The Economic and Social Impacts of Climate Change

The United States has been plagued with natural disasters in the past few months. With Hurricane Harvey in August, Hurricane Irma in September, and Hurricane Maria hitting US territory Puerto Rico last week, recovery will be a long process. Unfortunately, the damage comes not just from hurricanes. On the West Coast and southeast Alaska, wildfires run rampant. Outside of the US, Central America has been under a tsunami advisory; landslides and droughts in Africa; monsoons in South Asia; floods in China, and the list goes on.

Photo of the earth from outerspace
earth. Source: Medrawtchina, Creative Commons

Why is this happening? The answer to this question can be summed up in two words: climate change. NASA defines climate change as gradual changes in a region’s regular weather pattern over many years. Examples of these changes can be temperatures being higher or lower than what is normal in the area, or it can be an increase or decrease in annual precipitation. Climate change is not a sudden change in weather, such as a sunny day turning into a cloudy day in a matter of hours. The biggest factor is the rise in the globe’s temperature. Since 1970, the global temperature has risen around 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit each decade. While 0.3 does not seem like a big change, imagine your body’s internal temperature rising 0.3 degrees every ten days. Your body would go into shock trying to adjust, which is essentially what is happening with our planet. Small changes in the globe’s climate have large impacts.

Scientific evidence shows that climate change is real and happening, and the earth’s climate is warming. As a result, the ocean’s temperature is also rising. A hurricane’s strength depends on three factors: water temperature, wind shear, and moisture in the atmosphere. According to Vox, “Warmer water and atmospheric moisture give the system energy. A low wind shear — i.e., sharp changes in wind directions as you go higher and higher in the atmosphere — keeps a hurricane from dissipating.” In an interview with Vox, meteorologist Klozbach claimed that he found the Atlantic Ocean, where Irma formed, is two degrees warmer than the ocean usually is this time of year. The strength of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria are substantially impacted by changes in the climate, as they too originated in abnormally warm waters.

As another result of the earth’s temperature rising, scientists have concluded that wildfires are “occurring about five times more often than in 1970…burning more than six times the land area as before, and lasting almost five times longer.” Wildfires can be caused by humans unintentionally by dropping a cigarette, or by natural causes such as lightening. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, every state in the western US has seen an increase in numbers of annual wildfires. The duration of the fires and their intensity are also a result of climate change. Because the earth’s temperature is rising, the soil becomes drier, droughts occur, therefore making chances of a wildfire increase.

What are other consequences of climate change? Aside from the damage to communities, mass displacement, or even death in extreme cases such as the 1,200 deaths caused by the monsoons in Asia, there are other long-lasting effects as well. After Hurricane Harvey flooded a large portion of southeast Texas with a record-breaking 51.88 inches, there were over 150,000 jobs created that were dedicated to post-flooding clean up and construction. However, the trio of climate change-powered hurricanes have potentially destroyed job growth for September and October by taking out over 80,000 payrolls. In addition to that, CSNBC Market Insider claims the damage caused by Hurricane Maria is predicted to keep citizens of the territory jobless until November. According to Diane Swonk, CEO of DS Economics, “We’re creating an average 175,000 jobs a month … The problem is it looks like the hurricane disruption will overwhelm those job gains in September to get them close to zero, and we’ll likely see a negative reading in October because of the sheer number of people that were affected in Puerto Rico. We really have a humanitarian crisis there.” As a usual result of hurricanes, gas prices shot up. Forbes reported that Texas had the highest gas prices it had seen since 2014 at almost $5 per gallon in Fort Worth.

Storage building photographed with Hurricane Irma in the background
Spent Hurricane Irma outside. Source: Concrete Connection, Creative Commons

Wildfires can also have positive and negative economic effects. Similar to the hurricane clean-up crews, the beneficial effects come either from rebuilding after a wildfire or fire suppression. Counter to that, Diaz found in a study conducted in 2003 that California had lost over $43 million in wildfire expenses that year. It was also estimated that about 5,000 fire-related jobless claims were filed in the same year. Due to the wildfires this year, parts of Texas have lost roughly $21 million in agricultural costs – without accounting for costs of damages on equipment. Wildfires also contaminate water supplies and produce air pollution. The largest concern with the drinking water supply is sediment filling reservoirs or basins, and sediment going into the air supply can result in long-term damage to lungs.

