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From superstorm Sandy to climate solidarity: How extreme weather can unlock climate action

November 2, 2012
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From a battered New York, Oxfam climate change policy adviser Tim Gore (right) considers the wider impact of major ‘weather events’TimGore on the climate change debate

I live in New York, half a block outside Evacuation Zone A on the East side of Manhattan. My partner and I, like many others, had our quick-run bags packed as the power went off on Monday evening (which is yet to be restored) and the storm surge grew. In the days since, we’ve been struck by the messages of good will we have been sent from all over the world. One of the first was from a friend and colleague who two years ago took me to visit the hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis living on mud embankments shattered by Cyclone Aila.

Could such disasters, wherever they hit in the world, offer opportunities to build a global solidarity movement for action on climate change? They could, if we are smart about it.

First, let’s be clear – as CNN, Bill Clinton and New York Mayor Bloomberg have all been in the last days – that Sandy was another clear cut case of climate change in action. With increasing rigour (as I described here), scientists can now show that global warming driven by excess greenhouse gas emissions, either makes extreme weather more likely or more severe, or both. Bloomberg Businessweek’s front cover on Sandy should surely be a contender for headline of the century.

This increased confidence in attributing climate change to specific impacts on people’s lives, and on the bottom lines of businesses and entire countries, means weather extremes like Sandy should now be treated as major opportunities to leverage political action on climate change. It’s an idea that has gained increasing attention in recent years, from Alex Evans to David Attenborough (and in Oxfam, Duncan Green’s been haranguing us about getting better at seizing “windows of opportunity” for years).

businessweek cover

In the context in which an abrupt change of course is needed to address the climate crisis – one some have compared only to mobilisation for war – crisis moments can create unique windows of opportunity for non-linear political change. That is precisely what we need. They can catalyse clear shifts in the values and priorities of citizens, business and political leaders around the world. Climate disasters in the global North and South alike are reminders of the common threat we face, and of the need to act collectively and urgently to avert yet greater harm.

While no-one could wish for a future disaster, the science shows events like Sandy and this year’s US megadrought are the new normal. So it makes sense for Oxfam and many of our partners in civil society to try to put this approach at the heart of our climate change advocacy and campaigning. To do so, we must get at least a couple of key things right.

First, we must recognise that while we are all now increasingly affected by climate change – rich and poor, in the global North and South alike – we are not all affected equally, and our struggles to fight climate change are not all the same. In fact, our common enemy of climate change will further exacerbate the inequalities between us. Sandy showed again that New York is highly vulnerable to climate change, but I was still thankful to be facing a hurricane there rather than in Haiti, Bangladesh or the Philippines. The US farmers who saw their crops devastated this year – sending world food prices rocketing – had losses tempered by access to drought-resilient crop varieties, investment and insurance mechanisms that could have saved lives and livelihoods amongst their counterparts in the Sahel in recent years.

It’s the poorest everywhere who are hit hardest. But we’ll only build a movement of global climate solidarity if we recognise these

Fire damage at Breezy Point, NYC

Fire damage at Breezy Point, NYC

inequalities and differences up front, and make sure they are at the heart of the responses and solutions we demand. That’s how our campaigning can be inclusive, ultimately reaching more people, and building more power for action.

Second, we must assert that global climate solidarity goes beyond charity and stands for justice – it must link our basic humanitarian impulse to help those in need to passionate political action. This means knowing who or what is the source of climate injustice, who stands in the way of redress and how they can be moved. This week our friends at 350.org are doing a fine job at showing how that can be done. Their rapid response webpage helps concerned citizens donate to help those hit by Sandy, while putting the energy companies – who have kept climate change out of this year’s Presidential debate – in the frame, and demanding political action from whoever wins the White House next week.

Expressions of global solidarity in the windows of opportunity following climate disasters will likely not be the only approach we need to jump start climate action. But we can’t just rely on incremental strategies either.

4 comments

  1. Great post! I wish more US citizens will also join the campaign the break the Climate Silence as espoused by this site:

    http://climatesilence.org/

    By the way, I’m not sure I’d like to be in NY when another Frankenstorm comes, as I think we’re better prepared for such hazards here in the Philippines…

  2. Thanks Jes!

    I’m sure there are many things the Philippines could teach the US about preparing for and responding to disasters… just as I think there are many things US farmers can learn from their counterparts in the Sahel about how to adapt to drying conditions – and vice versa!

    (For the record, I’m a British citizen, but I’ve also been really shocked by the silence on climate change in this year’s election compared to 4 years ago… )

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