The impact of environmental disasters in 2017

Soldiers from the National Guard in Texas arrive in Houston to assist those affected by Hurricane Harvey in August. Photo from fbi.gov.

From devastating hurricanes to ravaging wildfires, 2017 has been a destructive year for environmental disasters in the world.

The United States alone was hit by 15 environmental disasters from January to September that each cost over $1 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Among those disasters were two floods, one freeze, seven severe storms, three tropical cyclones, one drought and one outbreak of wildfires.

Hurricanes in particular heavily tore through the U.S. in the past few months. In August, Hurricane Harvey hit the country, targeting southern Texas. The Category 4 storm caused billions of dollars in damage predominantly from the intense rainfall and flooding, which destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and killed over 82 people, according to the Washington Post.

Shortly after Harvey, Hurricane Irma hit the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea in early September. Major cities in Florida were flooded and faced power outages, while the worst damage came to various islands in the Caribbean. Combined reports from the countries affected state that the combined number of deaths is about 134.

Hurricane Maria also occurred in September, striking Puerto Rico particularly hard. Two months after the storm, about half of the island is still without power, according to StatusPR. The Puerto Rican government has reported that the official death toll from Hurricane Maria is 55, according to Weather.com, but officials estimate that nearly 500 more deaths were indirectly caused by the hurricane.

Controversy arose when aid from the U.S. government did not arrive immediately for Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. President Donald Trump visited the island, but many believe the $5 billion in aid that Congress approved for Puerto Rico is not enough, especially compared to the $15 billion Trump signed in response to Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Maria completely destroyed many buildings on Caribbean islands when it struck the islands in September. Over two months later, many areas of Puerto Rico are still without electricity. Photo from nbcnews.com.

“That’s unconscionable,” said Mike Atherton, associate professor of philosophy who advises Seton Hill University’s Nature Club and teaches Environmental Ethics. “That is wrong on all levels. [Puerto Ricans] are American citizens. Can you imagine not doing anything for Houston, or South Florida? No, you can’t. But people seem quite okay that a month later, they are without electricity in this highly-populated territory. That’s environmental injustice.”

“I think it’s this issue of collective empathy because it’s a lot easier to feel empathy for people who are in your proximity,” said James Paharik, professor of sociology who teaches Environment and Society at SHU. “But Puerto Rico, most people haven’t been there, they don’t know anyone from Puerto Rico, so it’s harder to feel empathy toward them. I think that’s always a problem that human beings have, is that the farther away you go from your immediate family, the less likely you are to feel empathetic toward people who are suffering.”

Another prominent environmental disaster in the U.S. this year were the deadly wildfires that killed over 40 people in four counties in California in October, according to the Washington Post. In addition, the wildfires destroyed thousands of buildings and displaced over 100,000 people in the areas affected in the state.

While the U.S. has faced destruction from numerous environmental disasters this year, it is not the only country suffering. In Sierra Leone, over 300 people were killed and thousands were displaced in August when severe flooding and landslides hit the country. Colombia was hit with deadly mudslides that killed over 200 people in April, while over 200 people died in September after a deadly earthquake hit Mexico. One of the worst disasters was the monsoon flooding in India, Bangladesh and Nepal that killed over 1,000 people this summer and has affected nearly 40 million people.

Despite the large amount of deadly environmental disasters in other countries, many Americans do not pay close attention to what is happening around the world.

Wildfires in California killed over 40 people when they hit the state in October. Photo from the Associated Press.

“That’s where we could use better news coverage because it would help us to see that we’re not unique in all the things that we’re dealing with,” Paharik said. “We have so much going on here, but in general, it seems like we’re not as attuned to international events as we could be.”

“We need to know that those people, when they bleed, they’re just like us,” Atherton said. “To be calloused to that is self-centered.”

While natural disasters are not uncommon, the large amount that have affected the world this year has raised questions, as many wonder if climate change is affecting these natural disasters.

“It’s not an accident that we’re seeing such a preponderance of catastrophes right now,” Paharik said. “It’s all really connected to our changing climate. Unless you can see the big picture and put it all together to understand how global warming is changing our climate and changing how we live, then you don’t see it as an environmental problem, you just see it as an accidental thing that’s just a coincidence.”

According to NASA, climate change is “a change in the typical or average weather of a region or city.” While weather consists of short-term changes, climate is the “weather averaged over many years.”

Environmental disasters have been occurring longer than the climate has been significantly changing, and climate change cannot necessarily be centrally linked as the direct cause of an influx of disasters. However, climate change can play a role in increasing the severity of environmental disasters, especially hurricanes.

According to studies cited in a Vox article, as climate change raises the Earth’s temperature, glaciers and ice sheets melt and cause sea levels to rise. Higher sea levels not only cause more flooding, but also contribute to the worse storm surges in hurricanes.

Seton Hill Nature Club advisor Mike Atherton (third from left) poses with students for a photo during their campus cleanup in November. Photo by S.Dumnich/Setonian.

A rise in temperature also raises water temperature, which increases the amount of water that evaporates into the air. More moisture in the air causes more rain, which contributes to the severity of hurricanes and an increased amount of flooding, as seen with Hurricane Harvey.

NASA also states that climate change will likely cause more floods, droughts and heat waves, along with hotter heat waves and stronger hurricanes.

“There is almost universal agreement among scientists that the drastic weather changes that we’ve had recently are exacerbated, not necessarily only caused by, but exacerbated by the wild climate that humans have had a large hand in,” Atherton said. “The responsibility is on us to do something about it.”

While climate change is not the sole reason that natural disasters occur, its effects can certainly have a large impact on the severity and frequency of the disasters.

Vox explains another reason why financial damages from environmental disasters have increased is that more people have been living on land that is vulnerable to natural disasters, commonly in buildings that are unable to withstand the force of disasters.

“The long-term strategy is to begin rebuilding places like Puerto Rico with alternative energy grids so they’re relying on solar power, for example, rather than fossil fuels to run their island’s energy suppliers,” Paharik said. “We need to start rebuilding our infrastructure so that it is less dependent on fossil fuels, and then I think once we do that, that will start to lessen episodes of extreme weather.”

Although the future is always an unknown, the increase in natural disasters is a reminder for Paharik and Atherton that everyone should care about the environment and lessening the effects of climate change.

“I think everybody should be aware of their environmental responsibility,” Atherton said. “If we all do our part, then we are genuinely making the world a better place.”

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