Cyclone Idai and Climate Change Injustice

Destructive storms, like Cyclone Idai which hit central Mozambique on March 14th, are warning examples of the injustice and urgency of climate change.

The cyclone, named Cyclone Idai, formed on March 4th in the Mozambican channel, and continued its Western direction, reaching as far as Mozambique’s bordering countries Malawi and Zimbabwe. Over 1.5 million people have been affected, and so far an estimated 1000 people have died. The storm most furiously damaged the coastal city of Beira, with floods estimated to reach 6 meters in some areas. Videos and images show the devastation that words cannot describe.

Source: YouTube, Sky News

This cyclone not only brought social and economic impacts, but also ecological ones. Park Gorongosa, a Mozambican national park, was also severely impacted, affecting its plant and wildlife, and in turn its potential tourism for the future as well.

As far, various journalists and scientists, in the Guardian, Wall Street Journal, and BBC, have discussed climate change to be at least somewhat attributable for the severity of the cyclone. Even if Cyclone Idai was not completely a result of increased surface temperatures, there is evidence that storms such as this will increase in intensity as a result of climate change in the future.

Storms like Cyclone Idai are exacerbated by global warming because warmer air can hold more water vapor. Water vapor acts as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, which results in a positive feedback loop, leading to enhanced warming and more moisture retention in the air. As a result, the energy and moisture required to power such storms is higher, making them more powerful.

If this isn’t troubling enough, this part of Africa was already suffering from drought, which increased runoff and worsened impacts to crop fields and food security. With global warming, higher temperatures can result in higher evaporation which can contribute to increased drought, which continues to feed this damaging cycle.

The IPCC provides agreement that southern Africa is expected to experience less overall precipitation in the future, and projects that when it does rain, its intensity is likely to increase, making storms like Cyclone Idai even worse when they occur.

Climate change may not only affect storm intensity and precipitation, but also sea levels. Sea level is expected to rise as a result of thermal expansion and melting of ice on land. All these feedbacks and climate change effects make heavy storms especially problematic for a low-lying and poverty-stricken coastal city such as Beira.

The consequences of Cyclone Idai in particular, were made even more severe by the history of Mozambique. The country has endured colonialism, a revolutionary war, and a civil war, and has an HDI ranking of 180, out of the 189 countries included. Alongside its damaged history, Mozambique’s dense population and lack of protection and adequate warning systems only worsened effects. Cyclone Idai highlights how climate change can affect one of the world’s poorest places.

It’s now even more difficult for Mozambicans to reduce poverty and recover from years of struggled development without food security, housing, and enough money. Worse yet is that the cyclone’s after-math will be felt long after it has hit. For instance, flooding can increase the potential for the spread of water-borne diseases, and it will take years for the hundreds of kilometers of farmland to recuperate.

Image result for flooding cyclone idai
Locals waiting for rescue on a roof to escape flooding

Source: Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/03/18/photos-cyclone-idai-lays-waste-parts-mozambique-zimbabwe-malawi/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c72f5fef2faa

What’s worrying is that although countries like Mozambique lack the best infrastructure and funds to combat climate change, they continue to invest and plan for fossil fuel plants in the future. Development projects such as gas extraction in the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique, the Thabametsi coal mine in South Africa, and the Lamu coal plant in Kenya, continue to persist. This means that emissions and such intense storms will likely only continue. Ironically, the One Planet Summit was being held in Nairobi, Kenya while Idai hit, and while Kenya still has plans to develop coal mines. Seriously, how more ironic could this timing be?

Despite the great revenue potential of such plans, as a lot of the fossil fuel production will be exported, those currently contributing most to increased atmospheric greenhouse gases are us in developed nations. Mozambique currently emits about 0.3 tons of CO2 per capita, compared to 16.5 tons in the US and 9.9 tons in the Netherlands.

Even though emissions are comparatively higher in developed countries, efforts to help less developing countries in the face of climate change were promised in the Paris Agreement. Article 8 focused on addressing and minimizing the loss and damage from climate change effects and extreme weather events, and articles 9, 10, and 11 specified that developed countries would help provide finance and assistance to developing countries with their vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Efforts seemed promising via the establishment of the Paris Agreement, but Cyclone Idai highlights the continued injustice of global warming effects.

Although we have somewhat met the Paris Agreement targets, like with the development of the Green Climate Fund to help developing countries, is this enough? Is it fair to continue emitting such high levels of CO2 when countries on the other side of the world may be even more damaged and unprepared for the effects? If a similar cyclone hit a coastal city of a developed country, effects would expectedly be much less severe. Is this fair?

Watching these videos, hearing these stories, and seeing these photos, really hit home for me, as I spent a total of about 10 years living in Mozambique. The destruction and suffering from climate change are already here. There can be no more delays nor ignorance with tackling it. Cyclone Idai is just another warning sign. Particularly in struggled developing countries, it’s evermore necessary for us in developed countries to help – and help now.

