Monday, January 24, 2011

Is God to blame for floods?

Many readers will be aware of the recent serious floods in much of Queensland, which have claimed dozens of lives, devastated tens of thousands of homes and caused billions of dollars worth of damage to crops, buildings and infrastructure across an area the size of Germany and France combined. Victoria is currently experiencing its worst flooding on record, which is causing more damage than the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Disastrous flooding has also struck Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa and Sri Lanka. In each case, scores or hundreds have been killed, tens or hundreds of thousands have been displaced and millions or billions of dollars worth of damage have been sustained. And of course, there are still millions of displaced Pakistanis after flood waters covered more than one fifth of the country in July and are yet to fully recede.*
*The relative level of news coverage concerning these various events is itself a phenomenon worthy of a little reflection.

The suffering from these events lasts much longer than the headlines and the victims in each case can be supported through reputable charities and aid organisations (for example here).

Yet amidst seeking to provide practical help to these situations, such ruinous events open a range of questions for Christians. How are we to understand such events? Are these floods acts of God? Punishments of some kind? Senseless and random natural disasters? After-effects of the fall? Premonitions of some impending apocalypse?

This discussion will focus on the flooding in Queensland, especially Brisbane, which is where I've read the most analysis, yet I suspect that similar stories could be told about most or all of the other locations.

The causation of floods is a complex matter. Obviously, rainfall patterns are important. Many locations in the affected area of Queensland received record-breaking falls. Indeed, these floods come after the wettest year on record globally and in Queensland, and the third wettest on record for Australia as a whole. It was also equal hottest globally, which is relevant because warmer air holds more moister, and warmer oceans evaporate faster. Indeed, surface water temperatures off the Queensland coast are also the warmest on record. This is all directly related to one of the strongest La Niña patterns on record, but it is also consistent with predicted shifts in the climate system. Attributing extreme weather to climate change is complex, and it is simplistic to say "see, here is climate change", but it is also fair to say that no weather is simply "natural" anymore (more discussion here and here and here).

Yet rainfall alone doesn't determine water volume or speed. Land use changes play a big role in shaping how much run-off contributes to rising rivers - and how quickly. Deforestation generally makes floods worse by removing natural barriers that soak up some moisture and slow down the rest. Urbanisation takes this a step further by replacing absorbent soil with largely impermeable concrete. Although Australia is sparsely populated, the area around Brisbane is the main population centre in Queensland and has seen the most significant land use changes.

Previous erosion (itself linked to deforestation and land use management) has also changed the nature of the river bed through sedimentation. Thus, in significant respects, the Brisbane River is not the same river as in previous floods. This process is ongoing. A number of commentators noted that the images of the floods were striking not only for the destructive power of the torrents, but for the bright red hue of the flow - carrying off yet more valuable and scarce topsoil, Australia's future food.

Human activity has shaped watercourses in more direct and intentional ways too, of course. Dams, such as the massive Wivenhoe, built after the "Big Wet" of the 1974 floods, are intended to reduce the occurrence of minor floods, but as we have seen, can't be guaranteed to prevent the largest ones.

Not just the construction of dams, but their operation is also a factor. The extent to which Wivenhoe could have been managed better to minimise flooding is still disputed and is the subject of commission of inquiry called by Premier Bligh.

Perhaps an even more significant human factor concerns town planning and the location of buildings relative to floodplains. If I build a sandcastle below the high-tide mark, do I experience a natural disaster twice a day when the tide comes in? If I build a house in the bed of an seasonal stream, do I suffer from an act of God each year when my house is inundated? And what if I situate my business on a flood plain? It it worth noting that Brisbane Council has been trying to buy back the most vulnerable land for the last five years but prior to the floods had met with little enthusiasm from owners. I'm sure many are now kicking themselves for this now. To add insult to injury, the resale value of the flooded properties is likely to take a hit, and some may become basically uninsurable, as some Britons have found after the floods of recent years here.

Given the wide variety of ways that human decisions and behaviours have influenced the conditions of possibility for these floods, it seems strange to consider them merely natural disasters. Indeed, there is a sense in which no disasters are purely natural. This is especially true of weather-related disasters in a world where human hands are on the global thermostat.

But can they be considered acts of God? Human agency doesn't necessarily compete with divine agency. That is, human actions are affirmed at times in holy scripture also to be acts of God. So the fact that human decisions contributed to a given disaster doesn't mean God was absent. Yet at the same time, I don't think that divine sovereignty - the good news that God is king - requires or enables us to ascribe all events to the hand and plan of God either. God is not "the secret architect of evil".

