Climate change becomes a crisis when it disrupts people’s lives and communities. This happens often, all around the globe, and in many forms. However, few are as dangerous, sudden and unexpected as floods. We know the fossil fuel industry is behind this deadly face of global heating. Read on, and unmask them!
When the water rises
Defining a flood is deceptively easy: it’s what happens when water is where it shouldn’t be. But let’s get a bit more precise: a flood occurs when a body of water (a river, a lake, a stream, or even the sea) overflows beyond its normal levels and takes over dry land. They happen after heavy rainfall, fast snow or ice melt or with unusually high tides and storm surges. Floods often happen very quickly, and with devastating consequences. When they happen over a period of just a few hours, we call them flash floods.
Floods can happen anywhere, but some areas are more vulnerable than others. These include low-lying areas with large rivers, such as the Mekong delta and Bangladesh. Coastal cities like Miami or Mumbai are also exposed to coastal flooding, and areas affected by heavy rain or snow melt, such as the Indian subcontinent are regularly flooded. Finally, cities are very vulnerable unless they have a very good and highly maintained drainage system, as concrete can’t absorb the excess water.
Floods are one of the most dangerous impacts of climate change, particularly when they take place unexpectedly in inhabited areas. They can damage or destroy basic infrastructure such as housing, roads and railways, communication infrastructure, hospitals, schools, businesses and any other buildings. They can also increase health hazards in the short and long term and jeopardize food and water security.
Like many other impacts of climate change, floods tend to affect lower-income communities more severely than others. This happens for many reasons: poorer people are often left with no other option except to take over housing that is cheaper or offers easier access to jobs, and they are less likely to recover in time from one flood to the next. Other inequalities also become apparent when floods affect communities: they disproportionally impact women, children, the elderly, people of colour and indigenous communities.
The physics of the flood
Floods can be a regular and natural event and, for many people, they are traditionally positive, even crucial in their lives. For example, areas such as the flood plains around the Nile, the Brahmaputra or the Yangtze rivers wouldn’t be as fertile without seasonal flooding. Despite that, they are also destructive and communities there have adapted to keep their vital infrastructure from being damaged. However, as temperatures raise, traditional patterns in flood-prone areas are disrupted, which means that communities can’t protect themselves as effectively.
Climate change makes floods more intense, unpredictable and devastating. But why? The answer to this question is complex and depends on the individual location and time of each flood, but we can start our investigation by looking at a simple verifiable fact: global heating is making the air warmer, and warmer air can absorb more moisture. In turn, this excess water in the air comes down in shorter and more intense downpours, which are, by definition, more unpredictable.
Warmer air also means that our atmosphere contains more energy, which translates into more storms and cyclones, which can cause devastating storm surges and coastal and inland flooding. Finally, as temperature rises, permanently frozen areas such as high mountain snowpacks and glaciers melt faster, flooding their regular draining systems.
Because human communities are often placed in coastal, low-lying and riverside locations, an increase in the intensity and unpredictability of floods makes them more devastating.
The fossil footprint
We’ve seen that floods are becoming more intense and unpredictable. They are damaging more people, disproportionately impacting unprivileged communities and individuals. This pattern of increasingly severe floods can be linked to a hotter atmosphere. And this hotter atmosphere has a direct, identifiable cause.
Global heating is caused by an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases, mostly (but not only) CO2 and CH4. These are found naturally in the atmosphere, but since we started massively burning fossil fuels, the concentration has been growing exponentially.
The increase in the concentration of CO2 is linked to fossil fuels. There isn’t any other possible source (not volcanos, not clouds, not solar cycles, nothing). CH4 is also massively linked to fossil fuels and land use change. Studies and data have widely proven that: the debate is over.
The coal, oil and gas industries have massively profited from an economic model that forces people to use fossil fuels and they continue to profit from it. Reports have proven that they knew the damage they were causing since at least the 1970s, and that, instead of abandoning their business model, they actively worked to disinform the public. They still do. We keep burning fossil fuels because they choose (and they chose then) to use their power for that purpose.
But even if we cannot stop floods completely, we can stop the fossil fuels industry. People around the world have been fighting to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground, to cut the financial flows that allow this industry to still exist and to push for a more equitable and clean future. If you haven’t yet, join us!