Our thoughts are with the communities affected by the recent extreme weather events around the globe. UKYCC has recently begun to track these events, to show how frequent they are becoming and to make sure they are not forgotten when the media stops reporting. See our climate violence tracker map for a list of extreme weather events occurring since August 2017.
In the past few weeks, floods have devastated communities around the world, taking thousands of lives and forcing the populations of entire cities to flee their homes and abandon their livelihoods. To talk about the physical cause of these floods- extreme weather events bringing torrential rain, which is likely to have been worsened by climate change- only scratches the surface. The fates of those affected will depend on the vulnerability of their communities and infrastructure, how wealthy their country is and where governments choose to allocate aid and resources. Sadly, it is likely to be those who were already struggling before the floods who will suffer the most- and this is what we should be fighting to prevent in the aftermath.
Hurricane Harvey and its effects in Houston have been front page news for the past few weeks, and deservedly so – thousands of homes have been destroyed, and over 45 people have died. But at the same time, devastating floods have been happening in other countries across the world. Flash floods have killed at least 44 people in Niger since June, 15 people in Yemen over the past week, and India, Nepal and Bangladesh are currently seeing one of the deadliest monsoon flooding events in years, with millions of people affected and death tolls in the thousands.
These events have received varying levels of coverage by the media in the Global North, seemingly unrelated to their severity or the number of people affected. It is important not to pit one disaster against another, but also to recognise this imbalance in reporting, and how it is unfortunately systemic. Much like the violence of war, violent extreme weather is seen through a skewed lens. Though their situation is not good, those most privileged, be that in terms of wealth, location or nationality, continue to be put in a privileged position when the media dictates that their lives are more worthy of attention than others. Press coverage does not necessarily determine where aid goes, but it gives an indicator of who the world is paying attention to, and whose voices will not be heard.
The inequality of the impact of this extreme weather is also felt within countries and communities. In America, those with the most influence tend to be those with the most money, and money talks in politics. Often, the systems used to allocate flood defence spending focus on the value of assets in an area rather than human life, leading to a skew in defences towards protecting the rich. Wealthier areas of Houston had better flood defences, so the impact on these communities was lessened compared to the poorer communities close to the flood plains. These areas have been dubbed ‘sacrifice zones’ due to their proximity to petrochemical plants, already unsafe areas before the floods- placed far enough out of town to protect those with money, but putting those in the sprawling suburbs at risk. Combine fewer flood defences with these plants, which are liable to emit toxic fumes and contaminate water during a flood event, and you can see that the impact of the flood is much worse for those less prepared, often already struggling in their local environment due to pollution.
This inequality continues in the aftermath of an event, in the decisions made by governments in the panic of emergency. Often, disasters result in a land grab by corporations, or the dismantling of public services by opportunistic right-wing governments. Hurricane Katrina was a prime example of this- in the clean-up, public housing projects, hospitals, and schools were closed en masse, leaving the survivors of the flood even more vulnerable and unable to get on with their lives.
The factors determining how destructive an extreme weather event will be depend on decisions made years before the event itself occurs, and how the clean-up is operated will dictate victims lives for years after. Helping those affected by extreme weather is not simply a matter of donating aid during the few days when the event is in the public eye. It is a matter of challenging the systems that value certain lives above others- whether that be the media, politics, or the economic system.
It is time that we woke up and stopped treating these disasters as random acts of nature that we have no control over- we, humanity, are very much in control of what happens next. By helping poorer communities to become less vulnerable, putting pressure on the media and governments to value all lives equally, and pushing for meaningful action on climate change, we can tackle these disasters. Climate change is the biggest injustice of our time, not only in the disparity of who gains from its causes, but also who experiences its worst effects. Problems of inequality cannot be resolved without effective climate change adaptation and mitigation, and adaptation and mitigation won’t work unless problems of inequality are resolved.