By Nathália Clark
How do you explain to a child that we need not fear the rain when we hear that more than 1200 people died in floods caused by storms in Nepal, India and Bangladesh in recent months? How do you tell them not to be afraid the wind when we see how hurricane Harvey in the United States left at least 18 dead and dozens injured in two days during its path through the state of Texas? How can we carry on as though nothing is wrong, when in Brazil 1296 cities are in a state of emergency due to extreme weather events such as droughts and floods?
How can we convince the inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere that they will not be affected by the events taking place in the Northern Hemisphere and vice versa, when all these disasters are interconnected? How can we continue to call these “natural” phenomena, absolving ourselves from our own responsibility, when we know that human actions are the main drivers of global warming? How can we say that the world is healthy when we continue to burn fossil fuels, even though we have known for decades that they are the largest emitters of the gases that cause the greenhouse effect?
There is only one common cause for the disasters that are currently occurring in every corner of the world: climate change. With the intensification of emissions, the planet’s climate becomes warmer and warmer, disrupting rainfall patterns, affecting the level and temperature of the sea, and causing irreversible social and environmental impacts. And we humans must assume a significant share of the blame. Directly or indirectly. Whether through the actions of those who insist on using polluting sources for energy production, or through the inaction of those who do not prevent that from happening.
In South Asia, countries often suffer from floods during the monsoon season, from June to September. But international aid agencies say that this year things have gotten worse, leaving thousands of villages devastated, people homeless, and refugees far from their homes, deprived of food and clean water for days. In the United States, it is estimated that more than 6 million people have been impacted by Harvey, which has been heralded as the most powerful ‘not-so-natural’ phenomenon to hit the country in 13 years, and the most intense hurricane in Texas since 1961. More than 1,200 millimeters of rain fell in two days in Houston, the oil capital. Ironically, the country’s largest refinery, located in the Texan city of Port Arthur, had to close its doors because of the flooding.
But such powerful phenomena do not occur out of the blue. In contact with warm seas, storms thrive and accelerate until they become devastating hurricanes. And the sea in Texas was between 2 and 7 degrees above its usual temperature before Harvey. That means more water evaporated during the formation of the storm and more rain fell on the coast. So it quickly grew from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane, with winds of about 200 km/h. The force of the storm also brought storm surges, increasing the sea level, which has already risen at least 30 cm since the 1960s in the Gulf of Mexico.
In Brazil, according to data released by the Ministry of National Integration, since the beginning of the year, a quarter of Brazilian municipalities have already asked for help from the federal government due to heavy rains in the south of the country and one of the most severe droughts ever recorded in the Northeast. Most emergency situations (71%) are due to drought. The remaining 29% are caused by storms, floods, and landslides.
In May, the rain in Maceió killed eight people and left thousands homeless. In Fortaleza, the drought affected 900 thousand inhabitants. The capital, Brasília, where water rationing is currently in force, has already had 100 days with no rain and has been in a state of emergency since February. In the state of Paraíba, 196 out of 223 cities are experiencing drought. The Ministry of Integration says it has transferred a total of 200 million BRL (64 million USD) to cities in a state of emergency for relief actions, humanitarian assistance, restoration of services, and recovery of damaged structures.
Climate change does not discriminate, or spare anyone anywhere in the world. Argentina, home to one of the world’s largest shale gas reserves in the Vaca Muerta region, province of Neuquén, is also suffering the impacts of climate change. In March, a strong heat wave killed dozens of calves in the province of La Pampa. According to the veterinarian who examined the dead animals on one of the region’s farms, they suffered heart attacks caused by continuous exposure to high temperatures, which reached 40oC in a season whose average is 16oC.
A warmer planet with warmer oceans means that weather events of rapid and unusual intensification are more likely, increasing the occurrence of extreme disasters, the once occasional or seasonal phenomenon becoming commonplace. It is not “natural” for millions of people to suffer the consequences of the actions of only a few, who prioritize profit over the well-being of populations. We cannot naturalize death. Be it family, neighbors or the world as we know it.
Denying or ignoring science does not prepare us physically, psychologically or financially to deal with the disasters and climatic challenges that we have experienced on a daily basis in different regions. To stop these disasters, we should stop the fossil industry now, preventing it from continuing to put coal, oil and gas above the survival of humanity.
This means that there can be no more wells or mines to exploit these fuels, whether new or existing. It also means that the world’s governments must take responsibility for climate change by creating and implementing resilience and adaptation policies for all cities, as well as initiating an urgent transition to renewable, equitable, free, and accessible renewable energy sources, in all sectors of the economy. And this must be done immediately. Before it’s too late.