Unprecedented hurricanes thrash islands in the Caribbean and devastate much of Texas and Florida. Unusual monsoons kill thousands in India while droughts plague other parts of the region. Wildfires cause havoc in parched areas of southern Europe and California. Are these events results of climate change or are they merely something we are more aware of because of better information? Even earthquakes and volcanoes can be caused by climate change, according to Bill McGuire, a professor of geophysical and climate hazards in London.
Although my office is in the headquarters of the World Meteorological Organization, I will not try to answer either of the above questions. Rather, I propose some reflections as I was mesmerized by the images coming from news broadcasts of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. They brought back memories of my own experience in a hurricane as a boy.
How to understand Nature? Advances in technology have led us hopefully to understand better and control it. Dykes have been constructed to stop flooding; rivers have been diverted to harness Nature’s energy. The magnificent dams in Switzerland are engineering marvels. There are 556 hydroelectric power plants in this small alpine country that account for over 50% of domestic energy production.
But is this control of Nature an illusion? We may be able to send people to the Moon but we cannot stop flooding in downtown Houston or Miami. We may be able to send messages around the world instantaneously but we cannot stop forest fires from igniting.
In California, more than 6,400 fires have flared from January through early September 2017, burning upward of 626,000 acres in just over eight months. Richard Branson may be a billionaire who created his own airline, music and railroad companies, but he was unable to avoid extensive damages to the buildings and vegetation on Necker, his luxurious Caribbean island.
(Branson rode out the storm in his wine cellar. What was he drinking – a Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Romanee-Conti Grand Cru, Cote de Nuits, France 1944 at $15,000 a bottle – while the poor islanders surrounding Necker had no wine cellars to hide in?)
The romantic view of Nature would have none of the hubris of the above. It maintains that we are merely part of the biosphere and subject to larger systems. Any attempts to control or dominate Nature will fail. We are bound to learn to live with Nature, and thus be subjected to the very forces that overwhelmed Texas and Florida. While we may build structures that better protect us, we will always be inferior to forces beyond our control.
To watch the wind and waves battering Florida is at the same time to worry about the lives and properties of those living in the path of Irma and to be in awe of the force of the storm.
There is something heroic about those ready to rebuild in the face of potential future hurricanes. To live in the Florida Keys – I had relatives who did – is to accept that in the late summer there will always be some type of storm. The people who bought our family house on Cape Cod raised the entire two-story building acknowledging the flooding damage done in the 1954 hurricane.
To be in awe is a form of recognition of Nature’s power. That cannot be denied. To try to dominate is an arrogance whose weakness was shown by Harvey and Irma. Can we win against Nature? We shouldn’t pose the question. We must learn to live with Nature because if we envision a win-lose situation, we will surely end up in a lose-lose.