While the world is buzzing on Hurricane Harvey, an even deadlier disaster is unfolding in some parts of Africa and South Asia. With areas like Makurdi in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Mumbai in India recently submerged in catastrophic floods, tens of thousands of people are facing a terrifying and real struggle to survive right now. The level of damages can be assessed going by images that have inundated global newsfeeds.
There have been action calls to help the victims, which in most cases takes the form of donating aid. However, have we thought about the long-term response? What about support for efforts to promote future disaster resilience? Or action on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that’s fueling global warming itself?
Raising these issues during disaster can come across as insensitive and untimely – people need “help not lectures”, as one commentator put it. The story that most matters in situations like this is the effect it’s having on lives and properties. But then, it’s grossly irresponsible to leave climate change out of the picture. While the need for urgent relief cannot be disputed, there is also a strong case that the immediate aftermath of disaster is exactly when wider issues need to be raised. Not least because right now is when politicians would rather they were not.
Tropical cyclones are, of course, a natural feature of our climate. But the extreme impacts of recent storms have led to questions over whether climate change is to blame. A warming climate fuels sea-level rise, which is the result of the thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of glaciers. Higher seas mean bigger storm surges, which can be devastating. But when the seas are higher, it also means that it is more difficult to drain rainwater into the ocean. Then what happens – the water will have nowhere to go.
Flooding events are not new globally. Nonetheless given what scientists know now about how rising CO2 levels impact the climate, it will be very wrong to classify the latest events as purely ‘natural’. The man-made contributions to the environmental disasters across the globe suggest that there might be man-made solutions as well. For many years, climate scientists and experts have been predicting that climate change would lead to more frequent and more extreme weather events; evidence now abounds today that they were right.
To echo a statement of Obama presidential adviser, John Holdren, “We will end up with some mix of prevention, adaptation, and suffering; it is up to us to determine the ratio”. It points out a powerful way to approach climate change issues. It emphasizes the consequences of our inaction. We prevent what we can, we adjust to what we can’t prevent, and we suffer what we can’t adjust to. The status quo is not just an option.
The flooding cases in places like Benue and Houston should be a wake-up call that forces governments and big polluters (corporations) to curb climate change-causing carbon emissions enough to prevent its worst effects – or at least to consider some mitigation strategies during the community rebuild process.
More than ever, we now have a moral duty to talk about climate change and commit to ‘real’ actions. Over the last two years the world has come together to fight for our shared future. With the Paris Agreement ratified, nations must genuinely act on their climate commitments. Businesses must step forward to set science-based targets for action and grassroots movements should be intensified to leave no one behind in the global quest for sustainability.
We need to move faster, aim higher and act with decisiveness and determination to avoid the Harveys of the future – which will even be worse. We owe this to humanity and future generations.
Written by ECYL: Babajide Oluwase writes from Lagos, Nigeria.
He can be reached at [email protected]