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It’s Not Just Climate: Are We Ignoring Other Causes of Disasters?

It’s Not Just Climate: Are We Ignoring Other Causes of Disasters?

Digging for water in Madagascar in 2020. Researchers say poor water infrastructure, not drought, was the prime culprit of the country's food crisis.

Mid-July 2013, the small river Kyll, which flows out of the Eifel Mountains in Germany, became a torrential flow that engulfed many riverside towns. This river, along with many other mountain rivers from Germany and Belgium, had already killed more than 220 people by morning. It was the worst flood catastrophe in Western Europe in many decades.

Politicians raced to blame climate change as the cause of the torrential rains that flooded the rivers that night. The world had to be “faster in the battle against climate change,” said German Chancellor Angela MerkelShe toured devastated communities with her husband. Scientists later concluded that the warmer atmosphere had caused such downpours to increase. Nine times more likely.

However, there was another factor that caused the floods. This was something that politicians and media have not mentioned. Hydrologists watching the river flows state that the flooding was caused by the growth of farms in the areas of heavy rainfall. The water was channeled into rivers in seconds rather than days by roadways, field drains, or the removal of natural vegetation.

This suggested a way to prevent future flooding here and elsewhere, which would be much quicker than fixing climate change. Review of unpublished analysis of Kyll by Els Otterman, colleagues at Dutch consultancycy Stroming. Yale Environment 360According to, blocking drains and removing dikes to remove half of the sponges can reduce flood peak flows by more than a third.

Putting all of your attention on climate can lead to policymakers being excused for their failures in climate-proofing their citizens.

Both climate change and poor land drainage are important factors in flooding. While one may require decades of international action, the other can be fixed locally.


This is not limited to what happened in Germany. There is a growing debate among environmentalists about whether it is counterproductive not to always focus upon climate change as a cause for such disasters. Some argue that it ignores local methods of reducing extreme weather vulnerability and can lead to policymakers being excused for their failures to climate-proof citizens.

“Stop blaming the climate for disasters,” says Friederike Otto of Imperial College London, a climatologist who is co-founder of World Weather Attribution, an international collaboration of scientists dedicated to identifying the underlying causes of weather-related disasters. She is determined to call out climate change where it contributes to disaster but cautions that “disasters occur when hazards [such as climate change] meet vulnerability.” And vulnerability has many causes, including bad water or forest management, unplanned urbanization, and social injustices that leave the poor and marginalized at risk.

She concluded that there was also danger in the aforementioned. Paper in January with Emmanuel Raju, a disaster researcher at the University of Copenhagen, and Emily Boyd of Lund University in Sweden, is that knee-jerk attribution of disasters to climate change creates “a politically convenient crisis narrative … [that] paves a subtle exit path for those responsible for creating vulnerability.”

Digging for water in Madagascar in 2020. Researchers say poor water infrastructure, not drought, was the prime culprit of the country's food crisis.

2020: Digging for water in Madagascar Researchers claim that poor water infrastructure is the primary reason for the country’s food crisis.

AP Photo / Laetitia Bezain

Jesse Ribot of American University and Myanna Lahsen of Linkoping University, Sweden You agree. “While politicians may want to blame crises on climate change, members of the public may prefer to hold government accountable for inadequate investments in flood or drought prevention and precarious living conditions,” they write in a paper published in December.

“A really striking example is the current food crisis in Madagascar, which has been blamed on climate change quite prominently,” Otto told e360. Last October, the UN’s World Food Programme said more than a million people in the south of the African country were starving after successive years of drought. Its Warning that the disaster “could become the first famine caused by climate change” was widely reported. Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina : “My countrymen are paying the price for a climate crisis that they did not create.”

Luke Harrington from the New Zealand Climate Research Institute was there in December. ConcludedClimate change was only a minor factor in the drought. This was evident by records dating back to 1912.Th century. He instead pinned the blame for the crisis on poverty and poor infrastructure, such as inadequate water supplies to irrigate crops — issues that had gone unaddressed by Rajoelina’s government.


A more striking example is the way climate change is being blamed for the continued dry state of Lake Chad, West Africa, and its devastating security and humanitarian consequences.

Half a century back, Lake Chad covered an entire area the size Massachusetts. But the final quarter 20ThIts surface shrank by 95 per cent and is now less than half the size Rhode Island. Water has been cut off and local farmers, fishers, and herders have lost all their livelihoods. The collapse of law, order, and growing jihadism has caused a loss of livelihoods for more than 2,000,000 people, many of them heading to Europe.

Satellite images of Lake Chad in 1973 (left) and 2017 (right) show the lake's shrinkage. Areas covered in vegetation are shaded in red.

Satellite images of Lake Chad in 1973 (left) and 2017 (right) show the lake's shrinkage. Areas covered in vegetation are shaded in red.

Satellite images of Lake Chad from 1973 (left) & 2017 (right) illustrate the lake’s shrinkage. Shaded areas are highlighted in red.
NASA Earth Observatory

Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari says it is clear where the blame lies. “Climate change is largely responsible for the drying up of Lake Chad,” he Presented at an Investor SummitLast year. The African Development Bank Also known as the shriveled Lake “a living example of the devastation climate change is wreaking on Africa”.

