Are there such things as ‘natural’ disasters?

Environment | Earth Systems

By George Blake, Kingfisher Writer

Published January 17th, 2022

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 researcher Emily 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.

Countries such as Haiti—seen here in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew—are disproportionately affected by natural hazards. | UN Photo / Flickr

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 exacerbating inequality.

‘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 natural disasters.

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..

Researchers found that Hurricane Harvey—the first Category 4 hurricane to hit the state of Texas since 1961—was made 20% more intense due to climate change. | NASA Goddard Photo / Flickr

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.

The progressive U.S. research centre Media Matters frequently laments U.S. media outlets for failing to emphasise that climate change is the driver of more frequent and destructive wildfires. | Marcus Kauffman / Unsplash

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 socio-economic factors stemming from inequities, politics, and poor decision-making.

Brazil provides an excellent illustration of the above tension. In the wake of deadly flooding and landslides in 2008 , the then president, Lula da Silva, singularly framed the disaster as ‘certainly’ and ‘intimately’ linked to climate change, insisting the disaster was caused by ‘developed countries that are not assuming proper responsibility in international policy negotiations.’

Such manoeuvering aims to shift the discourse in order to create subtle exit paths for those responsible for creating vulnerability.

Hence, following similar (but more deadly) flooding and landslides in 2011, Brazilian climate scientists pushed back against climate-centric framing. They correctly argued that such events had been occurring for decades, and the human cost was a reflection of sub-par national mapping, inadequate early warning systems, and unwise development.

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, inadequate 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 structural and systemic solutions that could enable societies to be more equitable and resilient in the long term.

Featured Image: FMSC | Flickr

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