I’m starting to better understand why some reasonable people are often concerned about the way in which the impact of extreme weather events are sometimes framed. It’s quite well explained in this recent paper by Myanna Lahsen and Jesse Ribot called the [p]olitics of attributing extreme events and disasters to climate change.
As I understand it, the basic issue is that the impact of an extreme weather event on a community typically depends quite strongly on how vulnerable or, conversely, how resilient the community happens to be. If a particular community has invested in becoming more resilient, they may be far less severely impacted than another community who have either chosen not to make such investments, or have not been in a position to do so.
So, even if one can demonstrate that climate change has influenced the severity of an extreme weather event, one should be cautious of claiming that it has had a significant influence on the resulting damages to the communities that are affected. Various socio-economic factors will almost certainly play a very large role, and framing it as being due to climate change can end up over-looking these important socio-political factors. It can also allow local policy makers to absolve themselves of responsibility.
However, as the paper above does acknowledge, how we frame these kind of things always involves some kind of judgement. The climate is clearly changing, this is mostly due to human emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and it will almost certainly influence extreme weather events. It also won’t stop until we get emissions to ~zero.
It may well be that socio-economic influences are often the dominant factor in determining how vulnerable a community is to extreme weather events. However, this may not remain true if we continue to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It could be that communities that are currently resilient may struggle to maintain this, and there may be no level of investment that will make some vulnerable communities sufficiently resilient.
However, I completely agree that we have to be careful of how we frame the impact of extreme weather events, and should try to be aware of how our own biases may influence how we choose to do so. We should also distinguish between the influence of climate change on the extreme event itself, and the subsequent impact of the extreme event on local communities. Socio-economic factors may well play a much larger role in the latter than climate change.
However, we also mustn’t – in my opinion – lose sight of the fact that climate change is happening, that it will almost certainly increase the frequency and intensity of many extreme weather events, and that these changes will continue until human emissions of greenhouse gases get to zero. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t also important to invest in making communities more resilient, but maintaining this resilience will be increasingly challenging if we don’t also act to stop climate change.
Politics of attributing extreme events and disasters to climate change — paper by Myanna Lahsen and Jesse Ribot