2 September 2005
For three decades now I have been challenging the prevailing view among climate scientists and policy people, both those who believe in global warming and those who don’t, that developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change impacts than are the industrialized countries. I continue to believe that this belief — that developing countries are more vulnerable — is unrealistic. It relates more to the self-deception of people in rich countries who are surrounded by technologies that they believe protect them, technologies that those in developing countries can only dream about.
We have watched from a distance as superstorms of one kind or another have impacted societies in developing countries. A most recent geophysical event (not weather-related) was the 26 December 2004 killer tsunami in the Indian Ocean when hundreds of thousands perished. Another was Hurricane Mitch in late 1998 (over 17,000 dead). Yet another was the 1999 Supercyclone in Orissa, India (20,000 dead). Supertyphoon Maemi hit South Korea in 2003. There seems to be an increase in the number of blockbuster, record-setting, killer natural disasters since the late 1980s: tropical storms, winter storms, fires, and the biggest most damaging El Niño event of the century in 1997-98, and so on.
In most of these cases we watch poor people in great numbers sifting through the debris where their homes were for anything that they can salvage. A sad difference between poor and rich countries is that people in poor countries are accustomed to adversities and are often left on their own to cope with natural and other disasters. In the rich countries, the people expect and usually get help from their governments because they have the resources to cope with the problem and to pay for the solution, an option that many poorer countries do not have. Rich countries, however, have much lower thresholds of tolerance for inconvenience.
This argument has been difficult to prove about the relative vulnerability of rich versus poor countries; difficult to proveÖ until now. Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005 slammed into the Gulf of Mexico coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and exposed how vulnerable all societies are, regardless of level of technological development.
A woman calls for someone to help the elderly woman she cares for (BBC News)
The mighty USA has been set back on its heels. Much of America watches helplessly as people in the disaster zone, especially New Orleans, plead for help from anyone and no help comes. Stuck on rooftops, inside hospitals, inside convention centers and football fields, people beg for water, food, baby formula, diapers, toilets, rescue helicopters, and so on. Never would we have expected to see this in America, especially at the hands of a natural disaster that can be forecast, tracked and observed minute by minute on TV, the weather channel or radio. The damage from this hurricane is now called the worst natural disaster in at least 100 years, some have said in the history of the country.
The news media are filled with horror stories about the impacts of Katrina. Each story worse than the previous one: poor planning for a disaster that was expected to happen at some time; poor response by the President and his administration; slow response to looters; no water; people shooting at the rescue helicopters, etc. Clearly, researchers can no longer say which types of governments are more vulnerable than other types. We are all vulnerable to the impacts of nature. Maybe the difference is that we in the rich countries will eventually rebuild, whereas the developing countries do not have the resources to do so. But we are all vulnerable to the impacts.
And the climate is changing. We are now being increasingly confronted by the devils we don’t know, as the devils we do know no longer seem to be as important. After all is said and done, the response to a major natural disaster by the US Federal Government in the Gulf of Mexico’s hard-hit states has been poor at best. To characterize it, as has the secretary of Homeland Security as ìmagnificentî a few days after Katrina’s impacts is not only offensive, it is totally unrealistic. On what planet is he living?
As the country continues to hold its breath over the misery and suffering due to Katrina, it is holding its nose over the stench of a ìday-late-and-a-dollar-shortî response of the President, his administration and the US Congress.