With Puerto Rico reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Maris, the U.S. has been inundated with natural disasters lately. We’ve had flooding coast to coast, torrential rains, hail, tornados, wildfires, heat-waves and a series of hurricanes. Worldwide, we see similar stories.
Are these events linked to anthropogenic (human caused) climate change?
First, we need to understand that what makes an event a disaster is often the fact that human populations were affected. Without disruption of human life, we likely would not consider an event a disaster.
Second, we need to understand that weather is not climate. Climate is the larger composite of the average conditions of a geographic region and includes temperature, rainfall, snowfall, snow cover, ice cover and wind.
Weather is what occurred in the last days, weeks or months. Climate change refers to longer-term fluctuations and variations.
We have a general hypothesis that human activity is causing the Earth to warm.
We can test this hypothesis but it takes time. So, we make models. To understand the present, and make predictions about the future, we must understand Earth’s geologic, oceanic and atmospheric past.
We have 4.5 billion years of history. We use proxy data (archives), such as pollen, fossils, tree rings and sediment.
We know Earth has been warmer and colder in the past. We understand the periods of these types of fluctuations. We have models of changes in plate tectonics, Earth’s orbit, strength of the sun, the interactions of the atmosphere, ice, ocean, vegetation and land surface (climate system) and the climate variations (responses) in these systems.
What we see now with the prevalence of natural disasters, is suspiciously similar to what we predict to find as oceans warm when the atmosphere traps heat in what is known as the greenhouse effect.
Beyond models, we must wait to see if the hypothesis proves correct. This is untenable; fortunately, we have tools we can use to make decisions. These include the Four Laws of Ecology, the Biophysical Conditions of Sustainability and the Precautionary Principal.
While we wait to understand the impact of this, I would be remiss if I did not provide some solutions.
First is providing education, employment and family planning to women worldwide. When women have agency concerning their own bodies and lives, human population is naturally lowered.
Second is moving vulnerable populations out of flood zones and coastal regions where disasters occur.
Third is employing appropriate technologies.
Fourth, we could limit the use of the internal combustion engine to only where it is necessary. The same could be said for the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, animal agriculture, fast food culture and use of plastics.
What can individuals do? You can garden (test you soil for pollutants first), cook at home, bicycle, walk, create consensus for the changes that need to be made with your families and neighbors. All of this is to say that we must advocate for personal, social and economic relationships that create these situations. You can also understand the science, economics and ethics of ecology and the environment, though that task is too complex for a short article like this. You are genuinely shortchanging yourself if you do not.
For students interested in learning more about environmental changes, there are plenty of classes available at UMKC. Issues in Environmental Science with Dr. Ahmed Khaldoun, Global Environmental Change with Dr. Jimmy Adegoke, Environmental Ethics with Dr. Jim Sheppard and Environment, Resources and Economic Growth with Professor Mathew Forstater are all great ways to help improve your understanding of the environment.