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Irma’s message

15 September 2017

THE BBC news website has various categories across the screen under the masthead: “Top Stories”, the pernicious “My News”, “Most Popular”, and so on. One optional button is “Severe Weather”. Given the British obsession with the weather, the existence of such a news thread is understandable; and it may even help to keep environmental matters to the fore. But it remains sinful to treat disasters as entertainment. It is one thing to feel grateful that one lives in a region where the weather is less prone to violent change. It is quite another to use the misfortune of others to shore up that feeling of reassurance. “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are. . .” Compassion for those affected by Hurricane Irma is a legitimate emotion; disappointment that the storm was not quite as spectacular as in the films is not.

This is not the only place where those with a conscience must tread warily in their response to the fearsome weather systems of the past few weeks, both in the Caribbean and South Asia. Members of President Trump’s administration have reacted angrily, and rightly, against those who have attempted to make political capital out of the suffering of the largely Republican state of Florida, as if their votes for a climate-change denier a few months ago could have had any effect on the formation or path of Irma.

What has come to be known as the Trump view — the bizarre contention that those pressing to reduce emissions have fallen into a trap set by China to make US and other Western businesses uncompetitive — is an easy target at present; but it is not the moment to apportion blame while bodies are still being recovered. Green campaigners, the Pope among them, are guilty of little more than insensitive timing, however. It is a mistake to look to humanity as the cause of hurricanes: the world is a more unpredictable, frightening place than it is pictured as by those on both sides who believe in self-determination. It is, none the less, necessary to recognise the human contribution to climate change. The increasing unpredictability and severity of the weather is precisely the effect that scientists have predicted for years.

The scientists’ warnings went largely unheeded, because governments and individuals counted up the cost of the lifestyle changes that would be needed to attempt to reverse the effects of harmful emissions, and considered it to be too high. Opinions are likely to change, however, as the cost of not making the attempt becomes clear. It is a calculation familiar to Christian evangelists and pastors. Those who watch footage from the disaster zones, and feel gratitude that they are less susceptible to the climate’s vagaries, are called upon to be more than fascinated observers. There are practical, sacrificial ways in which they can express their thanks.

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