Arguably, the most important impact of these disasters is the social impact. When Hurricane Irma was destined to hit Florida, 6.3 million people were told to evacuate. Roughly 800,000 Texans have filed claims for help in after Hurricane Harvey. Over six states have seen damages to their agriculture because of wildfire damage. These cases of displacement and infrastructure damage can also have psychological effects. Thompson asserts that people show high levels of “anxiety, stress, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more signs of depression” when displaced after a natural disaster. Food security is also a factor in measuring the social impact. With damages to agriculture, this should come as no surprise. While the US is effected by droughts and agricultural damages, in less developed countries, such as the seventeen countries in Africa that have suffered from drought this year, food security is a much larger issue.

Photo of a flower being grown in a bottle cap
Recycling. Source: Marian Kloon, Creative Commons

The true question is: where do we go from here? Earlier this year, President of the United States Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement to combat climate change and reduce the United States’ pollution: the Paris Climate Accords. While the climate changes due to natural causes, without proper attention to the environment, scientist have warned that the earth’s temperature will continue to grow at an accelerating rate due to human activity. With one of the world’s leaders pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords, that intangible threat is encouraged to be a tangible reality. Some US states have pledged to continue practicing proper environmental safety techniques. However, without a legal force coercing large factories to control their pollution emission, the US will become a large factor in contributing to the acceleration of climate change. It is our job to take care of the earth in any way that we can. If you would like to know how you can help slow down climate change, refer to Prevent Climate Change’s website.

It’s Not Just Irma and Harvey: Deadly Floods Affect Millions Around the World

map_of_southeast_asia. Source: ANHCANEM88, creative commons.

These past few weeks have been a very vulnerable time for our global community. Media has been predominately focusing on the countries and victims affected by Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Jose, however nature’s violent outcry stormed communities all over the world- not just the hurricanes in the West. Powerful monsoons struck South Asia, affecting more than 41 million people throughout Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. In Karachi, Pakistan, devastating monsoon floods abruptly invaded communities preparing to celebrate an Islamic holiday, Eid al-Adha. Lastly, Typhoon Hato swept into the cities of Macau and Hong Kong, causing thousands of people to flee their homes.

After all of these natural disasters transpired, one concept became very clear: Mother Nature does not discriminate. Natural disasters affect the rich and poor, high income countries and low income countries, and people of all nationalities and ethnicities. Regions struck by these disasters are left with substantial amounts of infrastructural, property, and environmental damage. As a result, victims of these disaster experience traumatic consequences, such as internal displacement and food insecurity. Growing up, I believe I was too young and just overall uninformed to really comprehend what natural disasters entail, and why they are so devastating. However, now being an adult, it’s obvious to me that the reason why natural disasters are so devastating is because post-disaster damage completely compromise the dignity of human rights detailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Disasters interfere with a population’s economic, social, and cultural rights emphasized through 17, Article 22-27 of the UDHR. Articles 22-27 of the UDHR focus on establishing social security through people’s right to education, employment, adequate living conditions, cultural life, and leisure. Likewise, Article 17 of the UDHR establishes that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” Unfortunately, after a natural disaster, these rights are undeniably negatively affected.

Hurricane Katrina LA7. Source: News Muse, Creative Commons.

