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Decoding natural and human-induced climate change

Climate change causes disastrous events around the world. But is there a risk that climate change becomes an excuse not to act on matters that require all kinds of action?

Whenever a hurricane, heatwave, drought, or wildfire occurs, experts begin debating the extent to which the damaging extreme event can be linked to human-induced climate change or natural climate variability. This is where extreme event attribution comes into play.

Put simply, these are scientific approaches to attributing to global climate change the frequency, intensity and/or individual occurrence of certain extreme events such as heatwaves, storms, hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires, says Michael Burger, Executive Director and Senior Research Scholar and Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

These studies have shown clear evidence for human influence having increased the probability of many extremely warm seasonal temperatures and reduced the probability of extremely cold seasonal temperatures in many parts of the world. The evidence for human influence on the probability of extreme precipitation events, droughts, and storms is, however, more mixed. 

Depending on the type of analysis, an extreme event attribution study can tell us if global warming made (or will make) an event more likely than it would have been without the rise in greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They show if the average number of years between similar events is shorter or longer than it used to be or what the risk is for a given extreme weather event and if and how much global warming has increased that risk. 

Determining whether climate change causes disasters

According to a statement from the United Nations issued in August 2021, Madagascar is on the brink of experiencing the world's first "climate change famine". Tens of thousands of people are suffering catastrophic levels of hunger and food insecurity after four years without rain. However, experts question the UN's statement that the famine is being induced solely by climate change.

According to Dr Sjoukje Philip (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI)) and one of the co-leads of the World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative, if we do not know the influence of both climate change and other factors that influence the vulnerability of people to the hazard, it is easy to blame climate change for all weather and climate disasters. 

It is much easier to blame climate change than to act upon continuous vulnerability aspects.

Sjoukje Philip, Researcher, Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute

“It is important to know whether climate change has exacerbated the risk because if this is the case, it is likely that the hazard will worsen over time. This requires a different type of action. It is also much easier to blame climate change than to act upon continuous vulnerability aspects, which underlines the importance of disentangling the different aspects and communicating them,” the expert cautions.

Indeed, in the case of the Madagascar famine, factors ranging from poverty and natural weather variability to the coronavirus pandemic have had a bigger effect on the country’s food crisis than climate change, according to a study published in November 2021 by WWA.

Food insecurity in Madagascar is not just driven by meteorological drought, but also a host of factors such as demographics, poverty, infrastructure, policy and non-climate shocks and stresses that modify the likelihood of a household becoming food insecure. 

All hands – and tools – on deck

It is only natural that people feel “overwhelmed by the scale and scope of the climate crisis, and that feeling can cause stasis”, Burger says. But recognition of the potential for catastrophic failure can also inspire action.

If we want to deal with natural disasters better in the future, it is vital that we use all the tools at our disposal in order not to let climate events have more devastating consequences than need be.

Step one is to disentangle the role of human induced climate change and human-caused social and physical vulnerability, Philip outlines. It is important to assess these risks on temporal and spatial scales that are important for the people that are vulnerable to these events. This way communication and understanding of the risks are more successful, which is the next step required to improve the way we tackle disasters.

People can feel overwhelmed by the scale and scope of the climate crisis, and that feeling can cause stasis.

Michael Burger, Executive Director and Senior Research Scholar and Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law

Apart from the intensity and frequency of natural disasters, things like the COVID pandemic, the political situation or poverty levels can largely influence the impact of, for example, a drought on food security. 

“It is therefore important not to just have a plan on how to address disasters but to also include other structural vulnerabilities such as livelihood options and poverty. Knowledge of the specific situation, communication and decision-making are thus very important,” Philip adds.

To adequately deal with climate-related extreme events, and the human and ecological disasters that can result, Burger suggests that governments adopt cross-cutting approaches that address issues such as social inequity. There is a great deal to be done to reduce disaster risk and vulnerability and to improve our preparedness and response.

European countries, for example, have heat action plans. The EuroHEAT project has quantified the health effects of heat in cities in the WHO European Region and has identified options for improving the preparedness of health systems and their responses to protect health.

In response to the drought and food insecurity crisis in Madagascar, an emergency plan to address the drought was launched by the Malagasy president at the end of August 2021. Government initiatives on the ground since 2021 include the building and maintenance of critical water infrastructure such as the rehabilitation of boreholes, water quality analyses, and food aid and assistance. 

“Generally, governments can use early warnings to prevent that a risk becomes a disaster,” Philip concludes.

Written by
Maria Stambler
Contributing Writer at Spoon Agency