OPINION: The climate crisis is a massive problem, but when politicians fault it entirely for every disaster, attention is deflected from local measures that might build resiliency. That needs to change.
More than a million people were left starving in southern Madagascar last year after failed rains left the land barren and crops nonexistent. The United Nations said the country was on the brink of the “world’s first climate change famine.” But that’s just wrong.
Of course, it is a good thing to raise awareness about the perils of climate change, and to hammer home to people how our warming world can spur droughts and cause food supply lines to fail. Climate change does make floods, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires worse in many ways, and humanity needs to be doing everything in our power to rapidly lower our greenhouse gas emissions to net zero.
But climate change is not responsible for everythingnor are international efforts to curb climate change the only important way to mitigate disasters. It helps no one if we simplify the climate story so much that it becomes false.
I should know, as one of the cofounders of World Weather Attribution (WWA), an international collaboration of scientists dedicated to identifying the underlying causes of weather-related disasters. For the lack of rain in southern Madagascar, specifically, there is no causal link to human-caused climate change. Likewise, for the tropical cyclones that struck Madagascar and killed people in Mozambique this spring as buildings collapsed, climate change played a limited role in the subsequent disaster.
It can be appealing for politicians to blame climate change alone for domestic disasters. It deflects responsibility away from individual nations, and onto the multinational corporations and international efforts that must lower the planet’s emissions. But there is also local responsibility, everywhere, for good governance, functioning infrastructure and warning systems. Climate-related disasters are deeply affected by local policies, like those that govern how agriculture is practiced, or whether natural landscapes are protected. Long-standing problems in social services, education and governance cannot be swept aside or ignored.
WWA was founded in 2014, in large part to help raise the flag about the perils of climate change. We wanted to be able to scientifically point fingers – real, evidence-based fingers – at the roots of disaster and show how climate change plays a role.
Attribution studies have been vitally important to public understanding. WWA has worked hard to do rapid assessments of disasters, sometimes showing within days or weeks whether and how much climate change fed into an event. We have so far analyzed 5 cold snaps, 7 droughts, 12 bouts of extreme rainfall, 13 heat waves and 5 storms around the world. For most, we found that climate change played a significant role in making the event more likely or more severe. For two of them, climate change was the main driver: the heat domes over western North America last summer and in Siberia in 2020, both of which were essentially impossible without climate change. When politicians can point to science like this and call climate change a killer, it surely helps them to push through policies to limit emissions.
But for all disasters, there are a great many more factors at play than climate change alone.
In southern Madagascar, for example, two years of poor rain led to a dramatic drought and crop failure in 2021. But the science assessed in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report shows that droughts in that part of the world have not gotten worse – nor are they expected to, as long as global temperature increases stay below 2 ° C. Our WWA analysis came to the same conclusion. We found that similar consecutive failures of rainy seasons have happened here before, and there’s no evidence that this has become more common due to climate change.
Global emissions reductions will not change the risk of drought-related disasters in Madagascar. Reducing local vulnerability will. The population is too reliant on rain-fed agriculture, and deforestation has made that vulnerability worse. Instead of just responding to each individual disaster with food aid, NGOs should more consistently work with local decision-makers to make their agriculture and other systems more resilient. The global North clearly has a responsibility here too: Some of the things that make Madagascar vulnerable are a result of colonialism.
Take another example. The devastating flooding in Germany last year was indeed spurred by heavy rains made about 10 percent more intense by climate change. But bigger factors were at play. The natural landscape in that part of Germany has been paved over by sprawling urban development, leaving very little land to soak up rainfall. There were flood warnings, but they did not reach the people – there was no formal system through radio, TV or apps to reach locals in the area. And once the floods came, there was little information about what to do or which roads were safe.
Rich nations have pledged to spend a hundred billion dollars helping poorer nations adapt to climate change. But I fear that this money will be spent largely on the wrong things. Development banks tend to fund large infrastructure projects like dams, rather than longer-term programs that improve governance, reduce poverty, fight corruption and improve education. When most people think about adaptation, they think about technology. Yet research shows that a key factor determining a society’s resilience in the face of disaster is good governance. Better infrastructure is often needed, but it will not work to its full capacity in a society with poor regulations or education.
Climate change is the greatest issue facing our times, and it is vital that humanity works together to tackle it. But we cannot – must not – allow politicians to blame climate change alone for all disasters and all their impacts, nor shirk their other responsibilities. A just world, where the impacts of disasters are not borne disproportionately by the poor, demands no less.
10.1146 / knowable-041122-1
This article originally appeared in
Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.