Why call recent disasters ‘naturals’ when they really aren’t?

| February 17, 2021 Leave your thoughts

Wildfires, storms, and viruses now are exacerbated by climate change. Perhaps we should call them what they are: disasters of our own making.

At a news conference in mid-August of last year, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, announced that there were 367 “known” wildfires burning in the state. “I say ‘known’ fires,” Newsom said, “but the prospect of that number going up is very real.” A couple of days later the number did, in fact, increase, to 560. A few weeks after that, many of the blazes were still burning, and one—the Doe fire, north of Santa Rosa—had grown into the largest conflagration in California history. The smoke from the state was so bad that it veiled the sun in New England. By the time most of California’s flames had been put out in late November, at least 31 people had been killed and tens of thousands evacuated.

(Inside California’s race to contain its devastating wildfires)

Even as more than 15,000 firefighters were battling the California wildfires, Hurricane Laura was bearing down on Louisiana. As it passed over the Gulf of Mexico, it strengthened at a near-record rate. In just 24 hours it zoomed from a Category 1 to a Category 4 storm. By the time it hit Cameron Parish, early in the morning of August 27, it was the fifth fiercest hurricane to make landfall in U.S. history. The storm caused at least 16 U.S. deaths and up to $12 billion in damages.

Twenty years ago, crises like the Doe fire and Hurricane Laura could have been described as “natural disasters.” Thanks to climate change, this is no longer the case. Right around the time of Newsom’s press conference, the mercury in Death Valley hit 130°F, the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth. A hotter, drier California is much more likely to burst into flames. The Gulf too is heating up, with dangerous consequences. Hurricanes draw their energy from the warmth of the surface waters and so are becoming stronger and more apt to intensify. I’ve been reporting on climate change for almost two decades, and I’ve come to think that we need a new term to describe these events. Perhaps we should call them “man-made natural disasters.”


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