Climate Action

Reframe the Way You Think About Natural Disasters in 2023

As we settle into 2023, conversations around natural disasters are rampant. 

From Hurricane Ian to catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and Afghanistan, communities around the globe were devastated by climate disasters in 2022. Knowing climate change is responsible for the increased frequency and severity of crises like floods, droughts, wildfires, and tropical storms, it’s time we consider how “natural” these disasters are after all. We can expect a higher frequency of extreme weather events to continue unless we critically reflect on our own hand in climate change and make transformative systemic changes.

A 2006 essay by Neil Smith initiated one of the first public conversations about the way we talk about natural disasters by highlighting the ongoing devastation inflicted upon marginalized communities during and after Hurricane Katrina. Nearly 20 years later, with climate disasters wreaking havoc around the globe at unprecedented rates, this concept is more prevalent than ever.

Though it may seem to be a linguistic nuance, when using the word “natural” to describe climate disasters, a perpetuation of false notions about the nature of these events follows.

Using “natural disasters” rather than “climate disasters” misconstrues the direct role humans have in climate change. Greenhouse gasses released through human activities are largely regarded as one of the strongest contributors to climate change. While the natural cycles of the Earth will inevitably elicit strong weather patterns, climate change accelerated by human actions exacerbates these events. It’s impossible to recognize climate change’s role in severe weather events without acknowledging its roots in human behavior. In other words, humans — in particular, our systems of industrial overdevelopment and overproduction — are contributing directly to the increased frequency and intensity of climate disasters.

The idea of climate disasters as natural also minimizes the impact of the political and historical structures which make a community vulnerable to climate events in the first place. A climate event often becomes an anthropogenic “disaster” when the sociopolitical structures in place aren’t equitable. In places like the United States, where imperialism and systemic oppression have shaped the nation’s history, marginalized communities continue to be disproportionately vulnerable.

It’s time to reframe how we talk about natural disasters. As the year progresses on and we reach hurricane season and the dry season, EARTHDAY.ORG challenges you to engage in dialogue carefully and intentionally. Instead of falling back on “natural,” consider these events through a multidimensional lens in order to adequately recognize and analyze all environmental, sociodemographic, and governmental factors. 

Take Action
The fight to make climate education more accessible is inextricably linked with the way we discuss climate change and justice. Schools should equip educators with resources to discuss environmental justice in school and have conversations around topics such as this one. Join our Climate Literacy Campaign to ensure that students around the world receive a justice-oriented climate education.