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Climate Change

Ilan Kelman

We hear so much these days about climate change. We are told that it is a climate crisis and that the climate emergency will kill us all. What does it really mean for civil protection and emergency management?

The first step is understanding climate change and then we can examine its links to emergencies, crises, and disasters. Using definitions from the United Nations, climate change is straightforward: weather statistics shifting over decades. In other words, it is long-term changes to weather patterns which, of course, have occurred since our planet formed.

The concern today is that our activities are rapidly and substantively affecting the climate, even as natural changes continue. We emit greenhouse gases while wrecking ecosystems that absorb these gases, so the atmosphere captures more of the Sun’s heat, warming the Earth, and changing the weather. This is human-caused climate change.

Does weather cause disasters?

Why should changing weather be a problem? We have known for decades that the term ‘natural disaster’ is a misnomer, because disasters are not natural (O’Keefe et al., 1976).

Disasters do not happen due to weather or earthquakes, since we observe that similar phenomena sometimes lead to a disaster and sometimes do not. Many places handle a metre or so of snow (Figure 1) whereas London shuts down at about two centimetres.

 

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Civil protection and emergency management exist to help in these situations and to avoid them through disaster risk reduction (DRR). Wider scopes of averting disasters incorporate building codes, planning regulations, warnings, and many others.

More so, we avert disasters and improve response by providing people with the resources, opportunities, and power to be able to help themselves and those around them. Most disaster casualties are somehow marginalised from or poorer than those who can find and interpret information about their environment, make choices about where and how they live, purchase and retrofit their dwelling, buy insurance, be flexible and diverse in livelihoods, evacuate in their own vehicle to a hotel or friends, and afford heating and cooling their home among a whole host of options.

People facing everyday discrimination – such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and linguicism – have fewer choices than others. If an evacuation route has only stairs, then people using wheelchairs are in trouble through no fault of their own.

As such, disasters are determined not by the environment, but by how society treats each other so that people and communities can or cannot be ready for environmental phenomena, including weather. This point of ‘no natural disasters’ is a long-standing tenet in disaster science (Aronsson-Storrier and Dahlberg, 2022; Hewitt, 1983; Lewis, 1999; Puttick et al., 2018; Wisner et al., 2004).

Human-caused climate change is changing weather. Hurricanes are more intense and less frequent while fire weather is increasing in intensity, frequency, and duration (Figure 2). Cold weather is tending to lessen, but heat waves are the terrifying exception to the rule that climate change does not cause disasters.

 

Heat-humidity combinations have now been pushed by human-caused climate change into realms which are beyond human survival. Labourers such as agricultural, construction, and garment factory workers must endure air temperature and humidity which kill. Those who can afford it might use air conditioning, consuming a lot of energy and exacerbating human-caused climate change. As is common, those who can least afford to adopt their own measures against heat-humidity will die or will be forced to leave their homes.

Devastatingly lethal heat-humidity from human-caused climate change is a frightening emergency now. We might need to abandon large swathes of land, helping people to move. Much of this land is farmed, so we would need to re-jig the world’s food supply. The best way to avoid all this is to stop heating the planet.

Other major impacts from human-caused climate change leading to massive upheavals could manifest in the coming decades and centuries. Key ones are rising sea levels (Figure 3), acidifying oceans, releasing methane from methane hydrates, and changing ocean currents and permafrost. None have been shown to lead to human extinction, obviating the statement of climate change as an existential threat to us, but the future consequences would be calamitous. The concern immediately for protection and emergencies remains heat-humidity.

Beyond climate change

Yet if civil protection and emergency management permit human-caused climate change to dominate decisions, then more problems would be caused than solved. Imagine that we miraculously achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow without any changes to energy, food, or water! Would all our difficulties vanish?

We would still be exploiting people and the environment as much as we could get away with. Deforestation, overfishing, release of toxins, hunting animals to extinction, and freshwater depletion continue apace, irrespective of climate change. Where there is a profit to be made or a power game to enjoy, people enthusiastically pursue human trafficking, drugs and weapons deals, corruption, child labour and marriage, female genital mutilation, and organ harvesting.

Human-caused climate change originates from the same baseline as all these societal ills, the baseline of human values which is the real cause of disasters, crises, and emergencies. We do not have a climate crisis or an earthquake emergency as much as we have a problem from human attitudes and behaviour. It is a crisis of those with the power to do better by helping themselves and others instead pursuing immediate exploitation and destruction of people and the environment.

Improving these values should be our fundamental action. It is not directly within the remit of standard civil protection and emergency management. It nonetheless supports these activities by linking society and the environment, by connecting short-term and long-term, and by involving the local to the global. Human-caused

climate change is one symptom among many of our ruinous and unsustainable values, perpetuated by those with power and resources against those without. It is far from the only symptom.

Instead, we can pivot toward the ethos from civil protection and emergency management of caring for ourselves and others. We can enfold human-caused climate change and its root causes within wider short-term, medium-term, and long-term futures.

We still must reduce emissions and increase uptake of greenhouse gases – called ‘climate change mitigation’ and which is no different in principle and practice from dealing with other pollutants. We still must adjust to the impacts that climate change is causing now, which will worsen soon – called ‘climate change adaptation’ and which is no different in principle and practice from dealing with other environmental phenomena, as in disaster risk reduction. Figure 4 connects us all without denigrating the need for our specialties or distracting from important focuses.

 

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Values change, not climate change

Separating climate change causes, impacts, and actions from our other difficulties denigrates and distracts from them. Human-caused climate change is a hugely important topic without being the only hugely important one. The real crisis is in ourselves, not the environment.

By highlighting that values cause climate change among other predicaments, we ensure that we seek to change ourselves through changing our values, attitudes, and behaviour.

Then, environmental changes, both natural and human-caused, can be made for the benefit of us living on Earth – with civil protection and emergency management as an integral contribution.

References

Aronsson-Storrier, M. and R. Dahlberg (Eds.). (2022). Defining Disaster: Disciplines and Domains. Chelternham: Edward Elgar.

Hewitt, K. (Ed.). (1983). Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. London: Allen & Unwin.

Kelman, I. (2017). Linking disaster risk reduction, climate change, and the sustainable development goals. Disaster Prevention and Management, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 254-258.

Lewis, J. (1999). Development in Disaster-prone Places: Studies of Vulnerability. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.

O’Keefe, P., K. Westgate, and B. Wisner. (1976). Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters. Nature, vol. 260, pp. 566-567.

Puttick, S., L. Bosher, and K. Chmutina. 2018. Disasters are not natural. Teaching Geography, vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 118-120.

Wisner, B., P. Blaikie, T. Cannon, and I. Davis. (2004). At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters, (2nd ed.). Abingdon: Routledge.

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