Right to Work

The right to work and employment is severely hindered after natural disasters due unimaginable infrastructural damage. In 2005, the US experienced public health tragedy when Hurricane Katrina devastated millions along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released numerous reports on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on employment and unemployment. These statistics state: “approximately 38 percent of business establishments in Louisiana and Mississippi were within a 100-mile corridor of the path of Hurricane Katrina’s center.” From August 2005 until June 2006, Louisiana unemployment rates soared from 5.8% pre-hurricane to 12.1% post-Hurricane Katrina. In Mississippi, unemployment rates climbed from 6.8% in 2004 before the hurricane to 10.4% after Hurricane Katrina. Everyone has the right to work to “ensur[e] for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity”; this is ultimately difficult to achieve when opportunities for employment have literally been washed away. In the Caribbean regions, hit hardest by hurricane Irma, tourism one of the largest revenue-builders and an important source of income for many families. Specifically in Anguilla, a territory hit by Hurricane Irma, tourism contributed to 57% of the island’s GDP in 2016. Generally, travel and tourism alone contributed to about 15% of the Caribbean region’s total GDP. For the Caribbean victims of Irma, the disruption of the tourism industry is a disruption to a family’s livelihood. Natural disaster victims living in rural regions such as India, Nepal, and Bangladesh face continuous threat to work when their agriculture and crop land get destroyed and the becomes unprofitable.

Right to Adequate Living

The most noticeable human right that natural disasters discernibly jeopardize is the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…” For many survivors after natural disasters, ‘adequate living’ is no longer a reality. What happens when a family’s home is demolished in the wake of disasters such as these? Tragically, millions of people become internally displaced within their countries. The United Nations reports that about 851,000 people are displaced in India, 352,738 Nepalese are displaced from their homes, and lastly 696,169 people have been displaced in Bangladesh since the monsoons. Food insecurity also becomes an urgent need to address throughout regions affected by these disasters. Within two days after the floods, Nepal Food Security Monitoring System (NEKSAP), issued a first assessment of the damage. Results exposed that 70% of flood-affected areas are moderately food insecure or worse. Of that 70%, 42% of those regions are highly and severely food insecure.

Right to Education

Natural disasters also impede on one’s right to an education due to the damage sustained by schools and educational infrastructure. Human loss to education systems, comprising the loss of school administration personal, teachers, and education policy makers, affects the institution’s ability to deliver a quality education. UN reports affirm that in Bangladesh, 2,292 primary and community schools suffered substantial water damage. In Nepal, 1,958 schools have been ruined, thereby impacting the education of 253,605 children. In India, nearly one million students’ education have been disrupted when floods damaged 15,455 schools. Damage to schools not only undercut education in the short term, but threaten long-term educational goals as well. USAID explains “the normal processes of educational planning break down during an emergency, weakening the overall system and creating future problems in the development of an inclusive educational system.”

“Famine”. Source: Jennifer Boyer, Creative Commons

What’s next?

These events have got a lot of people asking why these disasters even occurred in the first place. Well, science indicates that climate change has become a major catalyst to such drastic weather related disasters witnessed throughout the past couple of weeks. As NASA explains “changes in climate not only affect average temperatures, but also extreme temperatures, increasing the likelihood of weather-related natural disasters.” With rising temperatures and a predicted increase in weather-related disasters, maybe the United Nations and our government should start to consider changing the definition of an internally displaced person (IDP) or a refugee to include people fleeing from natural disasters. The UN definition of a refugee is a person who , “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” Just like people running away from armed conflict, victims of weather-related disasters are also trying to escape harsh realities, including inadequate living conditions, food insecurity, no economic opportunities, and violence. A modern day example of weather-related disasters is the famine spreading across Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya caused by intensified droughts.

“We have moved four times in the last four months. We were trying to follow the rain – moving according to where the rains were supposed to come. But they haven’t. If the rains don’t come, none of us will survive”

– Farhia Mohamad Geedi, Oxfam

Just like Farhia and her family, 10.7 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and are facing sever hunger. If their governments are not able to provide them with a feasible and effective solution, they have no other choice but to leave, or die. With a predicted increase in weather-related disasters such as drought and floods, more people will be living in extremely life-threatening  environments that will force them to leave their home. The destruction of the consecutive water disaster have been very tragic, but there is hope for the future. Countries have begun to recognize that “their shared burden of climate-related disasters can only be lifted by universal action to address the causes of climate change.” 175 countries from all over the world have signed onto the Paris Agreement, which will focus on keeping a global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius. We as a global community have already made such positive impact by acknowledging we have a problem, now it’s time to hold ourselves accountable for progress.


Additional resource: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.