But there is another explanation. Although the lake’s initial decline was evidently due to prolonged droughts in 1970s-80s, some believe that climate change is responsible, the lake has remained. Continually emptyOver the past 20 years, rainfall has increased. Why? Hydrologists say the answer is that rivers out of Cameroon, Chad, and Buhari’s Nigeria that once supplied most of its water are being diverted by government agencies to irrigate often extremely inefficient rice farms.

A 2019 analysis headed by Wenbin Zhu, a hydrologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, found that water diversions for irrigation explained 73 percent of the reduction in flow into Lake Chad from the largest river, the Chari, since the 1960s — a proportion that rose to 80 percent after 2000. Only 20 percent of the variance in rainfall could be attributed to.

Robert Oakes of the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn says that “the climate-change framing has prevented the identification and implementation of appropriate measures to address the challenges.” Those measures include restoring flow to the rivers that once fed the lake.


Some warn that if you try to downplay the significance of climate change in such disasters, it will be a succor to deniers of what David Attenborough, a British TV naturalist, has warned. A UN Security Council meeting last year represents the “biggest threat modern humans have ever faced.” And that in any case it is misguided since, in the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the same meeting, climate change is a “crisis multiplier” that makes every other issue worse.

“No doubt climate changes intensified the situation,” one observer says of fires in Brazil’s Pantanal. “But other factors are key.”

Kevin Trenberth from the National Center for Atmospheric Research Has argued that, “because global warming is unequivocal,” the conventional approach to climate-change attribution should no longer start from an assumption of no impact – the null hypothesis — and then try to prove otherwise. Instead “the reverse should now be the case. The task, then, could be to prove there is no anthropogenic component to a particular observed change in climate.”

There is growing concern too that the international community’s focus on climate change is skewing other conservation priorities.

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“Threats to biodiversity are increasingly seen through the single myopic lens of climate change,” complains Tim Caro, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of California Davis. This is difficult to justify, especially when his AnalysisRed List data on extinction shows that habitat loss in vertebrate extinctions is still three times as important as climate change. He says that ignoring this fact is undermining strategies to prevent habitat loss and other threats to habitat.

The assumption that forest wildfires are increasing in the American West and elsewhere due to climate change may hinder action to stop them.

In late 2020, as his state’s forests burned, the governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, declared, “This is not an act of God. This has happened because we have changed the climate.” He was not wrong. An Attribution analysis by Otto, of Imperial College London, and others found that the heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in July would have been “virtually impossible” without global warming.

The remnants of a 2020 fire in Brazil's Pantanal wetland.

Remains from a 2020 fire in Brazil’s Pantanal Wetland.
Greenpeace

However, there are other causes. For example, misguided fire suppression has over the years dramatically increased the amount fuel on the forest floors. Crystal Kolden, a University of California, Merced fire researcher, said that we must stop climate changes. But Without a drastic increase in deliberate controlled fires to reduce the fuel available during the lengthening fire season, “more catastrophic wildfire disasters are inevitable.” Forestry practice is changing, but she reckons California should be doing five times more prescribed burning.

Other ecosystems require similar TLC. Take the Pantanal in the heart of South America, the world’s largest tropical wetland. One quarter of the Pantanal was on blaze in 2020. With temperatures in the region up 3.6 degrees F since 1980, and humidity down 25 percent, it is hardly surprising that discussions in Brazil have “emphasized climate change as almost the sole driver” of the fires, according to Rafaela Nicola, who heads the nonprofit Wetlands International in Brazil. Even Jair Bolsonaro the Brazilian President, is skeptical of climate-change. Called the fires “an inevitable consequence” of high temperatures.

“No doubt climate changes intensified the situation,” says Nicola. “However other drivers are key.” Encouraged by Bolsonaro’s land policies, farmers have been advancing into the north of the Pantanal, where most of the fires occurred. “The highest concentrations of fire foci are adjacent to the agricultural frontier,” ConcludedAfter a detailed mapping, Juliana Fazolo Marquez of Federal University of Ouro Preto.

With proper planning and management, “extreme meteorological events don’t have to turn into extreme flooding events.”

The climatic conditions in 2020 were exceptional, but Brazil’s government “is ignoring the causes of the fires: a combination of inadequate fire management, climate extremes, human behavior and weak environmental regulations,” says Renata Libonati, a forest ecologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.


Last November at the Glasgow climate conference, rich nations pledged to spend tens to billions of dollars to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. All fine and dandy, Otto. But she “fears very much” that this money will be spent on the wrong things. Nigerian officials have been pushing for Lake Chad’s refill by diverting water 2,400 km from the Congo River in central Africa. Bizarrely, the Proposed canalThe water would be taken right past the irrigation projects that are currently emptying the lake.

Many policymakers in rich countries have not realized that adaptation is necessary at home. Ecologists are a key part of Europe’s ecologists Estimate that up to 90 percent of the continent’s former wetland sponges have lost capacity to absorb water, mostly due to drainage for urban development and agriculture, resulting in the floods that engulfed parts of Germany last summer.

Jane Madgwick, CEO at Wetlands International, believes that there are 50,000 miles of sponges in upland river catchments in Germany, France and Belgium that could be restored to lower flood peaks. “Yes, of course we need to fight climate change,” she says. But in the meanwhile, “extreme meteorological events don’t have to turn into extreme flooding events. As we work to fix the climate, we must fix the landscape too.”

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