Who is bearing the brunt of climate change?

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Article Environment Social Justice
Those least responsible for our flood of climate change concerns are bearing the brunt of the storm.

A year after the twin blows of Hurricane Irene and the great Halloween nor’easter, New Yorkers were treated to what must surely be the worst revival to ever hit the Great White Way. In painfully familiar waves, two vast storms hit town in late October and early November. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy went far beyond Irene’s worst, and the follow-up nor’easter a week later only added to the region’s misery as thousands endured a second week without power or heat.

Sandy wreaked havoc throughout the northeast. Storm damage was unprecedented in New York City itself as tidal waters from the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean surged over historic benchmarks. In low-lying neighborhoods the waters rose up to swallow subways and taxis, waterfront homes, commuter rails and tunnels, and—too tragically—scores of lives.

Not even the most vehement endorser of the climate change hypothesis would argue that one storm can conclusively be connected to man-made global warming. But the theory does propose a greater frequency and intensity of destructive weather phenomena, whether a merciless drought in Africa’s Sahel region or a historic storm like Sandy.

Here are the signs of our times: summer ice melts in the Arctic reaching record levels; fossil fuel wildcatters preparing to seek riches across what had been permafrost in Greenland. Events once considered long-term threats seem already upon us. After all the diplomatic hot air expelled in the last two decades, the world may have missed its chance to turn back global warming. It is time now for practical measures to mitigate some of its worst effects.

For coastal republics in the first world, that will mean preparations for an era of higher water levels and more powerful storms. Shoring up infrastructure and protecting populations along threatened coastlines will be disruptive and costly; it will require creative engineering and politicking. But in the developed world it is at least true that resources can be made available to respond to the problem, assuming the political will can be mustered to do so.

Hurricane Sandy took many lives during her run along the United States, but Sandy did not spare other people in her path, even if CNN didn’t spend as much time reporting their suffering. Before her first world landfall, Sandy claimed numerous lives in Cuba, Haiti, and throughout the Caribbean. In this toll we can locate climate change’s tragic irony: Those most likely to suffer because of it are also the least responsible for causing it and the least capable of preparing for it.

In his World Day of Peace message for 2010 Pope Benedict XVI called for a reevaluation of humankind’s relationship with ecology and reminded the world’s better-off of their obligation to the poor. “It is all too evident,” he wrote, “that large numbers of people . . . are experiencing increased hardship because of the negligence or refusal of many others to exercise responsible stewardship over the environment.” In this radical but eminently rational call to restraint and prudence, Benedict urged not only greater international solidarity but also intergenerational solidarity. “Future generations cannot be saddled with the cost of our use of common environmental resources.”

Just days after Sandy’s landfall New Yorkers were already hearing of measures, including grand engineering schemes like movable levees and impenetrable sea walls, meant to protect their city from the next storm surge. These would be impressive feats, except for the unhappy reality that they will merely move the water and make climate change someone else’s problem.

And that in essence is the ethical, not engineering, challenge of confronting climate change. The affluent West has the power and the wealth to respond, but will it just move the waters along and make the world’s most vulnerable pay the cost of climate change? 

This article appeared in the January 2013 issue of  U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 1, page 46).

Image: Jean Jacques Agustin/EPA/Newscom