Global warming and natural disasters
What is the relationship between global warming and the recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean (and natural disasters more generally)? Who is and is not drawing such a connection? Who is and is not trying to score political points around it? There’s been a flurry of writing on the subject recently.
We begin with today’s Muckraker … which follows up on this post. Our own Amanda Griscom Little argues that, contrary to the assertions of some right-wing cranks, no enviro is in fact claiming that global warming caused the tsunami. What some enviros are claiming is that global warming — along with over-development and other such deleterious human activity — is raising sea levels and reducing or eliminating the natural barriers (mangroves, coral reefs, etc.) that protect coastlines from the worst of the tsunami damage. As a result, the damage was worse than it needed to be, and will be worse yet in the next catastrophe.
On the issue of those natural barriers, Emily Gertz over at WorldChanging has followed her excellent original piece on mangroves with another stellar, link-filled post on the same subject. She promises more to come, so keep an eye out.
On the other hand!
Via Chris Mooney, I see a thoughtful piece in the New Republic by Daniel Sarewitz and Roger A. Pielke Jr., arguing that enviros would be wise not to tie their arguments for action on climate change too closely to the threat of natural disasters.
Lamentably, they start their piece by implying that greens have placed the tsunami on the altar of climate change. Again, this a) would be stupid, and b) hasn’t actually happened. Their examples, like the examples of the cranks Amanda cites, don’t support the implication.
However, Sarewitz and Pielke go on to mount a highly persuasive argument that when it comes to natural disasters — our vulnerability to them, their rising toll, the need for better preparedness — global warming is a relatively tangential issue. The real problems are socioeconomic.
Data from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels, Belgium, as well as the Red Cross and the reinsurance industry, show that the number of disasters affecting at least 100 people or resulting in a call for international assistance has increased from an average of about 100 per year in the late ’60s to between 500 and 800 per year by the early twenty-first century. The reason is not an increase in the frequency or severity of storms, earthquakes, or similar events, but an increase in vulnerability because of growing populations, expanding economies, rapid urbanization, and migrations to coasts and other exposed regions.
While such disasters cost developed nations more in absolute terms, the per capita costs — not to mention the toll in human lives and injuries — is far higher in developing nations.
Disasters disproportionately harm poor people in poor countries because those countries typically have densely populated coastal regions, shoddily constructed buildings, sparse infrastructure, and grossly inadequate public health capabilities. Poor land use leads to widespread environmental degradation, such as deforestation and wetlands destruction, which in turn exacerbates flooding and landslides. Emergency preparation and response capabilities are often inadequate, and hazard insurance is usually unavailable, further slowing recovery. Thus, while the world’s poorest 35 countries make up only about 10 percent of the world’s population, they suffered more than half of the disaster-related deaths between 1992 and 2001.
What can be done, both to reduce the vulnerability gap between rich and poor nations and to reduce the overall impact of disasters? Despite what you might think from following the flow of research money, international conferences, and public statements from enviros, “it is absurd,” the authors say, “to suggest that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an important part of the answer.”
Empirical research strongly suggests that global warming has not increased the harmfulness of weather-related natural disasters in the past century, though it is likely to do so in the future. But even that future increase pales beside the ongoing rise in disaster-related deaths, which is precipitous and immediate and calls out for an equally urgent response.
Most tools needed to reduce disaster vulnerability already exist, such as risk assessment techniques, better building codes and code enforcement, land-use standards, and emergency-preparedness plans. The question is why disaster vulnerability is so low on the list of global development priorities.
Sarewitz and Pielke are too hard on greens in their piece, saying those who link global warming and natural disasters are either “ill-informed or dishonest” — even as they acknowledge such a link exists. Their point, though, is that the link is tenuous and speculative, while the death toll of natural disasters is not.
There’s a larger point here for environmentalists. Global warming is a serious issue and warrants concerted action. But it is not the only issue, and it will not serve the environmental cause well to be associated exclusively with unremitting climate-change alarmism as a response to every issue. Deforestation, wetlands loss, and over-development are all ecological issues more directly pertinent to disaster preparedness than global warming. And on a broader level, the only thing that will prevent these ecological losses is development: lifting the poor of the world out of poverty, reducing the distance between the gap and the core. Enviros are, as I’ve said before, often hobbled by their single-issue focus. If we, not as enviros but as progressives, really want to reduce human suffering and protect the global environment, our energy and time is often best spent tackling ecological problems indirectly — by fighting poverty, pushing for third-world debt relief, lobbying for fairer and more progressive tax policy in developed nations, and working to find and celebrate examples of the kind of entrepreneurial innovations in energy, transportation, urban planning, medicine, politics, etc. that will create a world where ecological health is a natural (pardon the pun) side effect.
UPDATE: See related comments from U.N. Environment Program chief Klaus Toepfer. He says straightforwardly that climate change and the tsunami are not connected, but adds re: climate change and natural disasters, “I’m convinced it would be a massive mistake to try to calculate one threat against the other.” This is insanity. We do not have unlimited time and resources. At least in the short term, of course we have to calculate one against the other.