Let's stop blaming the climate for disasters!

Jul 29, 2022, 10:30 AM

Disasters occur when hazards meet vulnerability. We must acknowledge the human-made components of both vulnerability and hazard and emphasize human agency in order to proactively reduce disaster impacts.

Natural hazards such as floods, droughts and heatwaves become disasters as a result of societal vulnerability, that is, a propensity of people, societies and ecosystems to be harmed.

Often, people’s social, political and economic status determines the nature of differential and disproportionate impacts. In addition, many natural hazards are not just natural processes, but have been made more likely and more intense by human-caused climate change.

Here we argue that a discourse in which, the role of human activity in disasters is clearly communicated—as opposed to blaming Nature or the Climate—will be more conducive to a proactive, equitable and ultimately successful approach to reducing impacts of disasters.

Pointing the finger at natural causes creates a politically convenient crisis narrative that is used to justify reactive disaster laws and policies

References to climate-related hazards such as floods, droughts and heatwaves as ‘climate’ or ‘natural’ disasters suggest that disasters are independent of vulnerability. They are not. And vulnerability is often constructed; examples include unplanned urbanization processes, systemic injustice (such as some people being denied access to resources), and marginalization due to religion, caste, class, ethnicity, gender or age.

Vulnerability is therefore a product of social and political processes that include elements of power and poor governance. These structural inequalities are created in ways that are often deliberate and anchored in social and political structures.

For example, in urban areas, natural hazards become disasters due to poor urban planning processes that are not risk-informed. The results are inadequate infrastructure, a lack of social support systems that could reduce impacts or help with recovery from past disasters, and processes that push the most vulnerable groups of people to live in hazardous areas.

This causes disproportionate impacts (visible and invisible loss and damage), especially where there are multiple hazards at the same time.

These kinds of impacts have been seen during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: the pandemic in combination with other natural hazards in many parts of the world may have pushed already vulnerable populations into further vulnerability, which is being referred to as compounded vulnerabilities.

For example, during the pandemic, lack of access to health care systems in many settings compounded with the lack of other social protection systems, and poor disaster risk reduction measures and governance has exacerbated the impacts of these hazards.

Blaming nature or the climate for disasters deflects responsibility. It is largely human influence that produces vulnerability. Pointing the finger at natural causes creates a politically convenient crisis narrative that is used to justify reactive disaster laws and policies.

Assessments of climate-related hazards too often focus on indicators on spatial scales that are based on climate model grid points, such as the hottest day of the year to indicate change in extreme heat or the meteorologically most extreme events. Instead, to help with reducing disaster impacts, it would be more informative to assess hazards at the temporal and spatial scales that are relevant from a risk and vulnerability point of view, such as looking at heatwaves that cross a particular temperature threshold in cities, on a day or a few days, rather than estimating country scale heat extremes.

Climate science and attribution has an important role to play, for example, in disentangling where human-induced climate change is a key driver of hazards. This is important: where climate change has exacerbated risk, it is likely that the hazard will worsen over time, and past observations become increasingly less relevant. Climate change attribution must also be used to communicate which disasters today are partially or wholly a result of human-induced climate change.

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