During the past three months, I have been looking at about 300 extreme weather events that scientists have attributed to climate change in the last twenty years, ranging from wildfires in Australia and California, to droughts in Africa and hurricanes in Central America. For each event, I searched for research on the non-economic loss and damage that it had caused. Non-economic loss and damage includes all types of destruction that are difficult or even impossible to put a price tag on. Examples are human mortality, loss of biodiversity, destruction of cultural heritage, negative health and mental health effects, loss of culture and identity, and so on. Perhaps “Suffering” would be a more appropriate term to describe it.
Exploring human suffering from climate change in the midst of a pandemic
So there I was, in an almost-empty office due to pandemic times, collecting articles about different shades of human and non-human suffering.
And even though I only read titles and abstracts, the stories slowly seeped through my skin. Behind every article were real people and places. Even the scientific language in a title such as “Maternal micronutrient status and decreased growth of Zambian infants born during and after the maize price increases resulting from the southern African drought of 2001-2002” could not stop me from imagining stunted children, desperate mothers and families whose poverty got even more hopeless because of climate change. The title “Management of the dead in Tacloban City after Typhoon Haiyan” made me freeze for a moment. In the abstract, the authors described that they found a “dignified and efficient way of identifying corpses” to enable “rapid body processing” after the typhoon. I took a deep breath and added it to the database.
For some extreme weather events, I did not find any articles about non-economic loss and damage. Such unsuccessful searches left me wondering: had these specific droughts and floods not been so bad after all, or was it just that nobody had done research on them? Even though I hoped for the first explanation, the second one is more probable. My list of extreme weather events also included hurricane Katrina, which destroyed New Orleans in 2005. A search for its impacts yielded around 3,000 articles. After scrolling through them and downloading relevant articles for three days, I gave up. I had not even managed to get through half of them. And already I felt numbed by all the studies on displacement, violence, mental health effects, destruction and loss of life caused by this single event. The project team wisely freed me from the task and decided to instead create an algorithm to dig through the “biggest” (most researched) climate events.
When it becomes personal
Perhaps it is quite useful to feel overwhelmed from time to time. It seems to create a healthy dose of humility.
Doing this research, I often wondered whether my bearing witness and my empathy had value, in some way, for someone. I don’t know. But I felt I couldn’t simply turn my empathy off. That would have been just another way of denial. “It won’t disappear if I look away, so I can as well look at it”, I remember saying to myself. The effect was that climate change now has become something that touches me emotionally. It’s about people suffering, forests burning, corals bleaching – and no longer just about some graphs on rising concentrations of CO2.
A starting point for resistance and change
Apart from the usual anti-depression advice (take a walk, meet friends, do things that you enjoy), it helped me to see my work in a bigger picture. Although my literature review on non-economic loss and damage did not feel particularly hopeful in itself, it is part of a bigger research project. In this broader scheme of things, an inventory of the effects of climate change can be linked to policy making, environmental litigation and social mobilization for climate justice. Although human and non-human suffering could be seen as the end product of climate change, it can also be the starting point for resistance and change.
Iris Maria Hertog, June 2020