This month major wildfire blazes have swept across the Northern Hemisphere. In British Columbia, Canada, 19 fires merged together to form a superfire — the biggest ever seen in the region — that has burnt over 4,500 sq. kms. In the province, summer wildfires have grown so much that the carbon they not emit into the atmosphere are triple the region’s annual carbon footprint.
Warnings were given over 5 years ago, when Mike Flannigan, senior research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, explained how fire-fighting would become harder as climate change caused fires to intensify.
“If a fire is intense, you cannot attack the head of the fire: You have to attack the flanks. If a fire is intense, aerial suppression is no longer effective, so even modern fire management agencies, like Canada, the United States and Australia, among the best in the world will be extremely challenged, and I would argue that the standard way of doing fire management will no longer be effective in the future.”
Fires have also torn through some uncommon locations such as Greenland — which is almost entirely covered in ice. Alarmingly, boreal forests throughout the Arctic are burning at a rate unprecedented in the last 10,000 years. This year wildfires are a shocking ten times worse than average and that only looks to be getting worse. Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the U.S. noted the direct relationship between increasing wildfires and climate change, which increases temperatures and creates drier conditions which encourage the fires.
“A lot of these things are happening locally, but people don’t always connect them to climate change. But there is a real climate change component to this and the risk is going up because of climate change.”
For many who study fire ecology, the idea of wildfire season now seems to be a thing of the past — in some parts of the world it is now always wildfire season. (In addition, climate change is wreaking havoc with hurricane season and mosquito season, among other natural rhythms of the planet).
All that is left of a home in Ashcroft First Nation in British Columbia. Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
When wildfires burn through the vegetation in places like Greenland, Alaska, and Siberia, as they have in recent months, the effect is to strip away a layer of insulation which would otherwise ensure a more stable temperature for the permafrost just beneath the surface. Without this insulation, permafrost is more liable to thaw — which it is already doing at an alarming rate. Much of Alaska’s permafrost could be gone by 2050. Again, climate change is throwing our definitions and descriptions of our world to the wind. Permafrost is no longer permanent.
More immediately concerning than such challenges to our worldview is the fact that permafrost is a ticking carbon time bomb.
If this massive carbon store is released we can expect to add a couple of degrees on top of whatever warming we will have caused from burning fossil fuels and logging the world’s forests.
If things are heating up in the cold, icey parts of our world, they’re reaching boiling point everywhere else. New studies have shown that South Asia will continue warming to such a degree that by 2100 large swathes will be rendered too hot for human survival. This may seem like hyperbole. It is not. Our capacity to tolerate heat is affected by humidity: in 90% humidity, temperatures above 35°C become fatal to humans. The types of heat waves that create such conditions used to strike every hundred, or fifty, or perhaps twenty-five years. Now they are becoming annual horrors
A co-author of one of the studies pointed out the concern:
“In northern India, Bangladesh and southern Pakistan, much of the population is dependent on subsistence farming that requires long hours of hard labor out in the open and unprotected from the sun.”
Around one fifth of the world’s population live in South Asia and as the temperature and sea levels rise, tens of millions are facing either permanent displacement or death. People moving from countryside to cities will find themselves in an environment possibly even more hostile as cities in particular get even hotter and they seek ever more precarious work in an extremely exploitative and aggressive political climate. Even by staying at home, those who can afford to stay cool through air-conditioners directly contribute to the further suffering of their fellow citizens as air-conditioners pump more hot air into the city.
In India, heatwaves are eventually broken by the monsoon rains. However, far from being a welcome relief they bring with them yet more climate violence. Sanjay Vashist from Climate Action Network-South Asia explains:
“Immediately after heatwaves, when a monsoon arrives there’s a flood situation. As a result, in the rural areas, the topsoil — considered the most fertile — erodes, making it difficult for farmers and people reliant on farm based livelihoods.”
Flooding is exactly what followed last month’s deadly heat. Mumbai was brought to a grinding halt as rains caused widespread disruption including flooding to hospitals, where doctors expressed concerns:
“We are worried about infections. The rain water is circulating rubbish that is now entering parts of the emergency ward.”
Major bouts of flooding struck across South Asia in the past few weeks. In Nepal, over 120 people were killed by mudslides as the monsoon brought abnormally severe flooding to the region. Torrential rains in Bangladesh killed hundreds with 600,000 children affected as around one third of the country was submerged.
In total at least 16 million people have been affected across India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and at the time of writing 1200 had been killed, though many more fatalities could follow. These floods follow hot on the heels of flash floods which struck in April, annihilating crops and stripping subsistence farmers of everything. Hundreds of thousands of people are currently in emergency camps awaiting aid, but entire towns remain cut off due to the flooding.
None of this is unique to South Asia. The anatomy of climate violence was also on display this month in Niger where major flooding forced thousands from their homes. In Sierra Leone the early arrival of torrential rains triggered a massive mudslide in Freetown which killed at least 500 people. Local leaders say that figure is probably closer to 1000 dead. Sierra Leone had only recently entered a period of peace following a bloody civil war before it was dealt a heavy blow by the 2014 ebola epidemic.
A tragic meeting of extreme weather, deforestation, poor government planning, and poverty led to an entirely predictable yet preventable disaster. As it always does.
