The Climate Catastrophe Trail Leads to Our Doorstep – Believe It

August 23, 2010
The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door."It's humbug still!" said Scrooge. "I won't believe it."His color changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes.-Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carolsummer floods in pakistanIt’s been a wild year, with NASA reporting the highest global temperatures since record-keeping began, catastrophic drought in Russia, China’s worst flooding in a decade, catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and, closer to home, massive flooding in Tennessee and other states, along with three wild storms in July that inflicted severe damage on the DC metro area.  Of course, as the climate skeptics continually remind us, “weather is not climate.”  Could the skeptics be right when they claim that this year’s climate catastrophes are nothing more than newsworthy anomalies, and that climate change remains a distant threat (if that)?spring floods in the U.S.Let’s probe this view by considering two countries that loom large in American thinking – Pakistan and the United States itself.  I’ll begin with Pakistan, currently suffering from an unprecedented flood disaster, with a fifth of the country submerged, thousands killed, and millions facing the loss of their homes and livelihood.  Our response to the tragedy has blended charitable and political concerns, with the latter dominating U.S. media reports from this “frontline state.”  Small airmobile teams from the U.S. military have performed admirably, delivering emergency relief supplies to some stranded rural villagers.  American food and financial aid are beginning to flow in, propelled by fear of competition on the ground from the Pakistani Taliban and their political allies.  But, as my colleagues Molly Kinder and Wren Elhai note in their lead story on CGD’s website, U.S. contributions early last week were still a paltry $90 million -- about what Madonna paid for her divorce settlement.  Well, the sympathetic skeptic might say, we do what we can in these recessionary times when acts of God -- floods, droughts, whatever -- strike poor countries.graphsLet’s consider another possibility by turning from today’s weather to climate – the long-term pattern of weather events.  To assess the Pakistani case, I have extracted long-term data on extreme weather-related events from my recent research on the global determinants of climate resilience.  These data are published by the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), affiliated with the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium.  My analysis combines CRED’s reports of people seriously affected by disasters in five weather-related categories: floods, droughts, extreme temperatures, wild fires and wind storms.  For 1980-2008, Chart 1 shows the annual probability that an average Pakistani was affected by one of these disasters.  I’m forced to use a logarithmic scale for clear inter-period comparison, because the probability has jumped sharply: from an average of 1-10 per million in the 1980’s to 1,000 to 10,000 per million since then.  This increase, applied to a population that has doubled since 1980, has had a huge effect on Pakistan.  Chart 3 shows the trend in average annual impacts: from less than 1,000 people affected in the early 1980’s to over 2,000,000 in recent years.  This clear pattern makes today’s Pakistani flood disaster look much less like an anomaly, and much more like the reflection of a deteriorating climate.Not so fast, the educated skeptic may protest – lots of things unrelated to climate can affect reported human exposure to natural disasters.  Take floods, for example.  Since 1980, Pakistan has experienced rapid urbanization, slum formation, and settlement in marginal areas that may be more flood-prone.  Rapid infrastructure construction with scant attention to drainage may have increased runoff rates and flooding during the monsoon.  And, of course, CRED’s disaster reporting for this poor country may simply have improved over time.  So perhaps the rapid increase is mostly or entirely attributable to human factors, not worsening climate.Let’s test this idea by turning to a counterfactual case:  the United States, an advanced society with full disaster reporting that has not experienced Pakistan’s massive unregulated urbanization of the marginal poor since 1980.  Chart 2 tracks the annual probability that an average American was affected by a climate-related disaster.  And – well, what do you know? – it eerily reproduces the Pakistani case in Chart 1.  In the United States, the probability has risen from an average of 1-100 per million in the 1980’s to 1,000 – 10,000 per million in the current decade.  As Chart 3 shows, the impact on Americans has been sobering:  from an average of 1,000 affected per year in the early 80’s to over 2 million by 2008.  I’m not the first to notice this, by the way – the U.S. government has been documenting it for quite a while.In research to be published this fall, I will show that the U.S. and Pakistani cases are not unusual.  As my colleague Jan von der Goltz notes in his blog today, a similar jump in climate-related volatility is occurring all over the world as greenhouse gas accumulation warms the planet.  As we have known for a long time, the United States is by far the world’s largest contributor to this accumulation.  And, as we have seen time and again, Congressional action on greenhouse emissions is stymied by a blocking minority of American states that rely heavily on coal-fired power.With these facts in hand, let’s rebalance the Pakistani humanitarian and political accounts from the climate perspective.  As Chart 3 indicates, millions of Pakistanis now suffer from deteriorating conditions that are directly traceable to greenhouse emissions from the United States.  These losses dwarf any aid the United States has offered, or is likely to offer.  Obviously, it is an act of monumental hypocrisy (not to mention geopolitical stupidity) to smile sympathetically and offer palliatives in the face of steadily-mounting climate disasters that we are instrumental in causing.  And none of this is likely to elude the Pakistani people for long.To compound the injury, the American data show that we’re doing the same thing to ourselves.  So, from both local and global perspectives, U.S. climate deniers have become like Scrooge in Dickens’ fable, shouting “humbug – I won’t believe it”, even as the specter of climate disaster crashes right into the room.  There’s perverse justice in our self-inflicted wound, I suppose, but it offers cold comfort to billions of the world’s poor who are taking the same hit without our rich-country protective systems.I can safely predict that this won’t continue.  Even if America’s recalcitrants channel Scrooge by ignoring the scientists, we’ll soon hear loud and clear from the millions in poor countries whose leaders will trace their catastrophic losses to our doorstep.  This is already happening in Pakistan, where Environment Minister Hameed Ullah Jan Afridi has publicly identified global warming as the main cause of the floods, while noting that Pakistan emits only 0.4 percent of world greenhouse gases.  Over time, the majority of Pakistanis and others afflicted by climate catastrophes will come to believe that we’re the source of their misery, whatever our climate deniers claim.  And once that happens, the Pentagon and State might as well cash in their chips.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.