Climate change, poverty and 'natural' disasters

Saturday, October 10, 2009 - 11:00

People in the Philippines are struggling to rebuild after Typhoon Ketsana caused widespread flooding and landslides.

This has caused a humanitarian catastrophe overshadowed in the Australian media by the terrifying, and equally devastating earthquakes and tsunamis in Samoa and Indonesia.

Millions were affected by the flooding, and hundreds of more lives lost, after the typhoon dumped enormous amounts of rain on the Philippines on September 24. The storm strengthened as it moved over Indochina, where it caused further flooding and deaths in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The death toll has been estimated at nearly 400 across the region and is likely to turn out to be higher. More deaths occurred when Typhoon Parma struck the Philippines a week later, worsening the situation.

About
400,000 people around the capital, Manila, are now living in emergency shelters.

Meanwhile, hundreds more have died in southern India in the worst floods on record, which began on October 5. Areas that were recently suffering terrible drought in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have been flooded as the Krishna river overflowed.

"About 400 mm of rain took place in three days", S.P. Kakran, a senior official in the ministry of water resources, told the October 7 Hindustan Times.

Dr Santosh Kumar of the National Institute of Disaster Management told the paper: "This has never happened before in India Meteorological Department (IMD) records. This should be studied, whether there is a link between this and climate change."

Loading the climate dice

Climate change denialists like to point out that weather events such as typhoons are caused by such a diverse range of factors that it is impossible to say that such events are caused by climate change.

However, warming ocean surface temperatures are a big contributor to the strength of tropical storms — just as warming contributes to drought and other weather crises.

Australian climate scientist David Karoly told the February 9 ABC Lateline after the devastating bushfires in Victoria: "It's very difficult to attribute a single event to climate change or to natural variability. What we have to do is really look at the balance of probabilities or the risk or likelihood of these events ... it is possible to get extreme events like [the Black Saturday fires] just due to natural variability.

"But what we're seeing now is that the dice have been heavily loaded so that the chances of these sorts of extreme fire weather situations are occurring much more rapidly in the last 10 years due to climate change.

"So climate change has loaded the dice."

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which devastated the US Gulf coast, debate raged about whether climate change influenced the storm's development.

Katrina was one of only three Category Five Hurricanes to make landfall in the US since records began. In 2006, researchers at the US government-funded research institute Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory concluded that human-induced warming should be blamed for at least part of the development of Katrina.

LLNL climate scientist Benjamin Santer said in a press statement: "Natural processes alone simply cannot explain the observed sea surface temperature increases in these hurricane breeding grounds. The best explanation for these changes has to include a large human influence."

Regardless of the controversy over the causes of Katrina, there is widespread scientific agreement that global warming increases the likelihood of more frequent and severe storms.

Local environment

A September 29 statement by the left-wing Philippines Power of the Masses Party (PLM) called on the government to increase protection of the nation's environment to prevent future disasters.

The PLM demanded the government "immediately put a halt to all mining, quarrying, and logging activities in the mountainous regions. With denuded forests and damaged mountains, flooding and mudslides will torment lowland communities."

The statement called on the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions, blaming emissions for "much stronger storms and droughts worldwide".

Action on local environmental problems, such as land clearing, is an important measure in many areas to lessen the impacts of changing weather. The presence of forest cover can help to soak up rainfall and slow water flows, as well as stabilising steep slopes at risk of landslides.

In drought-stricken south-eastern Australia, reforestation could have significant benefits for water security.

Research suggests that for Melbourne, ending logging in water catchments could see an extra 65 billion litres annual inflow to dams after 60 years. This is because mature trees draw far less water than younger re-growth.

University of Queensland scientist Clive McAlpine said that "the current drought has been made worse by past clearing of native vegetation".

In a 2007 press release, McAlpine explained: "The 2002-03 El Nino drought in eastern Australia was on average two degrees Centigrade hotter because of vegetation clearing …

"Protection and restoration of Australia's native vegetation needs to be a critical consideration in mitigating climate change."

Other recent research comparing northern Australia with the Congo, which has a forested interior, suggests that forests create winds and help carry moisture inland.

This has ramifications beyond water use. In the August Ecos magazine, McAlpine said: "The 'bulldozer solution' of clearing large tracts of bush to reduce the risk of bushfires will only compound the problem — by clearing the land, you get a hotter land surface, so bushfires will be more severe."

Poverty

The effects of disasters such as the flooding in the Philippines and India, and the earthquakes and tsunamis in Indonesia and Samoa, are made worse by the extreme poverty of the areas. Inadequate infrastructure and emergency services increased the scale of the devastation — and the death toll.

The October 6 ABC News said many buildings in the flooded areas of India "are of limited quality mud brick, so people have not been able to get up onto rooftops and seek shelter as others have in more established towns".

The October 7 Times of India said 250,000 houses had either collapsed or been damaged, and 18 million people were effected. As the flood waters recede, water-borne diseases set in due to lack of clean drinking water.

The final human toll of these events could be enormous.

These "natural disasters" are caused by a lot more than nature. They are greatly worsened by the system that divides the world into small pockets of wealth and great swathes of poverty and underdevelopment.

This system serves the profits of the large corporations — the same powerful interests seeking to protect profits by blocking urgently needed climate action.

The effects of climate change are already impacting on the planet, and the same system leading the planet to climate disaster is condemning its victims, the world's poor, to suffer the worst of its impacts.

The forecast for years to come is worsening. A new British government report has found the rate of climate change is already worse than the worst-case scenarios forecast in 2007 by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report said the Earth could warm by an average 4°C by 2060 if the world continues its current path. This average would include up to 15°C in the Arctic and 10°C in parts of Africa.

The typhoons, floods and bushfires of the future are looking increasingly dangerous — unless drastic measures are taken, against the opposition of powerful interests, to reduce greenhouse emissions

From GLW issue 813