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Will hurricanes change minds on climate change?

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
Hurricane Irma, flanked by Hurricanes Katia and Jose Hurricane Irma, flanked by Hurricanes Katia and Jose NASA Earth Observatory / Joshua Stevens / Jesse Allen
28 Oct
2017
Marco Magrini considers why the recent devastation caused by hurricanes in the Caribbean might be causing Paris pull-outs to rethink their stance

Last May, cyclone Mora killed six people in Bangladesh and displaced 500,000 more. Then came hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which devastated the Caribbean and seriously impacted Texas and Florida. These natural disasters prompted the Central American country of Nicaragua, albeit totally unscathed, to reconsider its position within the Paris Agreement. The government of Managua didn’t sign the 2015 climate change treaty for the parochial reason that ‘why would small emitters worry about a problem they haven’t caused?’

It joined only Syria and the Holy See as being non-signatory nations, the former because of its ongoing civil war, the latter only due to it not yet being a full member of the UNFCCC (something it has stated it is working on becoming, specifically in order to sign the agreement). Now Nicaragua has changed its mind in order ‘to demonstrate solidarity’ with countries affected by hurricanes and cyclones of such ferocity.

Rumour has it that Donald Trump may also be reconsidering his stance of pulling the United States out of the agreement, signed by the country during a more far-sighted presidency. Menwhile, White House officials repeat that America just needs to revise the treaty ‘on more favourable terms’. Curiously, though, the Paris Agreement prescribes emission reductions on a voluntary basis and doesn’t sanction those who miss their targets. How can you get a better deal?

Continuing to doubt climate change in 2017 and seeming to get away with being being grilled on such a stance, is even more bizarre than Trump’s incoherent requests. Thankfully Nicaragua, at least, has realised enough is enough. What awful natural disaster will it take to get the few remaining doubters to come to their senses?

Atlantic hurricanes get much more airtime than Pacific cyclones, but the latter’s recent abnormal intensity is also linked to the same warmer waters. There is also little ongoing TV coverage of the melting glaciers and the disappearing permafrost in the Big North, where the rise in temperature is double the world’s average. We might be vaguely aware of such threats but the general public seems yet to grasp the urgency.

‘I’m terribly afraid that we will need some natural disaster on a grandiose scale to get full support for the proper climate policies,’ an eminent climatologist told me during a round of UN climate talks. ‘But that could happen too late’, he added.

Puerto Rico may be a tiny island, but the devastation it suffered was certainly grandiose. And the melting rate in Greenland is also grandiose - just in somewhere remote that doesn’t grab headlines. But we DO know it is happening, and, it is (probably) not too late to act. 

This was published in the November 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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