In Ethiopia, an ongoing and severe drought has led to the death of up to two million livestock, further aggravating a nutritional crisis in which food prices have skyrocketed. Harvests have been lost to both the drought and the Fall Army Worm, which attacks maize, leading to a doubling of prices. Almost 9 million people are in need of immediate assistance.
The drought, which has touched not only Ethiopia but Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, and South Sudan, is the worst in decades. In Somalia, over 3 million people face starvation. A barrel of water now costs USD $15.
This photo essay tells the harrowing tale of the provincial capital Baidoa, where 160,000 have fled from rural areas. One disabled mother interviewed in the internally displaced people’s camp described what losing livestock in a drought means to pastoralists:
“We have no hope back at home. In the village we initially lived from our animals, but they died from the drought. The hunger brought us here. My husband suffers from mental [health] problems and we had to leave him in the village.”
We don’t need to imagine what climate violence looks like. It is already unfolding around us. Farmer suicides in India (almost 60,000 of which are linked to climate change) are testament to that. We don’t need allegories or metaphors for what it will mean. We are already living it. And because there is a limit to how much we can adapt, for some places on earth which already have to contend with the horrors of occupation, war, poverty, and “bad development” like Afghanistan, climate change is a death sentence.
Even the so-called developed world, insulated though it might be, is starting to buckle along familiar fault lines under the stress of climate change shocks. In Spain, many municipalities are facing a fifth consecutive year of drought. Drinking aquifers are running dry and rivers are in permanent states of emergency as their levels drop dramatically.
In the north west of Ireland, 63% of the average August rainfall fell within an eight-to-nine-hour period, leading to major flooding in the city of Derry as well as vast swathes of countryside both sides of the Irish border.
Drinking water supplies had to be tested, as the floods inundated an illegal waste dump which contains 1 million tonnes of domestic and commercial waste. Most political parties in both Belfast and Dublin remain resolutely committed to avoiding any mention of climate change or indeed state responsibility.
But there is a clear and direct relationship between the floods we have seen in August and the climate change caused by several hundred years of industrialisation. In the wake of this month’s big news item Hurricane Harvey we have another opportunity to understand this relationship. The Atlantic put it well:
“As Earth’s climate changes we can expect more destructive hurricanes. As sea level and surface temperatures rise, more solar energy is trapped in the atmosphere, revving up the hydrological cycle of evaporation and precipitation, and sometimes manifesting in terrifying storms. Add to this the rapid and sometimes careless development of our urban areas in patterns which are, shall we say, not always strictly motivated by long-term planning for runoff management and neighborhood safety.”
Harvey swept in off the Gulf of Mexico to dump 9 trillion gallons of water on Texas leading to widespread flooding and at least 20 deaths. In a state which is also home to the U.S. petrochemical industry and all the toxicity that entails, a category 3 hurricane has the added dimension of causing a vast amount of long-lasting pollution.
While many commentators were quick to announce that hurricanes have always happened, they missed a point so obvious even the New York Times made it: climate change loads the dice, it heightens the probability, it charges the atmosphere with potential. In short, climate change was the difference between a heavy rain and a hurricane. Viewed in this way, we can and will say that Harvey is a product of climate change.
As we have been at pains to point out, climate violence happens when climate conditions meet social deprivations. This is as true in the Southern U.S. as it is in Sierra Leone. In Houston, the extent of extreme-risk areas had rapidly risen in recent years as floods have become more common.
Recent investigations warned of the city’s vulnerability, claiming it was a “sitting duck for the next big hurricane.” Yet in the weeks running up to Harvey, Trump’s administration rolled back flood protection. Then, as the destruction bore down, the border police announced they would keep immigration checkpoints open — causing concern that undocumented people would remain in harm’s way in order to avoid being arrested while sheltering from the storm.
The indifference with which Trump responded to the destruction of Harvey was matched only by the degree of amnesia he displayed. Speaking on the twelfth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall, he said that “we’ve never seen anything like this [Harvey].” He may also have forgotten that his VP, Mike Pence, at the time advocated against sending funds to help victims of Katrina.
In some quarters of the internet it has become du jour to note glibly that the 1,500 deaths in South Asia have not been given much air time whereas the impacts of Hurricane Harvey — because it happened in the U.S. — have been endlessly shown on 24-hour news cycles.
While U.S. centrism is a sad, frustrating reality of the world we live in, and something this very bulletin aims to counteract, we must also guard against false dichotomies and be wary of crocodile tears from people who would rather we remain isolated in our suffering than express true solidarity with each other as victims of a system hell bent on exploiting us and the nature around us. It is precisely at times like this that we must fall back on simple but profound notions like compassion, like camaraderie and solidarity, for we are all connected.
No [hu]man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every [hu]man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
[…] Any [hu]man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in [hu]mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
— John Donne
How to help
Itis a natural tendency of humans to help each other, but in times of crisis it can seem overwhelming. Where do we start? We’re not here to tell you what makes sense for you and your community but we will say that if there’s any chance of us avoiding the end of the world it is by banding together and taking bold collective action to transform our energy, food, political and economic systems. In the coming days we will share some examples of communities and movements already doing this to serve as inspiration. In the meantime, we are sharing a short, non-exhaustive, list of community groups providing emergency support to which you can donate.
Donate to communities affected by drought in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia here.
Teaser photo credit: A woman and her child are displaced by flooding in Nepal. Photo: UNICEF Nepal/NShrestha