Climate change blamed for deadly landslide

Disaster zone: Several streets and two bridges were destroyed by the mudslide. © PA

This weekend, an “avalanche of water” caused a mudslide that destroyed the small city of Mocoa in Colombia. At least 250 people were killed. The president blamed climate change — is he right?

“The river has got us,” were the desperate words heard in a call to Colombia’s emergency services in the early hours of Saturday morning. “Help us please.”

The small city of Mocoa, in the south west of the country, had received a third of its monthly rainfall in a single night. Its rivers had burst. And a devastating mudslide had swept through the streets, destroying homes and cutting off access to water and electricity.

The Colombian security services, which sent 1,100 soldiers and police officers to help, are frantically searching for survivors. They say that at least 250 people have been killed in the disaster, with around 200 still missing.

“It breaks my heart,” said President Juan Manuel Santos. “We are facing a disaster caused by nature, by climate change.”

Is he right? It is very difficult for scientists to pin specific disasters on climate change. But most scientists do agree that global warming “loads the dice”, meaning it makes extreme weather far more likely. Just last week, scientists argued that this was due to the effects of climate change on the jet stream.

Colombia’s mountain landscape and heavy rainfall makes it particularly vulnerable. Between 2010 and 2011, floods and landslides killed 1,374 people. As a result, the country has been outspoken about tackling climate change; it has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2030.

In the aftermath of disasters, it has become common for politicians and environmental campaigners to blame the effects of climate change. But some experts have warned against using it as an “excuse” to avoid the government’s responsibility. Disasters are made worse by all sorts of issues, they say, from deforestation to shoddy housing to a lack of flood defences.

“Climate change is often going to be the domino that falls,” wrote Slate magazine last year. “But that does not mean we can ignore the rest of the dominos in the row.”

Changing weather

That is right, say some. If governments know that certain areas are vulnerable to extreme weather, they should do everything they can to protect the people who live there — whether that weather is linked to climate change or not. Politicians should leave the science to the scientists, and focus on what they ought to know best: improving the lives of ordinary people on the ground.

There is only so much they can do, say environmental campaigners. Climate change cannot be ignored — just look at the floods in Australia last week, or the ongoing drought in the Mediterranean. No matter how prepared a country is, extreme weather can still claim lives. If global warming is making these disasters more likely, the world should be trying much harder to stop it.

You Decide

  1. Are you worried about climate change?
  2. What is more important: fighting climate change, or protecting people from its effects?

Activities

  1. Create a front page for a Colombian newspaper, reporting on the weekend’s events.
  2. Choose another natural disaster that has been blamed on climate change, and research the evidence that scientists used to make their case. Explain your findings to the class.

Some People Say...

“Governments should spend as much on the environment as they do on defence.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The overwhelming majority of scientists agree that global warming is caused by increased amounts of greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere.
What do we not know?
Which extreme weather events are caused by global warming. Using computer models, scientists can predict the likelihood of an event in various different scenarios but this is not an exact science. If an event is five times more likely with current global temperatures, can we blame it on climate change? What about ten times, or 50 times?
What do people believe?
Some people believe that climate change is a hoax, that it is exaggerated by scientists, or that humans are not the cause. Although some climate science is still uncertain, there is little evidence to suggest that it is all fake.

Word Watch

Third
According to President Santos, 130 millimetres of rain fell on Friday night. The monthly average is 400 millimetres.
Climate change
A UN official agreed yesterday, saying that climate change had increased the “frequency and magnitude of these natural effects”.
Loads the dice
A gambling reference: loaded dice are weighted on one side to make certain numbers more likely. In other words, global warming increases the likelihood of events which occur naturally.
Jet stream
Narrow ribbons of strong winds which move weather systems around the Earth. Last week, scientists said that they are affected by global temperatures. If they become stationary for too long, hot days can turn into droughts, heavy rainfall turns into floods, and so on.
Deforestation
Cutting down trees can remove an area’s natural protection against landslides. Colombia’s former environment minister Adriana Soto blamed the disaster on the effect.
Shoddy housing
Although Colombia has tried to improve its housing in recent years, many homes are still “informally” built, meaning they do not follow official guidelines.

Subjects

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