Hurricane: Manmade disaster?

Hurricane: Manmade disaster?
Dr Leon Sealey-Huggins, a sociologist teaching on the University of Warwick's Global Sustainable development programme, explores the link between the devastation caused by hurricanes and a history of inequality

What has happened to the Caribbean island nations in the path of two of the most powerful storms on record has been terrible to watch, and what is of immediate concern now is the clear-up operation. There is a need for fast and direct help and support from the global community. But it is also crucial that we take time now to set this in a wider historical and political context and listen to the Caribbean region - otherwise these kinds of events will just keep happening in the same, or worse, pattern of repeats.

As a sociologist, my research focuses on the human aspects of climate change and how it affects the Caribbean region in particular. The complex political past of the many island nations in the region has an impact on how they can plan for and mitigate against the powerful effects of climate change. The increasing incidence, force and duration of hurricane-grade tropical storms is just one aspect of what they are facing.

Now is the time to discuss whether we can call these events ‘natural disasters’. OK, so hurricanes are ‘natural’ weather events. But human actions have impacts on natural phenomena – we are seeing this play out as climate change. These massive weather events and their impacts vary in their size and scope. Whether or not a hurricane becomes a ‘disaster’ will depend on how prepared people and places are, and that in turn depends on access to resources. If you happen to have an underground wine cellar you can shelter in, for example, a hurricane is not as much of a disaster. 

The geographical position of Caribbean countries means they will always be in the path of tropical storms. But they are more likely to suffer large-scale disasters as a result of storms because of underlying social, economic and political structures – and this is the crux of the problem.

Caribbean countries are affected by their histories as formerly colonised countries. They have these ‘legacies of empire’ to overcome. For example, these island nations have economies dependent on tourism, agriculture and fishing - primary sectors hung over from empire, which are particularly threatened by climate change. They are also globally indebted which means that they don’t always have the levels of freedom on the global stage to set their own developmental agendas.

That is not to say they have not been proactive. Caribbean countries have been calling for tougher climate policies, using the campaign slogan ‘1.5°C to stay alive’, which refers to the limit of warming beyond which the island states will become unviable. 

But they are in a difficult position as they are up against the big world players and climate change discussions have been prioritising the needs of the developed North over those of the global South. I think discussion of climate change has generally failed to pay enough attention to the social, political and historical factors that increase the vulnerability of Caribbean societies. The unfolding of climate change in the Caribbean, means that more intense tropical storms, as well as rising sea levels, flooding, ocean acidification and drought are likely to become a more prominent part of life in the region. My research considers the inequalities that shape Caribbean societies and their capacities to ‘deal’ with the problems of climate change, as well as the historical origins of these inequalities rooted in imperialism and colonialism.

We need to use research to point to ethical, global approaches to help the region deal with climate change.

While we can’t stop hurricanes, we can slow the pace of the climate change that is making them more harmful and this requires political and social action. Climate change is more than a technical problem to be addressed by engineers or scientists. It should make us fundamentally question the way society is currently organised, and the globally uneven distribution of resources and power that has precipitated the crisis.

Global inequality, with its roots in the histories of imperialism and colonialism, has affected the ability of Caribbean societies to deal with the challenges of climate change. 

We need to address these historical inequalities in order to move forward. An ethical approach to climate change including consideration of wealth redistribution to repay ‘climate debt’ is one model for doing this.