 

References

Bariyo, N., & Steinhauser, G. (2019, March 19). Cyclone Shows Climate Change’s Deadly Impact on Poor, Urbanizing Nations. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/cyclone-shows-climate-changes-deadly-impact-on-poor-urbanizing-nations-11553025619
BBC News. (2019, March 19). Mozambique profile – Timeline. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13890720
Bloomberg. (2019, March 21). Dramatic Mozambique Flood Rescue. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxtsHmcDQrA
CBC News, & Carr, G. (n.d.). Park rangers in Mozambique stage a grassroots rescue effort following Cyclone Idai. CBC News. Retrieved March 23, 2019, from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/mueller-report-saving-lives-in-mozambique-new-zealand-s-haka-myspace-megafail-cory-doctorow-and-more-1.5066299/park-rangers-in-mozambique-stage-a-grassroots-rescue-effort-following-cyclone-idai-1.5066318
Church, J.A., P.U. Clark, A. Cazenave, J.M. Gregory, S. Jevrejeva, A. Levermann, M.A. Merrifield, G.A. Milne, R.S. Nerem, P.D. Nunn, A.J. Payne, W.T. Pfeffer, D. Stammer and A.S. Unnikrishnan, 2013: Sea Level Change. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
Goodman, J., & Giles, C. (2019, March 24). Cyclone Idai: How prepared was southern Africa? BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-47639686
Guardian News. (2019, March 19). Cyclone Idai leaves trail of destruction in southern Africa. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=49&v=rCO9MSRXYWA
Hausfather, Z. (2018, January 18). Explainer: What climate models tell us about future rainfall. Retrieved from https://www.carbonbrief.org/explainer-what-climate-models-tell-us-about-future-rainfall
Holthaus, E. (2019, March 19). Cyclone Idai lays bare the fundamental injustice of climate change. Grist. Retrieved from https://grist.org/article/cyclone-idai-lays-bare-the-fundamental-injustice-of-climate-change/
McGrath, M. (2019, March 20). Cyclone Idai: What’s the role of climate change? BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-47638588
New York Times. (2019, March 20). Cyclone Idai: The Devastation in Pictures. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/20/world/africa/cyclone-idai-photographs.html
Ninteretse, L. (2019, March 21). Cyclone Idai shows the deadly reality of climate change in Africa. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/21/cyclone-idai-climate-change-africa-fossil-fuels
Sea Level Change(Rep.). (n.d.). Retrieved https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WG1AR5_Chapter13_FINAL.pdf
Taylor, M. (2019, March 19). Climate change making storms like Idai more severe, say experts. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/19/climate-change-making-storms-like-idai-more-severe-say-experts
Thabametsi coal-fired power plant, Lephalale, South Africa. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.power-technology.com/projects/thabametsi-coal-power-plant-limpopo-province/
UNDP. (n.d.). Human Development Reports. Retrieved from http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/MOZ
UNICEF. (2019). Cyclone Idai Appeal. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org.au/appeals/cyclone-idai-appeal?&mkwid=s&pcrid=339217681834&pkw=cyclone idai&pmt=p&pdv=c&plid=&gclid=CjwKCAjw7MzkBRAGEiwAkOXexD_RXqSGLsjt-27cnCZ0272_Aj-aRH57Kq-njr7dzRcR3iencGsaRhoCregQAvD_BwE
United Nations. (n.d.). Paris Agreement (pp. 1-25, Rep.). Paris: United Nations.
World Bank. (2019, March 20). One Planet Summit 2019. Retrieved from http://live.worldbank.org/one-planet-summit-2019

3 thoughts on “Cyclone Idai and Climate Change Injustice

  1. Hey Nina, it must be hard to see a former home of yours suffer so much and thank you for sharing your valuable vision on how climate injustices/disasters have impacted your former home. I must say that I am really impressed by the way you wrote this blog. I think that your frame of looking at Cyclone Idai, its impact and its scary aftermath, provides a really valuable news frame for such disasters in the media. Instead of (like Bernie Sanders) focusing on the argument that climate change is causing such disasters, it is maybe more valuable to look at the terrible impact of such disasters, and how uneven and unjust that impact is. Your blogpost “uncovered” that injustice really well. It made me realize that the ideas around climate justice needs to include adaptation measures as well. Climate justice is not just about emission budgets and reductions, we also need to have a substantial plan for (unavoidable) damages of climate change in Global South countries. However, as you argued with the “irony” in the example of coal in Kenya, carbon budgets also have to do with the problem. As you have lived in Mozambique, do you have any idea where help would be most needed? How can we improve the resilience of countries against climate impacts? Would alleviating the country out of poverty be the best solution? You call it ‘ironic’ that Kenya is still building coal-fired power plants, which makes me think you are against such forms of development, but is that not maybe the best way to increase the economic resilience against disasters? I wonder what you think of such trade-offs. What I think I miss a little in your blogpost is a description of the work that is already done in Mozambique by the Green Climate Fund that you mention. Clearly that work is not going fast enough or not working. What is lacking? How can we help better? Are there any lessons to be learned from the disaster in terms of climate justice, apart from the fact that Idai is a harrowing warning sign for the future?

