Climate Change Impacts like Drought and Floods: STOP SAYING THAT!

Shaun Martin, WWF-US

With this post I am inaugurating a new series called “STOP SAYING THAT!,” a look at the use of language in climate change adaptation and how well-intentioned, knowledgeable people are making the field more confusing for the less knowledgeable by their choice of words and utterings like “drought is an impact of climate change.” Climate change adaptation is an emerging field and one where we need to rapidly raise awareness and educate others to be successful. While many might not see the value in arguing semantics, I, for one, firmly believe that we can all benefit from the use of precise language in our work.

We see lists of climate change “impacts” that include things like heat waves, drought, floods, and hurricanes all over the place. There are several problems with these lists and any sentence that claims that weather-related events are impacts of climate change. The first is that drought and other weather-related events have always existed and are not new phenomena caused by anthropogenic global warming. A second problem is that while we are all careful not to attribute single weather events to climate change, statements like “drought is an impact of climate change” imply the opposite – that a drought is a manifestation of climate change – even if that is not the intention.

But my biggest problem calling weather events impacts is the sloppy use of the word “impact.” Weather is not an impact. The damage caused by weather to the health and well-being of people, communities, species, ecosystems, and economies are impacts. We all recognize that smoking causes poor health, yet no one would say that smoking is an impact. Poor health resulting from smoking is the impact. We call smoking a hazard.

Thus calling a flood or a hurricane an impact of climate change makes no more sense than calling smoking an impact of marketing by tobacco companies. Like smoking, flood and hurricanes are hazards. The impacts caused by floods and hurricanes are property damage, loss of life, economic contraction, etc.

So why do people call hazards like heat waves climate change impacts? Probably because they have heard someone else say this or have read it somewhere. Calling a heat wave an “impact” is just a short-cut to saying, “the increased frequency and severity of heat waves resulting from anthropogenic global warming.” I agree that it’s much easier to just call it an impact! But that doesn’t make it the best use 0f language.

And it’s not just that it’s easier, it could also be that people are simply using “impacts” and “results” or “effects” as synonyms when they in fact do not always mean the same thing. Admittedly it can be confusing. While weather-related hazards cause impacts, some impacts from weather themselves cause additional, secondary impacts.

For example, drought can lead to a decline in food production (both an impact and a result of drought). Decreased food production can in turn cause a chain of negative impacts such as loss of livelihoods, inflation in food prices, increased poverty, malnutrition, and starvation. Since impacts result in other impacts, it is tempting to conclude that anything that is a result of something else can be called an impact. This thinking then leads us to believe that drought (ostensibly a result of climate change) can justifiably be called a climate change impact just as malnutrition is called an impact of decreased food production. This just confuses people on a number of accounts, all explained above.

So what should we be saying to avoid both confusion among newcomers and the use of cumbersome phrasing that is technically correct but does not always result in increased understanding?

1.       In an adaptation context, use the word “impact” (and not climate change impact) when you mean the damage caused by something else like a weather-related hazard or another impact. To be very precise, impacts can also be beneficial to some people (like companies that see increased ease of shipping in the Arctic due to the melting polar ice cap), but since adaptation is most often about reducing our vulnerability, “impact” often has a negative connotation. In adaptation you can safely call “damage” an impact.

2.       Try to avoid calling weather-related events climate change impacts, particularly in an adaptation context. Refer to weather events that can cause damage as hazards. Note that not all weather events are hazards, however. Think of rain for crops or snow in ski resorts.

3.       The words “flood” and “mudslide” cause particular confusion. A flood is not weather, but it is weather-related. Floods and mudslides are hazards resulting from several factors – precipitation or melting snow, topography, and land-use. But while floods arise in part by weather, they should never be called impacts since floods themselves are neither positive or negative, but result in things that can be positive (replenishing a wetland) or negative (destroying property). Similarly increases in floods and mudslides can be the result of land use change and shouldn’t automatically be attributed to changes in weather alone.

4.       When you want to explain the links between climate change and weather-related hazards, rather than calling them climate change impacts, you can say that we are experiencing and can expect increased variability, more severe and record weather, etc. in the future.

5.       Keep in mind that the results of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are not limited to changes in weather. Ocean acidification has anthropogenic causes stemming from carbon dioxide but has nothing to do with weather.

In my next entry I will explore the unfortunate term “no-regrets adaptation options” and how this phase is doing more harm than good.