The connection between extreme weather events and the warming climate was the focus of testimony by Pakistani ambassador Husain Haqqani and climate scientists Michael Oppenheimer, Thomas Peterson, and Michael Wehner before the House Select Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independence. Oppenheimer said that extreme events and impacts of climate disruption raise problematic issues of societal preparedness.Chairman Edward Markey (D-MA) opened the September 23 hearing by bringing the impacts of recent extreme weather home. He referenced not only the floods that have devastated Pakistan and the wildfires that raged through Russia this summer, but the flooding in Tennessee, Iowa, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. “The more heat-trapping pollution we put into the atmosphere, the higher the chance of weather disasters,” Markey said.
Ranking member and veteran climate change denier Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) took the opportunity to offer his condolences to Ambassador Haqqani and express his outrage that Democrats were “putting politics before people and exploiting this disaster” before leaving the hearing.
Ambassador Haqqani spoke of the 2000 lives lost this summer in Pakistan, the 2 million homes and 8,000 schools damaged or destroyed, and the 17 out of 43 million acres of arable land flooded. The floods were preceded by a steadily worsening water scarcity situation, and the country is predicted to be one of the worst hit by climate change impacts, he said.
“While the debate about climate change continues, Pakistan is living through the changes…Pakistan is bearing the burden of profligate natural resource consumption by others,” the Ambassador said.
Speaking to the degeneration of the climate change challenge into a political football, Haqqani said: “For the twenty million people affected in Pakistan, climate change is a reality. I urge leaders to pay attention to what it means for people instead of what it means for their argument.”
The scientist witnesses added to the message about Pakistan’s current suffering a discussion of what the future may hold for human societies struggling to adapt to a climate-disrupted world.
Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University, emphasized that “while extreme events are generally a physical phenomenon, circumstances where such events translate into disasters, like Hurricane Katrina or the great European heat wave of 2003, depend in large measure on individual and societal anticipation, planning, and response capacity and implementation. In other words, disaster is partly a social phenomenon.”
When asked about the relative utility of the term “global climate disruption” in describing climate change, he noted that the term “gets to the root of how we are going to respond” to climate change impacts. “It used to be argued that a rich country like the United States could adapt. But recent events taught us that in rich countries, we are not able to deal, even when we know what could happen. There are demonstrated limits to incorporating this knowledge to defend ourselves,” Oppenheimer said.
Though climate change impacts in wealthy countries may not approach those felt in poorer parts of the world, without robust, equitable adaptation of our infrastructure, they will still be borne by the most vulnerable members of society—as was made painfully clear in this country in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other extreme weather events made into disasters by inadequate preparation and maladaptive planning.
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