The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Evitable Disasters

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Earlier this week, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Time used the Irish Potato Famine as a segue to talk about the impact of climate change on world food prices. The connection may be more apropos than Time intended, since, like the climate-related famines of the future, The Great Potato Famine wasn’t a natural disaster. It was a genocide.

Climate change is a scientific and environmental issue, but it is also a moral and political issue. Overlooking those dimensions, and treating global warming as something that’s just sort of happening, hides the dynamics that help create the problem and further disenfranchises those who bear its burdens. At best, not calling a spade a spade makes it harder for everyone to stop digging themselves into a hole. At worst, it protects the people who actively create problems for others, as happened in An Górta Mór, the Great Hunger of Ireland.

An Górta Mór did not just happen. As Time pointed out,

The Great Famine was triggered by the potato blight, but it was intensified by cruel policy on the part of Ireland’s British masters, who ensured that rich stores of grain and livestock were exported out of the country even as Irish citizens starved to death in the streets.

More accurately, British policy caused the famine. To blame mass starvation in a country that is exporting food on the failure of just one crop is disingenuous at best. At the time of An Górta Mór, in the 1840’s, Irish Catholics were effectively barred from eating much of anything besides potatoes (in the Irish context, religious identity is a shorthand for ethnic identity; Protestants are descendents of English colonists while Catholics are native Irish). Not only did they not own their own land, they were also legally barred from both hunting and fishing.

Now, all this doesn’t mean there were any cartoon villains twirling their mustaches as the Irish starved. Probably, the absentee landowners thought of themselves as simply protecting their own economic rights and they thought of the Famine as not their problem. The Irish were widely blamed for their own deaths for reasons that sometimes sound blatantly racist (one stereotype was that the Irish were lazy and backward) but would have been taken for granted at the time. But the fact of the matter remains that a million people died because their landlords chose receiving rent over their tenants’ lives.

What does all this have to do with climate change?

Like the potato blight, unchecked climate change would likely cause widespread starvation, social upheaval, and the mass displacement of refugees due to a combination of extreme weather and rising sea levels over the next century. And, as in An Górta Mór, these burdens will fall disproportionately on the poor. While monster storms can, of course, fall on rich and poor alike, wealthy people–or middle class people in wealthy countries–are better able to escape large storms and better able to either rebuild or move away afterwards. And the global economy ensures that major crop failures anywhere in the world raise food prices everywhere in the world, effectively directing want to the poor wherever they happen to be.

Countries that have potential resource shortages within their boarders have some options, of course. Various countries around the Gulf of Arabia have spent the past decade buying well-watered land elsewhere in order to grow food, for example. This sort of thing almost never works out for the country doing the selling, as countries that have resources but little money or influence abroad end up losing their resources and still remaining poor. While some transnational trade is mutually beneficial, it’s hard to imagine that a severe climate-related resource-crunch won’t result in a lot of desperate land-grabbing.

At best, the uneven distribution of climate consequences makes it harder for people who could do something about global warming to really see that anything needs to be done. For example, the Arab Spring of 2011 and 2012, was, in part, triggered by spikes in the price of wheat caused by a severe drought in China. The drought was consistent with the more severe weather patterns of a warming climate. While the United States had its own economic and political troubles during the same period, including our own drought-related crop failures in 2012, but I was in the United States the whole time and I noticed no particular change in food prices. Global disaster could be ignored here, and mostly was.

At worst, our society, like the British Isles of the 1840’s and ’50’s, is ignoring the extent to which disaster is actually being caused by the wealthy in order to further their personal ends.

Most readers, at least, probably recognize that global warming is not a natural disaster but a problem made by humans. However, we usually talk about it as if it were a natural disaster, for all the responsibility we assign for it. We talk about “fighting climate change” without irony, as though the problem were something external to ourselves and not a thing we are actually causing (and could stop causing). Talking this way obscures the fact that climate change is a moral issue.

In the 1840’s and ’50’s, the Potato Famine didn’t look like a moral issue to a lot of people because of the assumptions about economics and ethnicity that those actually responsible made. Irish Catholics themselves knew, and many of their descendents, both in Ireland and otherwise, still know, but until recently few were interested in listening. Now, of course, the fact that the Irish were legally and economically prohibited from eating all foods except the one crop that failed is an obvious indictment against those responsible.

In a similar way, the fact that wealthy countries have not substantially shifted away from fossil fuels, despite knowing about global warming and its causes for thirty years, is also an indictment. During that time, how many people have continued growing rich from fossil fuel? Again, we are making assumptions about economics and ethnicity whereby rich people have a right to extract fossil fuel and burn it and if poor people are hurt thereby it is a tragic natural disaster.

The point in all this is not simply to place blame for its own sake (or to engage in collective self-flagellation), the point is to identify the actual causes of the problem in a way that empowers change.

If the landowners of Ireland had chosen to forgo rent 169 years ago, the Great Hunger would not have happened.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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