Navigating Uncharted Waters: Extreme Weather Events and a Need for Global Climate Justice
Hannah
Axtell
September 29, 2021

Extreme weather events across the globe are becoming both more frequent and more severe. Along with these disasters comes heightened uncertainty, anxiety, and trauma for people living in high-risk regions, and coastline communities are no exception to this rule. The chief culprit? Tropical cyclones. 

Tropical cyclones — called “hurricanes” in the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific Oceans, “cyclones” in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, and “typhoons” in the Northwest Pacific Ocean — are rapidly rotating storm systems with a low-pressure center and outwardly spiraling arms of intense thunderstorms accompanied by strong winds that can reach over 160 miles an hour, wreaking havoc on whatever lies in their path. The last decade alone has featured a rise in the number of named storms per season, unprecedented tropical cyclone precipitation rates, and record-breaking sustained winds that preview a daunting future of anthropogenic warming. The National Climate Assessment concludes that the length, intensity, and frequency of severe weather storms and destructive tropical cyclones have all drastically increased since the 1980s with “hurricane season” extending longer and longer each year. 

Extreme weather events, exacerbated by a warming climate, leave tropical coastal regions vulnerable to the lasting impacts and byproducts of major storms in the form of water damage, power shortages, food insecurity, flattened houses, job loss, and other devastating cases of resource and infrastructure depletion. And from a global perspective, both coastal and frontline communities (shoreline districts, coastal towns, low-income communities, communities of color, and countries in the global South) have borne the brunt of the climate burden. They have had to cope with the sudden shock of coastal destruction, heavy rainfall, surge flooding, and harsh winds in addition to longer-term battles against social, psychological, and financial pressures. With the impacts of climate change disproportionately affecting some social groups more than others, the most productive way forward is to address climate change and the threat of extreme weather events with a justice lens so we can build a more sustainable, equitable future together.

Warmer Oceans, Stronger Winds, and Widespread Devastation

Tropical cyclones are among a number of devastating weather phenomena popularly referred to as “natural disasters,” but are these weather events really developing so naturally? Human activity and the burning of fossil fuels are waging war with the planet, and it is safe to say that heat-charged hurricanes are fighting back.

As ocean temperatures continue to warm and sea levels rise, the most threatening tropical cyclone seasons have yet to come. According to the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, tropical cyclone intensities globally are projected to increase by up to ten percent, cyclone rainfall rates are predicted to increase by nearly 15 percent, and the global rate of major tropical cyclones that reach strengths of Category 3+ on the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale is set to rise as well according to model projections for 2100 and a 2 degree Celsius human-induced warming event. This is because cyclones are fueled by water vapor and heat from the ocean, and the warmer the body of water is, the more moisture and evaporation it can hold and employ to prolong the storm and its impact. Climate change, sea-level rise, and heated oceans all add fuel to the fire, providing them with the necessary energy to endure for prolonged periods of time. 

And it is not just the climate and ocean that are confronting progressively warming temperatures. Land warming events simultaneously allow these ocean menaces to retain their power when making landfall. In the 1960s, a typical tropical cyclone would lose about 75 percent of its intensity upon landfall, but more recent data indicates that cyclones today sustain around 50 percent of their power even after making landfall. Consequently, the dangers of tropical cyclones are no longer exclusive to coastal communities; they are reaching further and further inland. 

Hurricane from above, satellite. Image from: Pexels

Tropical Cyclones and their Global Climate Justice Implications

Given the deep inequalities in our social fabric, the impacts of extreme weather events are never felt equally across race, ethnicity, class, income, or location. At the same time that low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to occupy areas more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, they are also more likely to be without evacuation plans and disaster relief preparations. They are frequently those who struggle the most to recover from these tragedies due to a lack of time, resources, disposable income, and emergency funds. Oftentimes, the effects of a major hurricane constrain municipal government finances, pressing them to reallocate investments from already underfunded social welfare programs in order to repair the damaged infrastructure such as buildings, roads, sewage systems, and bridges. And with climate change, this is no longer a local phenomenon—entire countries are at risk. 

Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in 1998, hitting Honduras and its low-income population especially hard. Honduras was not prepared for what a major storm would mean for its post-colonial plantation economy and farming communities. It exacerbated widespread poverty, taking the homes and lives of many Hondurans. Hurricane Mitch, a Category 5 storm, gave rise to cases of food/water insecurity and domestic violence, increased crime rates, and left over a million people homeless in Honduras in just the first year. The international community came together the following year in Stockholm to pledge $2.5 billion in relief for the beleaguered Central American country. 

The poor will pay first and last. Commercial logging expanded flood plains and left communities vulnerable to large bouts of rain while the demand to urbanize communities forced low-income families toward the coasts and into high-risk areas. A rapid urbanization event was occurring naturally in post-Mitch Honduras following water shortages and other instabilities in its farm-based economy. The Honduran government responded by funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into building and bridge repair, commercial activities and production, and the formation of local governments and police forces. While post-disaster infrastructure repairs will always be necessary, they do not fully address the structural problem of poverty and a need for fair wages, affordable housing, healthcare, and safety. This post-disaster reinvestment process regularly exacerbates existing wealth and income disparities, essentially normalizing the government’s role in reinforcing racial and class inequities. Hurricane Mitch has held the Honduran people in debt to disaster. 

This post-disaster reinvestment process regularly exacerbates existing wealth and income disparities, essentially normalizing the government’s role in reinforcing racial and class inequities.
A crowd looks on at the rubble left in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, 1998, Image from: Getty

Many countries of the global South statistically play a minor role in the exacerbation of the climate crisis, yet face the consequences in major ways. Global South countries such as Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, Madagascar, Japan, China, and the Philippines live under constant torment by these storms. Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, and China have tropical cyclone seasons that are so constant they are considered year-round. Tropical cyclones and disaster weather events can completely devastate entire cities and countries, and they have even been said to turn back the figurative ‘development time clock’ by many years. And yet, it is “lesser-developed” nations without large polluting industries and high carbon emissions that endure the brunt of the impact. Impacts that are felt a world away have enabled the Global North to externalize the climate disaster burden onto others; it is a problem “out of sight and out of mind.”

Impacts that are felt a world away have enabled the Global North to externalize the climate disaster burden onto others; it is a problem “out of sight and out of mind.”

The growing threat of climate change and extreme weather has also led to large-scale climate migration. From Bangladesh to Louisiana, people are forced to abandon their homes in search of refuge in a less climate-affected region, oftentimes having to leave behind everything they know. These forced-migration events are a profound indication of the growing social, economic, and political impacts of climate change. The upheaval of one’s life and the abandonment of one’s entire culture, history, livelihood, and identity creates long-lasting trauma; it cannot be quantified into a formal unit of cost. Yet, the cost externalization of polluting practices onto less wealthy, southern nations has created a growing number of climate refugees. This movement of people — in the hundreds of thousands — has deep implications for surrounding communities too, and the effects of mass migration are already felt globally.

The climate emergency is here. It’s fully armed and dangerous. Extreme weather events are happening more regularly, striking communities more ferociously, and are destabilizing communities, cultures, and nations around the globe. These disasters are anything but “a great equalizer,” and in actuality, work to reinforce existing racial inequalities and wealth disparities. Our communities need more than climate mitigation strategies. Through widespread, non-discriminatory access to disaster protections, emergency alert system technologies, and sustainable resources, there is opportunity to reduce the devastation of tropical cyclones. Mitigation must be paired with an investment in social infrastructure, including robust social welfare programs. The roots of the climate emergency run deep — they are ingrained in the fabrics which form communities, countries, and the greater global society — but so does the power and potential for a different path forward.

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