Just in the last few weeks, several African countries and large swaths of South Asia have been getting massive flooding, killing hundreds and thousands of people. Mexico, Texas, Florida, and the entire Caribbean have been smashed by 4 separate massive hurricanes in just a two week span. The western United States is currently on fire after a summer of record heat waves and drought. There are catastrophes the world over, even though our often euro/white-centric media and sentiments can pass over them. Disasters are unfortunately common, and it is easy to become numb to them – my birthday is now inextricably tied to the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, so I know how it feels to avoid thinking about these kinds of things, but we do need to take some time to think about it and engage in conversation.
As such, I would like to note that we actually really can do more than simply sending our thoughts and prayers to victims of natural disasters, although we probably should start with thinking and prayer. One obvious thing we can do is to directly aid those suffering from these kinds of problems, either by giving money to supportive charities or by volunteering ourselves – however I would caution you (if you actually have the money or time, which is rare for most college students) to make sure that any charity you give to actually does what they say they do. There are many charities that line their own pockets first and only give a fraction to actual aid, and often to ineffectual aid at that. Charity Navigator is a great resource to use, though according to Snopes some of its information is outdated. Also, if you do directly volunteer, make sure that your presence is actually beneficial (just do a quick google search for bad disaster relief and you will see what I mean). It is unfortunately very easy for well-meaning volunteers to become more of a drain on those they are assisting than a help, and the process of rebuilding takes a longer time than we often appreciate. Here is a comprehensive scientific paper documenting a lot of details regarding disasters and their protracted effects and relief efforts.
My real point though is this: mankind is having an accelerating effect on changing climates around the world through terrain, oceanic, and atmospheric modification. America’s activities alone (Business Insider) account for the largest contribution to climate change from the industrialization and careless use of natural resources in the world to this date. Climates worldwide (Antarctica – ice shelf collapse, Tibet – catastrophic glacial collapse, Western US – over-wintering pine beetles changing wildfire mechanisms, South East US – warmer water means stronger hurricanes, India, Nepal and Bangladesh – catastrophic flooding, etc.) are changing, in large part as a result of industrialized society’s heavy reliance on fossil fuel burning and its feedback loop with greenhouse gas induced warming.
Although it is impossible to attribute individual wildfires or hurricanes or flooding events (and obviously earth-quakes) to man-driven climate change (also, the Earth would actually naturally be getting colder if it weren’t for the human contributions to warming), it is very possible to attribute the increase in severity of many naturally occurring events to human interference. When the ocean is warmer hurricanes and storms are stronger. When the summer is hotter and the parasitic insect infestations go unchecked by our national parks the forests are drier and fires are more extreme, etc.
Thankfully though, we really are able to change (Huffington Post) these things by individually producing smaller carbon footprints (CarbonFund.org’s helpful footprint reduction website). As residents in a major western power, our carbon footprints are significantly larger than huge portions of the rest of the planet (see above Business Insider article). Also, we have the power to lobby our government to take the scientific knowledge generated by institutions like my current school, Stony Brook University, and others and use it to act in accordingly responsible ways.
You may have noticed that our current federal administration is very opposed to responsible resource use or intelligent regulation, but this will pass, and states like NY and California are extremely proactive leaders on these matters. It can hurt sometimes (I had to spend $1300 on a new catalytic converter for my car when I moved to New York two years ago so it would meet their more stringent emissions standards, this was not fun) but it is worth it. We should not sit idly by and watch as the actions of our ancestors and contemporaries cause easily mitigable damage on those less fortunate than us or with less helpful governments. I wasn’t in New York for Sandy, but I can tell that this state really does have the resources to bounce back from tough hits, so there isn’t that much to worry about. However, not everywhere is like this and it may require some similarly tough efforts comparable or greater in magnitude to the Sandy relief, but in other, more outwardly or selflessly focused forms, to ensure that everyone has access to the same kind of security and protection from natural disasters.
Science is real and we really can use it, along with conscientious personal consumer choices and political action on local and larger levels, to undo the damage humans have already done and are continuing to do and protect those with less security than we enjoy from the harm that we have indirectly and often unknowingly contributed to. There is hope – China is actively reducing its dependency on fossil fuels, and even though the US is officially exiting the Paris Climate Accords, many states and cities are getting on board and doing even more than was originally promised.
We are the generation that will inherit many unsolved problems and have to decide what to do. I consider conscientious reaction to natural disasters and climate change to be synonymous with taking care of refugees, and I hope that this kind of conversation can continue and that it will ultimately bear some good fruit in our community, country, and the rest of the world.