Should we stop using the term “natural disaster”?
When we think of the term “natural disaster,” we think of horrific events like Hurricane Katrina, the fires and floods that ravage California, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Each of these events started as a natural phenomenon and ended up costing many human lives and billions of dollars, becoming a disaster.
The term “natural disaster” has long been used by scientists, media and politicians to discuss these events. However, confounding factors such as climate change and worsening social inequalities have prompted a reconsideration of the term. It’s no secret that natural disasters have gotten worse in recent years, claiming more lives and changing the shape of our planet at an exponential rate. According to World Meteorological Organization, the number of disasters has increased fivefold over the past 50 years. There has been a sense of shock and abnormality in response to numerous hurricanes, floods and fires that have afflicted the world recently.
Have these disasters shifted enough to no longer be considered “natural”? And does it really matter what we call them? While investigating this issue, I spoke with John. C Whisper — faculty member of the Earth Institute at Columbia Climate School — and anthropologist J.-C. at Barnard College.
Why is the terminology we use to describe these disastrous weather events important? Although Salyer’s work has little to do with climate science, her course, “Climate Change, Migration and Human Rights,” emphasizes that the words we use to describe the events that have an impact on human rights and well-being can have a significant impact on those affected.
Salyer says the way we title something, especially an event, changes the blame, interpretation, and scale of a situation. He gave an example using the term “climate refugee”. He says the use of the word refugee to describe people displaced by climate change indicates that their situation is somehow reversible, that their displacement is temporary. However, this is not the case. Sea level rise is not reversible and rising temperatures are not abating, at least not in our lifetimes. But the term “climate refugee” widely used by organizations like the United Nations implies to the world that these conditions are not permanent, and it changes the way these displaced people are treated.
Is this the same case for the term “natural disaster”, and if so, what are the implications of this term, and are they sufficiently provocative to justify a change in terminology?
Mutter and Salyer agree that natural disasters can have both a natural component—”You can’t have a hurricane disaster without a hurricane component, and that’s natural,” says Mutter—and a human component. Human actions can both help create the disaster and worsen its impacts, for example by encouraging real estate along hurricane-prone coasts.
Mutter says if there are people who don’t understand that human action is involved in creating a natural disaster, then maybe changing the term to something like “disaster” would be understandable. However, he doesn’t think that’s the case. In Mutter’s and Salyer’s opinion, it is widely accepted in their world that natural disasters are no longer truly natural. Scientists and people who make decisions about these events generally understand the myriad of “unnatural” causes that turn these events into disasters. However, these unnatural influences may not be understood by the majority of people who consume media coverage of these events and who vote the decision makers in power.
Finding a term that communicates this human element of disasters is complicated – so far there is no perfect alternative to ‘natural disaster’. However, as climate change aggravates the intensity of these phenomena, it is important for everyone to know that these events are linked to climate change and socio-economic inequalities.
So now the questions are: does the rest of the world interpret “natural disaster” the same way, and would changing the name be worth it? Does continuing to label these events as “natural” lessen the sense of urgency around climate change mitigation and human rights?
According to Salyer, the term “natural disaster” refers to a single humanitarian crisis or event, such as Hurricane Katrina, and can prompt a charitable response. We treat each disaster as a unique event to help with, but we have no real obligation to create change. We ignore a much larger underlying problem.
Should we then stop using the term “natural disaster”? After talking to Professors Mutter and Sayer, the only really clear answer I got was that the term changes implication depending on the sphere in which it is used. In Mutter’s world, a world of climate science and education – including, perhaps, the people who read state of the planet — a change in terminology is rather redundant. In his forthcoming book on natural disasters and social inequality, he gives a warning at the beginning of the book that he will refer to these events as natural disasters. It looks like the term isn’t about to die out, but has become controversial enough to warrant a disclaimer.
Moving away from the microcosm of social awareness and climate education and into the much larger world that derives most of its climate change information and education from sources such as broadcast news, a change in terminology has the potential to change the way we respond to these growing changes. disasters.
Which term would be able to bring about real change and action? That I do not know.
Ella Jacobs is an undergraduate student in sustainability at Columbia University.