Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Climate Foxholes

This morning I was reminded of the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. Leaving the theological implications of Pascal's Wager aside for the moment, I found a connection between two island stories this morning.

Damage in Taclovan is undeniable. Photo: Aaron Favila/AP, via The Guardian.
The first is widely known, of course, as the most powerful storm ever observed arrives in Vietnam, having pushed past numerous low-lying Pacific islands before devastating many islands of the Philippines.

The visitation of such a calamity on an island country presents special challenges, as people on some islands will have few places of  refuge. A resident of Kiribati has already sought "environmental refugee" status, and entire countries such as his are considering ways to migrate as countries to higher ground. As researcher Susan Martin points out, people who migrate always do so for multiple reasons and usually do so domestically -- the internally-displaced Dust Bowl refugees known as Oakies are a perfect example -- but anybody who is concerned with international migration must include climate-driven migration in their calculations.

When Mary Robinson addressed the Association of American Geographers in 2012 she admonished us to work diligently for climate justice, because those most vulnerable and those most responsible are not the same people, and do not live in the same places. I must admit that I thought of her remarks as referring mostly to some future condition, though the fact that daffodils were blooming in Manhattan on that February day should have been a clue. It turns out that the migration, crop loss, and impoverishment are the least of the injustices of climate change. The dying has started.

A young boy from Mr. Sano's city.
Image: Erik De Castro/Reuters via The Guardian
So it that Yeb Sano has traveled from the ruined city of Tacloban to the pointless climate talks in Poland, leaving his family behind to bring his story to the banquets halls and negotiating tables of Warsaw, hoping someone will listen to his anguish. 

The complexity of our climate means that we can each deny responsibility; climate change did not invent drought, flood, typhoon, or blizzard. But the increasing frequency of "wild weather" is now far outside the bounds set by prior experience. We predicted a new normal, and statistically, we are there. Typhoon Haiyan has been compared to a Category 5 on the hurricane scale, but this is only because Category 6 had not been contemplated when looking at the storms of previous generations. A storm sustaining winds of near-tornado strength across hundreds of miles had not been imagined before this most unusual century.

Students, parents, and educators: It is sometimes difficult to find appropriate educational materials for such an event; I recommend the Philippines storm post on Listen Edition as a possible starting point for discussion with upper-elementary and middle-school learners.

Key Considerations
Closer to home is a less dramatic story about insurance and planning in the city of Key West, Florida -- a lovely place I have not yet managed to visit. Those who manage public affairs in Key West -- and especially those who set insurance rates -- cannot afford "ivory tower" arguments about whether or not the climate is changing. In the case of those with actual responsibilities, to ignore rising seas is now unthinkable. Just as governors have shown more leadership than the national government, so too have municipal authorities and private-sector planners in Key West left debates to those who still have the luxury of entertaining denial for political purposes.

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Incidentally, the "comments" section of the Key West story illustrates the severity of geographic ignorance. Comments on all sides of the climate "debate" reveal profound gaps in understanding of physical systems, human settlement patterns, and math.

(Posted April 15, 2014)

Image source: Climate Denial Crock of the Week
Looking for the link to my own post here, I found several other blogs that have made the same observation. Peter Sinclair, for example, focuses on reinsurers. These are pretty conservative folks as a rule, and they are not in a position to make their decisions on the basis of ideology.

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