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An opportunity to reflect on natural disasters


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The World

Loris de Nardi

researcher Marie Curie of the Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra

On November 6, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) will be held in Egypt, lecture . An occasion to refund to the center of the international public discussion an issue that, due to the pandemic, had become a secondary issue in the public diary : global warming and its effects on the climate.

Global warming is being dramatically accelerated by the massive introduction of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels. Rising temperatures will determine a greater issue of extreme natural phenomena, which, given the vulnerability of our societies, will lead to phenomena we have seen frequently in recent years: heat waves, droughts, floods, forest fires, hurricanes, etc.

The celebration of the summit offers an excellent opportunity to clarify that these disasters are not natural. Nowadays, the expression "natural disaster" is a commonplace in numerous discourses in the public sphere. It is used not only by amateur and/or improvised communicators, but also by information professionals and even - paradoxically - by academics and scientists themselves. This expression is deeply rooted in our culture and is so familiar to us that it seems neutral. However, it is far from being so: it distorts reality and generates disinformation.

Catastrophes related to natural hazards are always the result of human actions and decisions. Talking about "natural disasters" leads to the assumption that disastrous events related to natural hazards, such as earthquakes, floods, forest fires, among others, are due to powerful natural or supernatural forces that act irremediably against humans. In other words, it conveys a misinterpretation of reality that, instead of making the population responsible, makes it vulnerable to fatalism and immobilism.

It has been widely demonstrated that an earthquake only becomes a disaster when buildings collapse without their inhabitants being able to evacuate them in time. But this only happens if they are not designed and constructed from agreement with seismic-resistant regulations. This is especially important in places with the highest seismic risk, which are very predictable: it is well known that the earth can shake again where it has shaken in the past.

This is also the case with floods: it may rain more than normal at any given time, but this does not in itself constitute a disaster. The greatest catastrophes occur in flood plains where buildings have been erected. And what about landslides? It is human-caused deforestation that leaves their ridges bare and defenseless against these agents of erosion.

What about the large and terrible fires, almost impossible to control, which every summer devastate thousands of hectares of our forests, with increasing ferocity? They are caused by the disappearance of crop mosaics, the withdrawal of agricultural land, the depopulation of the countryside, the consequent substantial increase in biomass and highly flammable vegetation in the undergrowth.

With the exception of earthquakes, which respond to geological dynamics, all the other extreme phenomena we have just mentioned - and which have been hitting our battered globe with greater frequency lately - are far from being natural. They are the most obvious product of climate change caused by global warming. Thus, rather than the whim of nature, these events, which unfortunately often have disastrous consequences, must be attributed to the profound changes that our way of life and our economic system are bringing to the planetary balances. We are to blame: we have unusually exploited natural resources and resorted massively to fossil fuels.

Describing such events as "natural" determines that the responsibility for the disastrous event is attributed to nature and not to the misguided adaptive policies that produced it. This makes it more difficult to raise awareness and educate the population regarding the implementation of disaster risk reduction policies. Citizens need all subject of antibodies against misinformation to face the many climate and environmental challenges. And we must do it now, because, as scientists remind us daily, we are running out of time to react.

For this reason, we should replace "natural disasters" with more appropriate and correct terms, such as " partner-natural-disasters", both in news content and in scientific articles and knowledge dissemination, as well as in speeches and talks. This expression makes explicit the close relationship between disasters and the mistaken adaptive strategies implemented by human beings.

Eradicating the term "natural disasters" from our everyday discourse may seem to be a rather minor linguistic issue. However, this is not the case. Words matter, because they make messages resonate in society. We need to handle them responsibly and conscientiously.