human-caused climate change, either partially or entirely.
Following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group I’s 6th Assessment Report, there is an opportunity to reflect and act. The effects of a disaster can be greatly mitigated. We must stop blaming disasters on Mother Nature or the Climate, and instead prioritize vulnerability and equity15 in proactive and engaging disaster laws and policies9. Such a fundamental conceptual shift is required to discover and exploit structural, systemic, and enabling solutions that alter societies over time to become more egalitarian and resilient.
Climate change will frequently be the first domino to fall. However, this does not negate the importance of the remaining dominoes in the row. It’s both appealing and possibly advantageous to do so: Climate change is a huge, complicated issue for which no single person or government can be held responsible (even though human actions are certainly to blame). By blaming floods on climate change, it is easier to avoid accountability for not enforcing zoning restrictions or allowing development in flood plains. However, this is not a wise policy.
If there are other evident causes leading to these calamities, we must be wary of scapegoating climate change. Allowing such rhetoric may make it easier to avoid addressing the root problems, which would be disastrous.
After all, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that climate change will exacerbate such issues.
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- Wisner, B., Gaillard, J. C. & Kelman, I. Framing disaster: theories and stories seeking to understand Hazards, vulnerability and risk. Handb. Hazards Disaster Risk Reduct. 1st ed., 18–34 (Routledge, London, 2012).
- Seneviratne, S. et al. in Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. 48 Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate 49 Change (eds Masson-Delmotte, V et al.) Ch. 11 (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
- O’Keefe, P., Westgate, K. & Wisner, B. Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters. Nature 260, 566–567 (1976).
- Wisner, B., Blaikie, P., Cannon, T. & Davis, I. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters (Routledge, 2004).
- Chmutina, K. & von Meding, J. A dilemma of language: “Natural Disasters” in academic literature. Int. J. Disaster Risk Sci. 10, 283–292 (2019).
- Periera, A. & Raju, E. The politics of disaster risk governance and neo-extractivism in Latin America. Polit. Govenance 8, 220–231. https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i4.3147 (2020).
- Boyd, E. et al. Loss and damage from climate change: a new climate justice agenda. One Earth 1365–1370. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2021.09.015 (2021).
- Raju, E., Dutta, A. & Ayeb-Karlsson, S. COVID-19 in India: who are we leaving behind? Prog. Disaster Sci. 10, 100163 (2021).
- Raju, E. & Costa, K. Governance in the Sendai: a way ahead? Disaster Prev. Manag. 27, 278–291 (2018).
- Shiogama, H. et al. Limiting global warming to 1.5 °C will lower increases in inequalities of four hazard indicators of climate change. Environ. Res. Lett. 14, 124022 (2019).
- Cattiaux, J. & Ribes, A. Defining single extreme weather events in a climate perspective. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 99, 1557–1568 (2018).
- Leach, N. J. et al. Anthropogenic influence on the 2018 summer warm spell in Europe: the impact of different spatio-temporal scales. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 101, S41–S46 (2020).
- Lusk, G. The social utility of event attribution: liability, adaptation, and justice-based loss and damage. Clim. Change 143, 201–212 (2017).
- Otto, F. E. L. et al. Attributing high-impact extreme events across timescales—a case study of four different types of events. Clim. Change 149, 399–412 (2018).
- Pelling, M. & Garschagen, M. Put equity first in climate adaptation. Nature 569, 327–329 (2019).