While storms and extreme precipitation strike, the rich are moving to the high ground.
Klassekampen, 15 September 2017
The Canadian protest singer Geoff Berner already sang it years ago: "You and me baby, we’re going to watch the poor drown. ‘Cos the rich are gonna move to the high ground". Cynical, but also very topical now that hurricanes Harvey and Irma have left unprecedented devastations in just a few weeks. Because as usual, it's the poorest among us who will feel the effects the hardest, and longest.
Why? The wind certainly does not distinguish between poor and rich? No, in that case you're only thinking of the acute danger of a hurricane. Its devastation is not just due to the wind, but also due to storm surges and a high amount of precipitation. Just look at how Harvey laid waste to Houston a few weeks ago. The problems there were not caused by the high wind speeds, but because it was the wettest hurricane ever measured. Up to 1300 mm of rain in just one week. That is more than half a year of rainfall in Bergen, one of the wettest cities on the planet. Or a year and a half in Oslo.
The poorest people could not hide far away in a hotel room to sit out the storm, but were stuck in houses that were slowly running full of water. And while not just the poorest neighborhoods were flooded, the rich were better off. They have the money for expensive insurance policies or enough savings to quickly get back on their feet. No, I don't worry about the resilience of people with money. Many of them are already looking for a house on a higher piece of land.
As if Harvey wasn't enough motivation to do so, Irma arrived just a week later. The most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, which struck one island after another on its march towards Florida, leaving only death and destruction in its wake. Before the storm reached the mainland of the United States, a long parade of private planes, often chartered for thousands of dollars, flew out of Florida. The super rich even evacuate in style.
How rich and poor are not affected by hurricanes in the same way was most visible after Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The poorest inhabitants were packed together in a stadium waiting for the storm to pass, to be left to their fate for days afterwards. Moreover, their neighborhoods were defended the least against flooding, which caused many people who stayed home to drown.
Far from the USA it isn't much better. As the whole world followed the news from Houston, a third of Bangladesh was flooded by the most severe monsoon in years. More than 1200 people died in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. In August, an equal number of people died throughout Africa due to heavy rainfall and mudflows in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, among others. But of course these annually recurring scenes receive less attention in the media than a hurricane like Irma, with record speeds up to 300 kph, hitting a rich Western country. When it comes to the attention given to natural disasters, some are more equal than others.
Yes, that also makes oil-producing Norway partly responsible
The key question is obviously whether all this has to do with climate change. This was suggested by both the media and politicians. Is that correct? Well, it isn't clear whether hurricanes will occur more often, but climate change will make them stronger. Hurricanes are fed, among other things, by the temperature of the seawater. The higher it is, the more energy can be fed into a storm, which increases its intensity. During both Harvey and Irma, the oceanwater was exceptionally warm. And not only hurricanes are getting worse due to global warming. The strong monsoon in Asia also fits this pattern.
We know that the rich industrial west is largely responsible for the historical emission of greenhouse gases, and with it the warming of the planet. And yes, that also makes oil-producing Norway partly responsible. With that knowledge, the behavior of the great Norwegian political parties resembles cognitive dissonance. To recognize climate change on the one hand, without significantly reducing its own contribution. On the contrary. The right-wing parties have supported the oil industry enormously, for example by allowing oil extraction in the Barents Sea (a decision that recently appeared to be based on a calculation error in Excel). On the left side the Arbeiderpartiet is ready to make oil extraction outside of the Lofoten archipelago possible.
Apparently voters were all fine with this, as the election results showed. Perhaps they thought that climate change wil predominantly hit poor people in countries far away, and not themselves. Or maybe they do not see the seriousness of the situation. As Geoff Berner sang further: "For every sad number that the scientists find, you get the feeling that some people really don’t mind".
This text originally appeared in Klassekampen on 15 September 2017