The impacts of natural disasters are dependent on the severity of the natural hazard and societal vulnerability, with the latter often more important in determining the human cost. Given that vulnerability is a function of several
socio-economic factors, are any disasters truly ‘natural’?
In a recent opinion piece published in Nature Communications, disaster researcher Emmanuel Raju, sustainability
Boyd, and climate scientist Friederike Otto argue that we must stop blaming the climate for so-called ‘natural’ disasters.
Natural hazards, such as floods, droughts, and heatwaves only become natural disasters when they intersect with societal vulnerability. As such, in most cases, the social, political, and economic status of populations dictates the impacts
of a given event more so than the magnitude of the natural hazard itself.
Continuing to describe weather-related hazards and their associated impacts as ‘climate’ or ‘natural’ disasters suggests that disasters are independent of vulnerability, which is not the case. In reality, rather than being random,
vulnerability is principally a reflection of societal and political processes that include elements of power and poor governance.
The structural inequalities that exacerbate vulnerability are anchored in social and political structures, with some examples including unplanned urbanisation processes, systemic injustice (such as some people being denied access to
resources), and marginalisation due to religion, caste, class, ethnicity, gender, or age.
Take urban planning; areas lacking risk-informed planning processes (typically poorer areas) are characterised by inadequate infrastructure, ineffective societal support systems, and processes that push the most vulnerable to live in
particularly hazardous areas. These populations—already likely to suffer from systemic injustice—will be disproportionately impacted by any natural hazards, further
‘The structural inequalities that exacerbate vulnerability are anchored in social and political structures.’
In addition, while some natural hazards, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions, are clearly acts of random nature, the most common natural hazards that affect people are related to weather. These hazards (storms, flooding,
drought, heatwaves) are known as meteorological hazards and account for more than 90% of
However, as the science of climate attribution—which aims to rapidly, objectively, and quantitatively assess the changing nature of extreme event risk on local scales—has grown, arguing meteorological hazards are purely a function of
natural processes, is increasingly no longer tenable . The hallmark of climate change has
been detected in Australian wildfires, global heat mortality, and hurricanes..
Although clearly a great scientific tool, the political implications of climate attribution are complex. Science leaders understandably hope that identifying the role of climate change in extreme weather events will spur more rapid action to mitigate climate change and implement
robust disaster risk reduction strategies.
A large body of literature now explicitly recognises that extreme weather offers a unique opportunity to raise public
awareness and drive discussions around climate change, with many quick to criticise media outlets when they fail to emphasise or consider the role of climate change.
Discerning whether climate attribution has led to tangible increases in the ambition of carbon reduction targets is challenging, but the public discourse around climate change has clearly shifted in recent years, especially within the West.
The idea of a ‘new normal’, where crises are more frequent and destructive, is increasingly accepted.
However, this climate-centric attribution approach risks framing disasters as solely a function of extreme weather events, rather than outcomes of pre-existing vulnerabilities on the ground. Such ‘climate
reductionism’—attributing disasters to the climate
alone—has implications for social and political responses, as well as responsibility.
In many cases, climate change is used to create politically convenient crises; attributing disasters to human-induced or human-modulated climate events reduces the cause to greenhouse gases, which can seem distant to many citizens. This is
far more palatable than acknowledging the role of local poverty, inadequate housing, and the myriad of other
factors stemming from inequities, politics, and poor decision-making.
So, while climate attribution is clearly an incredibly useful discipline that has shed light on the impact of climate change, it cannot be allowed to downplay socio-economic vulnerabilities. A deflection of responsibility risks perpetuating
the current inequitable status quo, ensuring that the most vulnerable will continue to be worst affected by disasters time after time.
‘Attributing disasters to greenhouse gases is far more palatable than acknowledging the role of local poverty,
housing, and the myriad of other socio-economic factors stemming from inequities, politics, and poor decision-making.’
There is a pressing need for political framing of climate change to explicitly recognise the human-made components of both vulnerability and hazards themselves, and to no longer resort to simply blaming ‘nature’ or ‘climate’. Measures to
address vulnerability and equity must form the backbone of proactive disaster laws and policies, alongside robust emission reduction pledges.
This basic re-conceptualisation away from solely ‘natural’ disasters is an important starting point to identify the
systemic solutions that could enable societies to be more equitable and resilient in the long term.
Featured Image: FMSC | Flickr
Albright E.A. and Crow D. (2019) Beliefs about climate change in the aftermath of extreme flooding. Climatic Change. Volume 155, issue 1, pages 1-17.
Boyd E., et al., (2021) Loss and damage from climate change: A new climate justice agenda. One Earth. Volume 4, issue 10, pages 1350-1370.
Trenberth K.E. (2018) Climate change caused by human activities is happening and it already has major consequences. Journal of Energy & Natural Resources Law. Volume 3, issue 4, pages
Van Oldenborgh G.J., Krikken F., Lewis S., et al.(2020) Attribution of the Australian bushfire risk to anthropogenic climate change.
Wang S.S., Zhao L., Yoon J.H., et al. (2018) Quantitative attribution of climate effects on Hurricane Harvey’s extreme rainfall in Texas. Environmental Research Letters. Volume 13, issue
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