Why natural disasters are not natural

Storms do not discriminate, but they make landfall on societies that do, argues Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik

The last months have seen remarkable episodes of environmental upheaval. Almost every day has brought news of monsoons and mega-storms, droughts and wildfires, record temperatures and damning reports of ecological fragility.

Huge storms – Hato, Harvey and Irma – have barrelled through the Caribbean and East Asia. The majority of buildings in Barbuda and St Martin have been destroyed, with thousands of people made homeless. Even storm shelters, designated for their safety, have been overwhelmed. Monsoon flooding swept across Southern Asia, destroying tens of thousands of homes and schools, killing over 1,200 people, and submerging a third of Bangladesh; 41 million people were directly affected. Hundreds died as mudslides and rains tore through Freetown, Sierra Leone. Wildfires have razed stretches of Southern Europe, Siberia, Western America, and even Greenland. From Croatia to Yemen, Nigeria to Argentina, torrential rains have swept across cities and farmlands.

The scale of these events is staggering, but their framing often misleads us. The destructive power of storms and fires often leads us to understand them as abnormal bursts of extreme weather. Words like ‘mega-drought’, ‘flash flood’, or ‘superstorm’ suggest Biblical natural disasters. But climate disasters are never ‘natural’; they are an effect of both atmospheric and societal conditions.

Climate conditions

Monsoons, hurricanes, torrential rains, wildfires, droughts and heat waves are all part of the natural rhythms of our planet’s meteorology. For millennia, human beings have learnt to brace for these events – the most brutal, abrupt expressions of nature’s might.

The rise of global temperatures is increasingly affecting the nature of extreme weather. Climate change doesn’t cause extreme weather – it aggravates it. It heightens its frequency, intensity, seasonality, and reach.

A warming world means warmer seawater, a fuel for strong storms. It means hotter atmosphere that can hold more water vapour, leading to heavy rainfall. It means rising sea levels, that increase the reach of storm surges. It means melting glaciers in the Himalayas, which raise the level of glacier-fed rivers. It means shifting weather patterns, where rain becomes more torrential, concentrated and dispersed.

Across Central India, precipitation extremes have increased threefold in the last few years.

In the case of wildfires, warmer temperatures dry forests and extend fire seasons. Research shows that boreal forests, coniferous forests growing near the arctic circle, are today burning at a speed unprecedented in 10,000 years.

Although our climate models are still developing, it is increasingly clear that a human fingerprint is observable across most varieties of extreme weather. The frequency of intense weather events has quadrupled since 1970.

Social conditions

Storms do not discriminate, but they make landfall on societies that do. Every person affected by extreme weather will experience it differently, depending on the resources, opportunities, and the structural impediments they face.

Disasters reveal our pretences of stability, baring the inequalities and injustices of our societies. They test the strength of our protection against disaster: the quality of infrastructure, the resilience of our power, sanitation, telecommunications, medical and transportation systems. They gauge our competence and empathy in the face of threats.

Disasters reveal our pretences of stability, baring the inequalities and injustices of our societies.

The disasters of the last weeks have shown the pitfalls of inadequate planning and reckless urban development. The constant removal of natural infrastructure – ecological defences such as mangroves, forests and wetlands – makes land less able to absorb floodwater. Reckless urban expansion has cleared flood-buffering forests, built over floodplains, and destroyed our water bodies.

They also show the presence of past structural injustice. In the Caribbean, the arrival of Hurricane Irma exposed the poverty of many islands, compounded through histories of colonial neglect, and processes of economic conversion into tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions. While the hurricane was ripping through houses and lives in the region, Richard Branson was waiting in a concrete wine cellar on his home on a private Caribbean island, describing those hours as a party.

To add insult to injury, the International Monetary Fund demanded that hurricane-stricken Barbuda repay its debt, refusing to postpone payment or allow a moratorium. Barbuda faces colossal reconstruction bills, and its Prime Minister Gaston Browne said it is currently ‘barely habitable’, with 95 per cent of its structures and vehicles destroyed.

Hurricane Irma’s landfall in Puerto Rico exposed a precarious electricity grid, hobbled by underinvestment; state authorities expect power outages to prevail for up to six months. The islands’ recovery is hampered by its major debt crisis and crippling austerity measures; Puerto Rico’s emergency fund is a meagre $15 million.

Meanwhile Hurricane Harvey, the largest rainfall event in US history, illustrated the risks generated by poorly regulated petrochemical facilities, refineries and waste sites across Houston. As refrigeration failed, and floodwaters rose, thousands of metric tons of dangerous pollutants emanated into the air and water.

The US Navy supporting evacuation from the Virgin Islands during Hurricane Irma on 7 September 2017. Picture: US Navy

The right to survive

In our societies, distinctions are deadly. The size of your savings, the documents you have, the neighbourhood you live in, the construction materials used to build your home, your physical ability to move, the employment you may have, the insurance you can afford – all shape your vulnerability to climate violence.

Nationality and paperwork also form your fortune. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a budget 155 times greater than India’s equivalent authority. But obtaining support from FEMA is conditional on formal citizenship. In Houston, the city’s hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants remain ineligible for support from FEMA. People without papers or legal status are already disproportionately vulnerable through poverty and lack of insurance.

Wealth is also a determinant of destiny. It can allow families to flee or purchase housing with significant protection against disasters. But the poorest in our societies live day to day, paycheck to paycheck, on the tightrope of destitution. How can they afford hurricane-proof windows, generators, and sandbags? How can you evacuate if you have no car, or money for transport?

Across all extreme weather, the law of impact inequality holds: the poorest, the marginalized, the oppressed, the ignored, the elderly, the abandoned, the debt-ridden, are all disproportionately affected by disaster – and concentrated in those areas with higher environmental risk.

Silenced suffering

We struggle to speak beyond the language of cost and death. To process climate violence, our media uses numbers: wind speeds and rain levels, death tolls and reconstruction bills.

But the invisible toll of pain is greater. Our headlines sideline the invisible labour of recovery, the muted violence of grief. A world wracked by climate violence is one which empties bank accounts as victims struggle to find new homes. Where prisoners tackle wildfires for two dollars an hour. Where families try to piece together the documents, poems, love letters and photo albums eroded by floodwater. Where untold crops, hopes, dreams and possibilities are washed away. Where undocumented labourers, the denigrated of our societies, are indispensable in rebuilding ravaged neighbourhoods.

The permanence of pain

The expressions of extreme weather we are seeing are not anomalies, but foretastes of an increasingly convulsive climate. This is not the ‘new normal’; it is an early stage of adjustment to a world racing into unprecedented territory. As time passes, extreme weather will pass from aberration to expectation.

This is not the ‘new normal’; it is an early stage of adjustment to a world racing into unprecedented territory. As time passes, extreme weather will pass from aberration to expectation.

If we reach the threshold of 2C of global warming, climate modellers predict a tenfold increase in the incidence of tropical storms.

Trends of heat, rain and aridity are intertwining. In the last months, nearly half of India’s districts have faced degrees of drought; meanwhile, a quarter have suffered from extreme rainfall.

We need drastically bold responses, both in the fields of mitigation (reducing climate change), and adaptation (preparing for inevitable climate change).

The warming we fail to reduce needs to be compensated by an equivalent reduction of injustice. Political agendas need to prioritise solutions that advance ecological safety and dissolve socio-economic vulnerability.

Tackling climate change means taking on both the industry of denial, but also the industry of patience. Our procrastination has deprived us of time – and the pace required for solutions is tremendous.