November 16, 2012

U.S. Climate Disaster in Global Perspective

For those who have not been following the news lately, a recent article reported the following: A large tropical storm attributed to “unseasonable rainfall” slammed into the coast and moved inland, leaving many dead or missing, tens of thousands of residents evacuated or homeless, and government disaster response agencies struggling to provide food, shelter, and other critical services.

According to the article, “[d]isaster response teams helped to move people to higher ground in rubber boats and nearly 100 shelters were opened … to accommodate people fleeing the flood zone.” Trains and other transit systems were closed; some communities were completely cut off from help; and to make matters worse, more intense rain was expected later in the same week.

News reports about Hurricane Sandy? Actually, no. This news came from an article by Agence France-Presse about Cyclone Nilam, which struck the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu just a week after Sandy unleashed similar catastrophe on the eastern United States. Nor was this an isolated incident in India. In September, the Agence France-Presse article continued, “two million people were forced to flee their homes in the north-eastern state of Assam after floods triggered by heavy monsoon rains.”

The point, of course, is not to minimize the horrible loss of lives, damage to homes and other property, and suffering that the residents of the northeastern U.S. have endured due to Hurricane Sandy. Relief efforts should continue if not expand. Public disaster relief funding should be expedited. Private parties should donate to the Red Cross and other independent sources of relief.

The juxtaposition of these twin storms, however, does raise a serious question:

What is the connection between these two proximate events? Extreme weather events are a function of a large number of variables, and scientists are careful not to attribute any specific event to climate change or any other factor. The mainstream scientific community is virtually unanimous, however, that climate change is likely to increase the likelihood of storms like both Sandy and Nilam.

We cannot say with certainty that climate change caused either storm, but we can say with reasonable certainty that climate change made both more likely, and increases the likelihood that more storms like them will follow in the years to come. Disaster agencies around the world, and the United Nations, have reported a significant increase in recent years in extreme weather events of all kinds (storms, floods, droughts, tornadoes), and staggering damage tolls from those events. While there is ample evidence of climate change based on U.S. trends alone, the data are far more compelling if we look beyond our borders.

Perhaps the scariest thing about the magnitude of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy—and Hurricane Katrina before it—is that they demonstrated the vulnerability of a country that one would think would be among the most prepared and the most resilient in the world to natural catastrophe. Even more loss of life, property damage, and human suffering can be expected when similar climate-induced extreme weather events strike regions of the world that are more vulnerable than the United States. Other nations have even more low-lying terrain, fewer disaster relief resources and less developed response systems, more vulnerable homes and public infrastructure, and poorer populations with smaller reserves of food and money.

In traditional foreign policy, countries focus primarily on their own national interests. In many respects, global climate change negotiations have followed that trend. (“Why should the United States agree to emissions cuts if China does not?” “Will we get more from the bargain than we give?”)  The real lesson of Sandy and Nilam is that we’re all in this together as a global community. When weather catastrophes are linked to changes in the global climate, and strike opposite sides of the world with such fury in two successive weeks, we can no longer afford to think solely in terms of national interests.

Rabbi Hillel, the famous first century B.C. Jewish religious leader, wrote: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” No nation can be expected to ignore its own interests, for who else will? But given the global nature of the climate problem, neither can we afford to consider only those interests. And if not now, when? The elusive global consensus on how to address climate change is long overdue. 

Robert Adler, CPR Member Scholar; Professor of Law, University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law; Wallace Stegner Center. Bio.

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