It’s tropical storm season in the Atlantic. The world has watched as Hurricanes Irma and Maria and their counterpart tropical storms have roared around the Caribbean leaving disaster in their wake. But the devastation these events leave behind have as much to do with humans and history as it does with the actual weather, according to Dr Leon Sealey-Huggins, a sociologist teaching on the University of Warwick’s Global Sustainable Development programme.
“What has happened this year has been terrible to watch,” says Dr Sealey-Huggins, “and what is of immediate concern now is the clear-up operation. There is a need for fast and direct help and support from the world. But it is also crucial that we take time now to set this in a wider historical and political context and listen to the Caribbean region - otherwise these kind of events will just keep happening in same, or worse, pattern of repeats,” he states.
As a sociologist Dr Sealey-Huggins’ research focusses on the human aspects of climate change and how it affects the Caribbean region in particular. He argues the complex political past of the many island nations in the region has an impact on how they can plan for, and mitigate against, the powerful effects of climate change. The increasing incidence, force and duration of hurricane-grade tropical storms is just one aspect of what they are facing.
The disaster is manmade
“We have to have this discussion as to whether we can call these events ‘natural disasters’,” says Sealey-Huggins. “OK, so hurricanes are ‘natural’ weather events. But human actions have impacts on natural phenomena – we are seeing this play out as climate change. These massive weather events and their impacts vary in their size and scope. Whether or not a hurricane becomes a ‘disaster’ will depend on how prepared people and places are, and that in turn depends on access to resources. If you happen to have an underground wine cellar you can shelter in, a hurricane is not as much of a disaster.”
The geographical position of Caribbean countries means they will always be in the path of tropical storms. But they are more likely to suffer large scale disasters as a result of storms because of underlying social, economic and political structures. Here is the crux of the problem, according to Sealey-Huggins.
“Caribbean countries are affected by their histories as formerly colonised countries,” he explains. “They have these ‘legacies of empire’ to overcome. For example, these island nations have economies dependent on tourism, agriculture and fishing - sectors which are particularly threatened by climate change. They are globally indebted which means that they don’t always have the levels of freedom on the global stage to set their own developmental agendas.”
1.5C to stay alive
It’s not to say they have not been proactive. Caribbean countries have been calling for tougher climate policies, using the campaign slogan ‘1.5C to stay alive’ which refers to the limit of warming beyond which the island states will become unviable.
“But they are in a difficult position,” continues Sealey Huggins, “as they are up against the big world players and climate change discussions have been prioritising the needs of the developed North over those of the global South.”
“I think discussion of climate change has generally failed to pay enough attention to the social, political and historical factors which increase the vulnerability of Caribbean societies. The unfolding of climate change in the Caribbean, means that more intense tropical storms, as well as rising sea levels, flooding, ocean acidification and drought are likely to become a more prominent part of life in the region. My research considers the inequalities that shape Caribbean societies and their capacities to ‘deal’ with the problems of climate change, as well as the historical origins of these inequalities in terms of imperialism and colonialism.”
Dr Sealey-Huggins is using his research to point to ethical, global approaches to help the region deal with climate change.
“While we can’t stop hurricanes, we can slow the pace of the climate change that is making them way more harmful and this requires political and social action. Climate change is more than a technical problem to be addressed by engineers or scientists. It should make us fundamentally question the way society is currently organised, and the globally uneven distribution of resources and power that has precipitated the crisis.
“Global inequality, with its roots in the histories of imperialism and colonialism, has affected the ability of Caribbean societies to deal with the challenges of climate change.
“We need to address these historical inequalities in order to move forward. An ethical approach to climate change including consideration of wealth redistribution to repay ‘climate debt’ is one model for doing this.”
Dr Leon Sealey-Huggins is an academic on Warwick's Global Sustainable Development programme. His work centres on the social relations of climate change, with a particular focus on the Caribbean region. He has a particular interest in the sociology and politics of climate change in the Caribbean, investigating what climate justice means in the context of global historical, and present, inequalities and working to bring a sociological lens to bear upon what are often very unsociological, and depoliticised, discussions of climate change.
Image: MODIS image captured by NASA’s Aqua satellite, via Wikimedia Commons