On Sunday morning an unusually strong tropical cyclone hit Rio de Janeiro. Six people died when their houses (shacks really) collapsed under mudslides.
In this one, Gabriela de Souza Freitas, 3 years old, was sleeping with her grandmother. (The Brazilian poor have names like grandees with 10,000 acres). They both died, buried alive. O Dia´s paper edition carried her smiling photo; it¨s not on the website, perhaps from a belated concern for the family´s privacy. Still, I was irresistibly reminded of her contemporaries, my granddaughter Cassie and Lu´s nephew Gabriel.
Am I responsible for Gabriela´s death? Are you? If we are, to any extent, what should we do about it?
It´s difficult to think straight about this sort of thing. We are scared to admit an impossible burden that would overwhelm us with pain and guilt, so we shut our minds and pass by on the other side.
We are obviously talking here about a small share of responsibility – but a small share in something very large, the death of an innocent child. But let us at least try.
1. One of the probable effects of global warming is to increase the intensity of tropical storms. IPCC 4 in 2007 gave the odds for this link at better than evens for the past and better than than 2 to 1 for the future. This is common sense: heat is energy, so there is more energy in the atmosphere all the time, and we would expect all the processes to run that bit more actively. The unusually intense storm in Rio was, within normal standards of prudence, a foreseeable consequence of carbon emissions. These have come historically mainly in the rich North, and are now split between the North and fast-growing middle-income countries including China and Brazil.
2. The Rio storm was only just strong enough to cause casualties. A little bit weaker, and no-one would have died; a little bit stronger, and many more would have done. Gabriela´s death was at the margin, the tipping point of risk. It is therefore probable (around evens) that global warming was sufficient to take the storm past that tipping point and therefore caused her death.
3. The tragedy had other causes besides the storm: the shack built in a dangerous place (but the Rio poor don´t have much choice), lax or nil enforcement of building codes, general inequality and poverty, bad individual luck. Any one of these factors can also be fairly described as the critical one at the margin, although the social factors have been getting better in Brazil and only the climate change one has clearly been getting worse.
4. Moral responsibility isn´t additive but distributive. The law has this one right: if a Mafia don orders a hitman to take out a rival, they are both fully guilty of murder, not half each. Bush, Cheney, Yoo, Addington, Goss, two CIA staffers, and a guy in a cellar conspire to waterboard Abu Zubaydah: the responsibility for the war crime of torture is not ⅛ + ⅛ + ⅛ + …. but 1 + 1 + 1 +… (All right, we´ll knock down Bush and Yoo to ½ on rounds of mental incapacity, but the point holds.) So the fact that the Rio City Hall is also responsible by negligence for Gabriela´s death does not let you and me off the hook in any way.
5. So we can´t get round the fact that your and my past carbon emissions very probably contributed to Gabriela´s death. But, you say, there are a billion high-emission Northerners: our individual shares are a billionth each. Unfortunately there are at least a billion poor Southerners like Gabriela whose lives we have put at similar degrees of risk. Stern points out that a month before Hurricane Katrina, 1,000 people died from flooding in Bombay, and two years later Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh killed 3,000 and displaced 7 million. The scaling up on either side balances out roughly. To a first approximation, you and I, and Gabriela and her granny, are representative of our respective societies.
6. We are therefore at fault, even if we only personally contributed a few drops of water to the mud shrouding her little body, and should be ashamed.
What should we do about it? You could send some money to one of the many charities that work with Rio´s street children. The main deal is however stopping further harm to other Gabrielas from climate change.
As a citizen, I think I´m doing okay. My countries of citizenship (UK) and residence (Spain) both have decent mitigation policies, pushed along by the strong EU commitment. I blog here regularly (see the RBC climate change archive) and I hope constructively.
I´m not doing so well in my personal behaviour. On the plus side, I live in a warm country in a reasonably insulated and compact house without central heating or air conditioning, and my hot water is solar. On the down side, I drive 15,000 km a year (though in an efficient diesel that does 7litres/100km), and fly about as much. I can´t afford to change the car yet, and am waiting for plug-in hybrids to come on to the market. I offset carbon on flights when the airline offers it (Easyjet) but not when they don´t (Ryanair).
So my practical post-Gabriela resolution is to find a reputable carbon offset charity and pay for my flights in future. Stern uses this one, which is good enough for me. Let´s see, Rio to Seoul makes 3 tons, costing £27. OK.
That wasn´t too difficult. Is it enough in the circumstances? I don´t know. Is it something? Yes.
How about you?