When is it ok to discuss climate change?

I just watched this speech by the Philippine Climate Change Commissioner, Yeb Saño, at the UN climate conference in Warsaw. He pleads for action on climate change with passion, breaking down in tears at one point. It’s well worth watching.

Yeb Saño makes a direct connection between climate change and the tragedy unfolding in the Philippines as a result of typhoon Haiyan. He also tells everyone he will go on a hunger strike until meaningful progress is made.

I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate. This means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this Cop, until a meaningful outcome is in sight.

Good on him, I say. Many people will criticise him for making this connection but this is something we need to discuss. Why can’t we talk about climate change in the context of natural disasters?

Recently, Australia had the earliest start to the bush fire season, ever. Temperatures are going up in Australia, winters are warmer than they used to be and summer arrives sooner. It seems to me that with hotter temperatures we will see more bush fires. This is entirely reasonable to me to suggest and talk about. Yet when this connection is made, some people are very quick to criticise and they even go so far as to suggest it is immoral to do so. Why?

My own view is that while it’s not possible to link one specific event to climate change, it is ok to observe and acknowledge a trend. Wottsupwiththatblog has a post today about possible trends in increasing cyclone intensity. Phil Plait also has a post at Bad Astronomy about the increasing intensity of cyclones and global warming. According to him, the fingerprint of global warming is already visible in cyclone intensity which has gotten stronger over the last 30-years.

Earlier this year I found some graphs produced by the insurance industry which showed trends towards more weather-related catastrophes. If anyone ought to know whether natural disasters are getting worse and/or more frequent then the insurance industry should.

But the real question I have been wondering is why it might be considered immoral to make the connection between climate change and natural disasters, especially when there is strong evidence that there is one. Is it because people think that natural disasters evoke strong emotions in us and so therefore it would be wrong to draw on these emotions? I think the idea is that when we are guided by our emotions we don’t always make the best decisions. This may be true to a certain extent but we *are* emotional. Is it really desirable to ignore this?

It’s impossible not to have an emotional reaction to human suffering and devastation. I have always felt that human emotions are given too little weight in decision-making. This is not to say that our decisions should not be grounded in careful reasoning and justification but that our shared emotions should be a part of this reasoning. Our emotional response is important. Fear, for instance, can save your life when used as a precautionary measure. Without it we would take all sorts of unnecessary risks. If we universally conclude that the suffering caused by natural disasters is a bad thing and we can effectively demonstrate that some disasters are getting worse and/or more frequent because of CO2 emissions, then this is a sound basis for arguing in favour of action on climate change.

Natural disasters are terrifying. If climate change is responsible for increasing cyclone intensity, and it’s looking more and more like this is the case, then this is a very strong argument in favour of emission cuts simply because of the harm and suffering these disasters cause. Some, Bjorn Lomborg for instance, argue for adaptation rather than cuts to emissions and in doing so, they ignore this element of human suffering.

I think it’s fairly clear what people living in the Philippines think about Bjorn Lomborg’s suggestion.