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Imaginative connections between Haiyan and climate change


Panel at Climate Conference in WarsawThe confluence of the Climate Conference in Warsaw and the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has been confronting. If they are treated separately there is little problem in finding words and symbolic gestures to recognise the importance or lack of it placed on each. The Australian Government has done so by contributing an initial $30 million to the relief effort in the Philippines and by sending a public servant, not the minister, to the Climate Conference.

That example shows how difficult it is to find words to hold together climate change and the death of so many people in natural catastrophes, let alone to act as if they might be related.

When the typhoon and climate change are brought together in conversation and in postings on articles like this one, the discussion almost always becomes didactic, rebarbative and abstract. It seems impossible to focus on the persons whose lives have been lost and to explore with open minds and hearts the connections between their fate and the ways in which we handle the natural world.

The discomfort at exploring connections may arise from a more general unease at being led out of questions of demonstrable fact into questions of value. To reflect on the connections invites us to ask how much weight we place on the lives of poor Filipinos, on our own comfort and on the maintenance of an economic order that has served many people well.

To countenance the possibility that human ways of using and relating to the material world may have an effect, a lethal effect, on the lives of human beings elsewhere compels us to reflect on what matters most to us.

One of the reasons why passion to defend the natural environment creates such controversy is that it constantly raises questions of values that cannot be reduced to monetary terms. It sees the world and people as interconnected, so that human flourishing depends on the flourishing of the natural world. It demands that we respect the relationships that connect us to one another and to the natural world. To do this requires an attention that goes beyond economic considerations to questions of value.

That explains why it is difficult to explore the connections between Typhoon Haiyan and the environment. It also explains why other questions connected with human ecology are so difficult to resolve. For example, discussions about whether and under what conditions mining should take place are often a dialogue of the deaf.

We need to decide what relative weight we put on such values as private profit, on raising revenue to fund public commitments, on the sacredness of the land to traditional owners or to farmers and their families, on the history of a region, on the maintenance of particular lifestyles, on the importance of the countryside for contemplation, on food production, on the wellbeing of future generations.

To arbitrate between these different values we need to be able imaginatively to put full weight on them, and especially the impact on people — to imagine the effect on the poorer members of the Australian community if power prices rise uncontrollably because we may not extract gas, to imagine the effects of tornados on people trapped by shore because of poverty overseas, to imagine the effect on the spirit of seeing a once beautiful landscape scarred by evidence of mining, to imagine people and landscape in 50 years time.

This naming of value requires a range of different ways of looking at the world, including economic analysis, but it requires above all the capacity to imagine generously and realistically the effects of our priorities on the lives of human beings within the human ecology that sustains them. It asks that we are able to give full imaginative weight to what we contemplate, however confronting, without recoiling from it. And it means finally naming what is most important to us, while acknowledging fully the consequences of that naming for human lives.

This kind of reflection and conversation have been particularly difficult in the case of Haiyan and climate change, because the cost in terms of human lives and wellbeing has been so high. But our shared humanity and own integrity demand no less of us.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Climate Conference in Warsaw, Typhoon Haiyan



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Existing comments

In a real-life catastrophe like Typhoon Haiyan so much is swept away. It's overwhelming and violent. Addressing climate change requires cool decision-making, imagining a better world and then acting, personally, to bring about change. But, again, this seems overwhelming. Many governments aren't doing enough, don't care enough or care about other things more. They lack integrity on this issue. We can send aid, we can donate money, and we can imagine a better world. But cataclysmic, coastline-shattering love is the only thing that will bring about change.

Pam | 20 November 2013  

Thank you, Andrew. This article on TH is one of the best. It might also be A Contempation on Act and Consequence...

Patricia Bouma | 21 November 2013  

An insightful comment that calls for more than contemplation. Surely we who live in comparative luxury need to accept some responsibility for the suffering of our brothers and sisters on this planet .Perhaps we may need to lower our standards of lifestyle to make a meaningful contribution to the welfare of those who are less fortunate than us.

David | 21 November 2013  

Much of what Andrew says here is of course correct, except the bit about the relationship between typhoon and climate change. You should read "Taxing Air" by Spooner and Carter.

Brian Finlayson | 21 November 2013  

Perhaps, Andrew, we are simply living during a natural evolutionary development in the life of this planet. Nature has never been a respecter of human life and never will be - the inhabitants of Easter Island, the Aztecs and Incas might give testimomony to that as might the millions of human lives destroyed by what today are minor ailments, thanks to the discovery of penicillin 70 years ago. When animals other than Homo sapiens outnumbered the human being aeons ago, Nature showed little respect for those lives either with many species being rendered extinct. There is nothing we can do to alter the awesome power of Nature. Might as well get on with living according to God's plan and trust that He knows what He is doing even though that is hard for us to understand on many occasions.

john frawley | 21 November 2013  

While I respect John Frawley's view on the possibility, or even probability, of climate change as a natural part of our planet's evolutionary life, I wonder if it doesn't avoid an important issue. How do we as human beings -a fortiori as Christians - respond to social and physical conditions in this moment? Andrew's article points out the importance of connecting with each other and each other's lives. It isn't about who's right or wrong in their opinions, but 'what is good' in the actions of each one of us. We must connect and share, surely a central Eucharistic value.

Joan Seymour | 21 November 2013  

Andrew - the only thing I might object to is: "to imagine the effect on the poorer members of the Australian community if power prices rise uncontrollably because we may not extract gas," - the issue is not so much the cost of producing energy but how people are charged for it - for example we could have a system where everyone with a health card receives a 50% discount on their power bills. The only sensible way to approach the issue is to take the best advice - and fortunately there is an overwhelming consensus among the experts - that we must reduce emissions quickly and hugely. John Frawley is wrong, we can certainly alter nature - there was a report on the ABC this morning about scientists at UWA finding that the extensive land clearing in the south west of W.A. has resulted in reduced rainfall. There are many such examples.

Russell | 21 November 2013  

So many matters come down to the struggle between the One and the All. The ideals of “One for all, and all for one” And “From each according to their ability, and to each according to the needs”, are what are needed. Their implementation is frustrated mainly by the reluctance of us ‘ones’ to put the greater common good ahead of our individual wants, due to self-centredness and/or lack of maturity

Robert Liddy | 21 November 2013  

Thankyou indeed Andrew. It is a challenge to be but a spectator to the cataclysmic tragedy that has overwhelmed hundreds of thousand of Philippine people.. Public and private donations will provide relief for survival for those whose homes and entire "habitat" have been swept away. Imagine the cost of rebuilding the homes and lives of half a million Australians! So it is not a time to pontificate about how much human actions have contributed except to say that evidence abounds that the proliferation of our own species has been changing the nature of ou rplanet for manhy thousands of years. Look at the extinction of many animals with many more on the verge of extinction - all due to human destruction of natural habitat. That destruction has given rise to a human population explosion in which our own church has been a contributor through resistance to family planning. Countries wher the church has greatest influence have human populations running desperately short of resources for survival and living with dignityalready, so that when a destructive typhoon strikes the human toll is unimaginable. By reducing pollution we can achieve long-term good, while reform of church policy on human fertility is also urgent.

Mike Foale | 21 November 2013