SCIENCESpeak: Hurricane Matthew proves climate change is real and here to stay

Hurricane Matthew

How ironic.

Almost a month ago I participated in the 2016 Carolinas Climate Resilience Conference hosted by Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments. None of us could have predicted Hurricane Matthew would strike the Carolinas.

And yet, we shouldn’t be surprised. The effects of global warming and the consequences of radical climate change is a fact. All weather these days is affected by climate disruption. And right after the last presidential debate, David Leonhardt, in a New York Times editorial (“The Debates Were a Failure of Journalism”) blasted the moderator for not posing one question to the candidates on climate change, after months of excessive heat waves across the country and in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.

Anyone who doesn’t want to believe in climate change (even presidential candidates) is delusional. And the cause of climate change is us. Human beings and our massive consumption of energy and the heat trapping gases produced (our carbon footprint) have contributed to increased floods in the Midwest and Northeast, droughts in the Southwest and heatwaves and heavy downpours all over the United States. And, this is not just a problem of the United States, though we are largest consumers of energy, but a global issue.

Inequality in climate change impact

What Hurricanes Matthew and Katrina, and other examples of climate change, prove is that there is inequality in those impacted and in the recovery. Poor people suffer the most from climate extremes, be it hurricanes, flooding or droughts. Why? Because they have limited resources for recovery and already live under vulnerable conditions of poor housing or shelters.

American television has bombarded us with images of the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew in my home state of North Carolina. Twenty-nine people lost their lives as a result. However, before hitting the U.S., Hurricane Matthew had visited Haiti and the Bahamas.

Hundreds of people were killed in Haiti, one of the poorest nations today, and yet that devastation received very little media coverage. In North Carolina, we are shown stories about people who lost their homes, but what about those who live in trailer parks or apartments, and are not homeowners? Their stories, too often, never get told. The majority of our recovery strategies are geared towards privileging people who are property owners. That’s who the millions of dollars devoted to disaster relief historically tend to benefit. That is not to say that property owners don’t need help, but too often, we turn our attention to those with privilege and property first, and leave those with the to suffer until the end.

Katrina is a case in point. It illustrated this unequal treatment, and while we may wish to practice historic amnesia and pretend Katrina never happened, it is a fact of our history, and we must not forget that the underserved in New Orleans lost the most and suffered the most. Katrina and the inequality it highlighted should be a cautionary tale to cities and states that they have an obligation to attend to the most vulnerable people first.

This was the point of the presentation by the University of South Carolina’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute (HVRI) and their Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). SoVI is used to measure the social vulnerability of U.S. counties to environmental hazards. According to the SoVI Fact Sheet, “it shows where there is uneven capacity for preparedness and response and where resources might be used most effectively to reduce the pre-existing vulnerability.” In other words, SoVI tells us who needs immediate help the most because of their vulnerability as a result of language barriers, vehicle availability, medical disabilities, constraints of family structures and healthcare access.

With an eye towards tomorrow

Unequal treatment in disaster recovery efforts, especially insurance claims, and where resources are placed for recovery was an emerging theme at the 2016 Carolinas Climate Resilience Conference. Many of the organizations and agencies represented are beginning to factor variables of race, gender and class into their problem solving.

Also, experts are finally recognizing that solutions to establish resiliency to climate that come from the top down (those with power to those without power) often are not sustainable. These organizations have begun to incorporate language like “community engagement” into their vocabulary.

Many are also recognizing the need to practice what I call “authentic” community engagement. Closer to home, the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center (UROC) is a good example.

But make no mistake; climate change is real and it affects all of us … certainly, the least of us.

Irma McClaurin is an award winning columnist and consultant. In 2015, she received the Black Press of America’s Emory O. Jackson Column Writing Award from the NNPA. She is the Culture and Education Editor for Insight News and founder of the Irma McClaurin Black Feminist Archive at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. More of her works can be found at www.irmamcclaurin.com. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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