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The disasters that never happened: How to soothe rising climate anxiety


When Typhoon Haiyan smashed into the Philippines in 2013, killing more than 6,000 people, everything was wiped out on the tiny island of Tulang Diyot, with all its 500 houses destroyed.

But early warnings and a swift evacuation just before the storm struck saved the island’s entire population of 1,000 people from one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever, which left a trail of destruction across the Asian country.

Now some experts are pushing for more recognition of such efforts to avert disasters, or at least their worst effects — which they say would help the world better prepare for accelerating climate change impacts and ease rising eco-anxiety.

“People don’t highlight it when ‘nothing happens,’ but even if nothing happens, it is in itself extraordinary,” said David Lallemant, a disaster risk expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

“These are invisible (successes). We want to change that; we want to bring visibility,” he said.

From retrofitting schools to withstand earthquakes to installing irrigation that saves crops from drought, Lallemant said there have been many effective early interventions that should be lauded but have gone largely unnoticed by the public.

Recognizing these achievements is crucial to encouraging policymakers to invest in similar measures, he added, as leading scientists last week warned in a new U.N. report that climate change losses are becoming hard to avoid and will likely worsen.

Too much bad news?

From searing heat to floods and drought, global warming is affecting the world faster than anticipated and on a more intense scale, according to the flagship report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Approved by 195 governments, the report urged policymakers to step up initiatives to adapt to more extreme weather and rising seas, and to limit the vulnerability of their people.

Volunteers battle a forest fire in Magaras, Siberia, Russia on July 8, 2021. The region is usually known for its bone-chilling cold, but recent summer temperatures have reached as high as 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius). | NANNA HEITMANN / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Volunteers battle a forest fire in Magaras, Siberia, Russia on July 8, 2021. The region is usually known for its bone-chilling cold, but recent summer temperatures have reached as high as 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius). | NANNA HEITMANN / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Climate change has also “adversely” affected mental health, from the stress of rising heat and trauma from weather disasters to loss of livelihoods and culture, the IPCC said, in its first formal acknowledgement of the growing problem.

Despite the bleak outlook, the head of the U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned against creating more “apocalyptic fears,” especially among younger generations.

“We have to be careful how we communicate the results of our science, tipping points and when we talk about the collapsing of the biosphere and the disappearance of mankind,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

“We have to be careful not to cause too much fear among the young people. The fear should be targeted towards decision-makers,” he told the approval meeting for the IPCC report.

The broader negative narrative around climate change could be balanced partly by showcasing more “averted disasters,” especially in news reports that are often dominated by catastrophes, said NTU’s Lallemant.

He and a team of researchers have been studying how disasters would have cost far more lives and damage without anticipatory action — and trying to quantify the benefits.

They found that when Cyclone Fani struck the state of Odisha on India’s east coast in 2019, more than 10,000 deaths were prevented thanks to a prompt evacuation of coastal communities and some 9,000 shelters built during the previous two decades.

In Nepal, a seismic strengthening of schools that started in 1997 is thought to have saved hundreds of lives when a massive earthquake struck in 2015, killing some 9,000 people overall.

None of the 300 retrofitted schools under the program collapsed or needed major repairs, according to the researchers.

Part of a roughly 245-mile (394 kilometer) sea wall near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, on March 4, 2021. The structure is designed to protect against future tsunamis. | JAMES WHITLOW DELANO / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Part of a roughly 245-mile (394 kilometer) sea wall near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, on March 4, 2021. The structure is designed to protect against future tsunamis. | JAMES WHITLOW DELANO / THE NEW YORK TIMES

“We spend all our time thinking about disasters — it’s quite depressing,” said Lallemant, who is also a principal investigator at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, a research center focused on natural hazards.

“But there are a lot of things that we’re already doing all over the world in addressing some of our disaster and climate risks. The problem is we never heard about it,” he added.

‘Multiple truths’

A growing mental health crisis linked to climate change — often dubbed “eco-anxiety” — has come under the spotlight in recent years, from heat-linked suicides in Mexico and the United States to people who fear the future is too uncertain to have children.

To help combat this, discussions around climate issues should hold “multiple truths together,” said mental health specialist Emma Lawrance, who studies the phenomenon at Britain’s Imperial College London.

This would include showing both better and worse future paths in messages aimed at spurring action and optimism.

“If coupled with hopelessness and powerlessness, climate anxiety may worsen our mental health and well-being, and hamper our ability to act,” added Lawrance.

Other advocates argue that giving more recognition to averted disasters could push policymakers — in both developed and developing nations — to increase investment in disaster prevention measures, and to do so sooner rather than later.

The IPCC report estimates that 3.3 billion to 3.6 billion people live in places that are highly vulnerable to climate change, including Africa, South Asia and small island states.

But many developing countries are struggling financially to adapt to the pressures of a warming world, as wealthier nations responsible for most past carbon emissions have fallen short on commitments to provide finance to help the poor and vulnerable.

Maricar Rabonza, a disaster risk researcher also from Singapore’s NTU, said elected politicians are often reluctant to make bold moves as positive results could take years to become evident — by which time most of them are no longer in office.

“So how do we incentivize that? The benefits should be quantified as early as possible,” said Rabonza.

“If we just shift our perspective a little bit, we can take advantage of the lessons from positive actions and not only … the failures in disasters,” she said.

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