UN gathering on Hurricane Irma brings "loss and damage" to world stage

by Thoriq Ibrahim | AOSIS
Monday, 18 September 2017 14:46 GMT

A resident of the Frenchtown district surveys his home in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

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Hurricane Irma has brought what climate change looks like into sharp relief and showed the world to be unprepared for a coming crisis

Today, as leaders gather in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, the Secretary General and President of the General Assembly have convened a high-level meeting to give the countries and territories impacted by Hurricane Irma an opportunity to describe the devastation and rebuilding needs to the international community for the first time.

Even as the damage is being assessed, another hurricane is now threatens many of the same places, compounding what remains a humanitarian crisis with food and water shortages and in some cases civil unrest and adding fuel to the debate about the impact climate change is having on extreme weather.

While the science of climate change and storms is complicated, some basic facts are well established: global warming has led to higher sea surface temperatures, which generate more water vapor. When Irma began to march across the Atlantic late last month, sea surface temperatures were some 0.5 degrees Celsius to 1.25 degrees Celsius above average.

Warmer ocean temperatures mean conditions are ripe for creating bigger and more powerful storms with a tremendous amount of moisture. Thus we often hear scientists who study the subject say that climate change doesn’t create hurricanes, but it makes it more likely that they will become stronger and more destructive.

That much we know.

But an area of inquiry that gets much less attention, even though it is just as important to dealing with ever more powerful storms, is the question of why we have collectively failed to take necessary action even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the severe danger we face.

The answer comes not from the physical sciences, which tend to absorb most of the dollars devoted to climate change research, but from the study of history, psychology, and political science. If we want to understand how it is that we have allowed such a crisis to grow unchecked (and reverse that trend), we can’t ignore this more humanistic dimension of the debate.

Part of the trouble is historical. Since the Industrial Revolution, western society developed using fossil fuels to provide power to factories and cities. Unimaginable wealth was created and along with it entrenched sources of political influence. Later, developing countries followed a similar development pattern. Even as the link between burning fossil fuels and global warming was accepted by scientists, a misinformation campaign was launched by a team of contrarian scientists, think tanks and corporations in order to avoid regulations and ensure market dominance.

Now we know that these efforts drew on a sophisticated understanding of psychology to mislead people about climate science - the same tactics used by the tobacco industry to conceal the dangers of smoking a generation before.

In both cases, as science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway document in “Merchants of Doubt,” a tiny minority of contrarian scientists were brought out to cast doubt on established science. The media convention of giving equal weight to opposing viewpoints helped further their message by giving the impression that the strength the arguments were somehow equivalent.

Today, for instance, only 0.1 percent of all climate scientists argue that climate change is not human caused, yet surveys still show a sizeable, though increasingly smaller, portion of the U.S. public (about 30 percent) that deny that human activity is responsible for global warming. Tellingly, the doubt is most pronounced in the United States where the misinformation campaign was most focused.

The misinformation campaign also took advantage of a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias”—the tendency for people to accept arguments that reinforce their preexisting worldviews. In the context of climate change, those generally suspicious of government intervention tend to be the same ones who also deny the existence of climate change.

Alternatively, people more comfortable with government-driven solutions are more likely to accept the reality of climate science. An unfortunate consequence of this tension could well be a furthering of the ideological divide between groups of people who may otherwise share a desire for a healthy environment.

Finally, we confront this disunity at a time when a seemingly endless onslaught of negative climate stories has instilled a sense hopelessness in even the most ardent supporters of climate action.

This risk is perhaps most disconcerting of all. Not only because the kind of government action we need to tackle the climate crisis demands a motivated group of citizens demanding change, but because it fails to gain inspiration from a number of positive trends that bode well for the future—like how renewable power sources now outperform fossil fuels dollar for dollar in key markets around the world.

At the same time, the forces of misinformation are now countered by equally strong and clear voices describing the reality of climate change. What’s more, the journalistic norm of drawing a moral equivalence between climate science fact and climate skepticism has increasingly gone out of favor.

Hurricane Irma has brought what climate change looks like into sharp relief and showed the world to be unprepared for a crisis that will only get worse as the world continues to warm. Disaster preparedness will need to improve, building standards must reflect the strength of storms today, and we must finally confront loss and damage as a concrete reality for small islands states that in a matter of hours can lose everything.

Thoriq Ibrahim is Minister of Energy and Environment in the Maldives and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States.