Does Climate Change Exacerbate Natural Disasters?

Earlier this winter, California bore the brunt of a devastating flood, taking the lives of over a dozen residents and costing the state upwards of a billion dollars. With the risk of a warming climate and its catastrophic impacts increasingly taking hold, experts predict that severe weather events like this one will only become more common. Yet, curiously, this storm was not caused by climate change. When we delve into the true nature of how rising global temperatures played a role in the natural disaster, we see the complexity of the effects of the climate crisis.

Despite what might seem intuitive to us, the sheer amount of rain that pummeled Californians was not likely influenced by the warming climate. Experts have stated that storms of this severity have regularly beleaguered California for hundreds of years, and thus far, there are no indications that the January storm was out of the ordinary.

Though doubters might attempt to use that piece of evidence to validate the apparent normality of the weather catastrophes of recent years, when we dig deeper, we see how rising temperatures have, indeed, worsened the devastating flood.

It is no secret that the ongoing drought impacting Californians and much of the American West has been intensified by climate change. Scientific studies have proven that prolonged dry and warm years, exacerbated by climate change, elevate the risk of severe drought. How might this drought have played a role in the recent flood? According to state officials, the answer is complex.

California’s drought has created a number of conditions in the state that worsen the potential impacts of weather events such as widespread flooding. Within the context of the recent storm, Brian Ferguson, a director of California’s Office of Emergency Services, has said that dried-out creeks and streams acted as a kind of “bobsled” for water to run down.

To complicate matters even further, the deadly wildfires that have wreaked havoc upon the state in recent years, driven in part by prolonged drought, also contributed to the severity of the flood. Wildfires have left much of the state’s soil dry and deteriorated, increasing the likelihood of landslides during intense storms. This means that while the rain itself might not have been the result of warming temperatures, the devastating impacts being felt by Californians almost certainly are.

Communities in California and around the world must prepare for more severe and frequent natural disasters, even in cases where those disasters are not ostensibly caused by climate change. Not only will rising global temperatures make storms like these more common, but as we have seen in California, other climate-related environmental conditions are likely to compound with natural disasters to create dire circumstances.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that we ought to simply submit to our fate and accept climate catastrophe. On a global scale, we must phase out our usage of fossil-fuel energy and pursue proactive protections against natural disasters, but we as individuals have agency as well.

First, we must ensure that our elected officials are looking out for our collective best interests. Though climate change is being taken seriously in the state of California, on a national and global scale, we are not seeing the level of urgency and initiative necessary to avoid utter climate catastrophe. Call your elected officials and advocate for legislation that advances climate justice and an end to our reliance on fossil-fuel energy.

If you’re on a college campus like me, join in on the fight to end support for greedy fossil fuel corporations that knew for decades about the immense risk of climate change and covered it up. Just like many of my peer RCC Fellows, I have been advocating for my college to divest from fossil fuels through demonstrations, social media campaigns, and trustee lobbying. The recent events in California serve as all the more reason for Pomona College, a California institution, to end its support for fossil fuel corporations that are the leading drivers of climate catastrophe.

The science is clear – rising temperatures mean that severe natural disasters will continue to take hold and increase in frequency. Yet, we still have a say in this; as global citizens, we must get involved, whether at school or elsewhere, to fight for a fossil fuel-free future.

Nicholas Black – RCC Fellow

RCC Fellow Nicholas Black is a third-year student from Western New York studying politics at Pomona College. Passionate about environmental justice and community organizing, he is a leader in the on-campus effort to achieve fossil fuel divestment and endowment justice. He seeks to highlight the hypocrisy of institutions of higher education that tout their support and acceptance of minority and low-income individuals while perpetuating environmental racism and climate catastrophe through their investment portfolios. In his free time, Nicholas enjoys discovering new music, exploring the vast natural beauty of Southern California, and writing for The Student Life, Pomona College’s newspaper.

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