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  2. Thank you so much for your comment, thoughts, and questions. I completely agree with your first point – although it is vital that we setup prevention strategies for climate change and carbon budgets etc., we should also be developing methods to adapt to climate change, especially in the most vulnerable communities, and I think the primary method of alleviation from poverty. In Mozambique specifically, I’d argue the first issue is the political climate, corruption, and lack of education and resources. Like many African countries, Mozambique has long been struggling with political issues, piracy, poverty, and violence which – as you mentioned – all boils down to poverty. Those developed countries must provide guidance, monetary help (while being careful with corruption), education, and resources to such areas. Alleviation from poverty is a catalyst for more opportunities, accessibility to better levels of education, and more funds and finances for potential projects and necessary resources. Hopefully, then, with a higher level of education the political situation can also be improved with more informed voting and the potential for more informed candidates, parties, and organizations. Of course alleviation from poverty, however, is far from easy and I do not have a single effective solution. Yet, provided with resources, funds, education, and guidance (i.e. through conferences, talks, consultancies, policy/project plans, loans, …) from developed nations, Mozambicans can be supported towards increased positive development. You also asked a question about the continued production of coal plants in Kenya and make a very good point. I must be honest, I am against the building of additional coal fired power plants. However, that doesn’t go without saying that I understand the need for it during the process of development and that building will likely provide income opportunities. Especially without the resources and adequate education for implementing renewables, fossil fuels can be attractive. Also, I think it may stem from a need for quick development, and corruption, together with the lack of enough informed opposition. Similarly to the industrial revolution and the process of development for developed nations, less developed nations are now in similar stages where rapid growth and development is appealing and may be happening. Therefore, a potential method of alleviation could be to encourage ‘leapfrogging’ instead of following behind the footsteps of development. By this I mean skipping the ‘phase’ of exploiting fossil fuels and moving straight onto the development and implementation of renewables and green-energy alternatives. Further, economic resilience against disasters does not have to come from climate-damaging sources. Instead, financial and educational support from more developed nations can provide catalysts for ‘green development’ and help with implementation of things such as dams and coastal protection.
    Although I was able to find proposals of work wanting to be done by the Green Climate Fund in Mozambique, and project descriptions, I had difficulties in finding how much of this has already been completed. From what I have gathered, I get the impression that (specifically for Mozambique) it is a lot more talk, planning, discussing, and proposals, then it has been actual implementation and carrying out of projects. Of course the former is vital for the possibility of the latter, but the latter is what actually makes a change and so focus should now be shifted on actually putting these projects into action. They have, however, gathered a lot of finances for potential projects which is a major step, and many projects in other nations are being carried out (i.e. https://www.greenclimate.fund/what-we-do/projects-programmes). Yet since there are so many countries vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and lacking protective infrastructure, a question I have is: is it better to provide a lot of help to a small number of nations or less help for a larger number of nations? Perhaps you or others have some thoughts! Your last question is also a very good one and relates to what I have just written as well. The disaster is not only a clear warning sign for future climate change, but also an example of where extreme vulnerability lies and a reminder that projects must not only focus on mitigation but also adaptation.

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  3. Thank you, for you insightful comment. I think that I indeed maybe went by the “need for quick development, and corruption, together with the lack of enough informed opposition” that you mention a little too fast. Poverty, like climate change, is also a monstrous problem. I think the question you pose is also really interesting (helping a few countries well vs. helping a lot of countries a little), but it seems like a really difficult ethical dilemma. Maybe an emerging answer can be “results-based aid’, effectively allocating most GCF funds to countries who show not much corruption and have proven and shown a real willingness by taking certain steps? Maybe this is also problematic and punishes people that are suffering under corrupt regimes. Still, I wonder what kind of risk-analyses are going on at the GCF, but I would prioritize countries that seem really vulnerable for climate change damages (sea-level rise, tropical storms, droughts) while taking into account the ‘political readiness’ for such foreign aid. However, I also doubt/am not sure about the way in which foreign aid is given always happens in the best interest of the ones aided. The only thing I can say decisively is: the amount of funding in general is just really frustrating, especially when one sees that one cathedral in Paris so quickly raised so many funds. I wish the world’s more structural problems got as much attention and money.

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