The recent weeks have brought over the world what, in ancient cultures, might have been considered the wrath of the Gods. Nowadays, we call it the wrath of human-induced climate change.
Hurricanes leaving entire islands in the Caribbean flattened, causing billions of dollars in damage to major U.S. cities, floods and landslides are killing hundreds of people in South Asia and burying more than a thousand people in Sierra Leone.
These catastrophes pose a major threat–to those affected.
What is missing in the general debate about the effects of climate change is a rational consideration of those really suffering. These storms, floods and landslides are examples of extreme weather events brought on by global warming. They are terrible, but mostly for poor people without the resources to rebuild or effective government regulation and services, nor insurance protecting their lives and livelihoods. Climate change is thereby driving a further increase in the gap between rich and poor, both between nations and between groups within nations. This impact will continue, regardless of whether we turn back current climate trends or not.
Many scientists in the field talk about this being the Anthropocene–a geological age in Earth history where biological and geological processes on our planet are strongly shaped by human action.
In such an age, we can make changes to our interactions with other forms of life on Earth to address challenges facing the entire world in the long term. Recent efforts like the Paris Agreement are aiming towards this, most notably with the goal of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius compared to pre-Industrial levels. Developments in sustainable energy solutions as well as water, forest or soil use also help limiting negative human impact on the natural wonders of this world. But much damage is already done.
The recent catastrophes should be a wake-up call. Action on the climate is happening but it will not be fast enough. Buried under the mantle of discussion about effects on nature the international community has ignored that millions of people already suffer from more extreme weather patterns and events. They are sometimes related–like deforestation leading to erosion, leading to landslides, leading to human deaths. However, many changes to nature have already taken place and we can no longer stop them from affecting us.
We can still change the impact of climate disasters on society.
A first step could be to recognise climate change as a valid reason for migration under the Geneva Convention. Climate refugees will become an ever more significant issue: New Zealand and Australia already face requests from Pacific Islanders to resettle as the ocean takes over their island states. Droughts and related famines are increasingly causing migration and are even considered to be part of the factors underlying the Arab Spring. Humanity caused climate change, it must also take care of its most affected members.
This would have to be accompanied by clear measures to determine whether climate change indeed caused the inability of continued habitation of a place and therefore warrants migration.
While developed countries will likely not be partial to this, they should be aware that climate change is a ticking time bomb of inevitable illegal migration that could more easily be dealt with using clear international standards and relocation programs.
Wealthy nations will have to accept a legal framework or the death of thousands on rich nations’ doorsteps that will delegitimize the morality of Western-imposed standards and their acceptance in the world.
Second, culprits for climate change should not not just pay reparations for obvious mistakes–think BP for Deepwater Horizon–but also into general catastrophe relief funds for natural disasters.
This means putting pressure on governments to make industries like the automotive, energy and agricultural sectors not just reform to avoid future global warming, but also pay disaster relief expenses for the current victims of changing weather patterns.
Such accountability will also not be welcomed but is necessary. It would mean that so-called climate defenders who signed the Paris Agreement do not just care about future benefits of sustainable economies that also reduce pollution, but also recognize the impacts of damage already done. If a healthcare company needs to pay reparations to customers harmed by its products, an oil company should pay for its damage to the environment.
Lastly, the debate and education about the climate should no longer stop at measures on how to “save the planet” but should extend to measures on how to protect those affected. That means preparing vulnerable communities for disasters to come with better urban planning and coverage through insurance and reparation deals as well as continuously improving disaster management through sharing best practices globally. Humans have always dealt with natural disaster, we need to get better at it as extreme events increase.
The question should no longer be about the fact that the Earth is warming but about how we can help those who are suffering.
The inconvenient truth is not just that the climate is getting warmer and more extreme, it is also that these changes are destroying the lives of the most vulnerable and predominantly innocent.
The Paris Agreement is a good start on solving the long-term implications. Now, we need another agreement to address the imminent threats of destruction of communities, cities and entire nations and how the world can take care of these people.