Nonetheless, God often (though not always) lets us experience the consequences of our actions. There is no divine promise of universal protection from all harm.

Floods (and most other "natural" disasters) are complex phenomena involving the interactions of a wide variety of human factors with patterns in other aspects of the created order. As with much of the messiness of history, their theological significance is not able to be simply read off from the events. Simplistic attempts to ascribe blame upon God, nature or particular humans represents a short-circuiting of the invitation to deeper observation, reflection and planning that such phenomena represent.

This is particularly true in our current age of growing understanding of the hydrological cycle. Oversimplified accounts that simply shrug the shoulders and notches such disasters up as "one of those things" distract people from the fact that threats like this are not random or unpredictable. Flooding in Queensland is far from unprecedented. Warnings of more intense precipitation events have long been predicted by climatologists. The Australia Bureau of Meteorology had warned some months ago of this La Niña being particularly strong. Brisbane Council had been warning low-lying residents of flood danger for years.

The evaluation of future threats is neither tea-leaf reading nor an exact science. But wisdom does not fear or dismiss our best attempts to understand causes and fashion responses to such dangers that are commensurate with the scale and likelihood of the threat. Theological reflections offer us no reason to leave our head in the sand, though plenty of reasons to not build our houses upon it.
PS Amidst all the human suffering and loss, spare a thought too for the damage that the floods are likely to cause to the already stressed and threatened Great Barrier Reef.

35 comments:

meredith said...

Thanks for interesting reflections, byron. joel and i noticed that, in our nedia, queensland floods were often attributed to 'mother nature' - a term which seemed to obfuscate any human role in them, and at the same time elide the issue of God and his sovereignty. there seems to be a poverty of language, in the popular media anyway, in speaking helpfully and carefully about such events.

Terry Wright said...

If I build a sandcastle below the high-tide mark, do I experience a natural disaster twice a day when the tide comes in?

This sentence in particular caught my attention, Byron. It testifies to a genuine need for wisdom and honest reflection rather than an instance of playing the blame game.

byron smith said...

Terry - that was actually the first sentence I wrote in this piece! The rest was largely filler and context and implications. Glad to see you picked the heart of it.

Meredith - Yes, "mother nature" can simply be a way of dodging the question (though I do have less of a problem with speaking of mother earth than I used to - I have a post planned on this for some time in the future).

Chris Floyd said...

Thanks Byron, was really well presented and articulated similar thoughts to mine much better than I could have.

David Palmer said...

Yes, it will be interesting to see what the Commission of Enquiry comes up with.

I don't mind people talking about mother nature. Climate is chaotic and unpredictable.

In the case of Brisbane there is a history going back to the earliest days of European settlement of devestating floods. The Wivenhoe dam with its 80%+ spare capacity was meant to minimise the flooding issue, but unfortunately those controlling the release of water, despite BOM warnings stemming from the strong la nina event, chose not to release water from the dam in the week(s) prior.

An interesting question is whether the global warming storyline about more droughts contributed to the problem.

The outcome of the enquiry will be interesting.

Whilst as a calvinist I will always assert the sovereignty of God, I'm also mindful of Matthew 5:45.

I think the lesson is that pride in our ability to predict/control the future needs to be toned down and conversely some humility needs to be exercised. We will always have to live with finitude and uncertainty. In a real sense the more we know the less we know. We are made in the image of God - true, but that doesn't mean we are God.

Byron, I've finally sorted out my position on climate, CO2 emissions and energy. I've written a long paper (74 pages, 200+ citations) and have an article that will appear in the Feb 2011 Australian Presbyterian which I will let you have a link to when AP post it on their website.

It will make for an interesting and, hopefully, mutually beneficial debate. I will always feel you helped me cut my teeth on the subject!

Cheers

David

byron smith said...

AFTIC: Many links to stories and analysis about Oz floods.

byron smith said...

SkSci: 2010: A year of record warmth and weird weather.

byron smith said...

CP: Australia cutting clean energy budget to pay for flood clean up. Hmmm...

David Palmer said...

Also worth considering when comparing one year to another.

byron smith said...

David - The figures on which that updated graph is based do not include mining claims or other large claims, which are likely to blow the $1.2 billion out of the water.

David Palmer said...

Well, we are talking about a peer reviewed paper - why don't you take your point up with the authors and see what they say.

In my experience authors are generally willing to engage with this sort of question. One question might be, Have you considered....?, and another, if mining claims were taken into account (assuming they weren't) how would they affect the shape of the graph?

byron smith said...

Actually, since Pielke merely says that it is an update, it is unclear whether this update has been peer-reviewed. I don't need to assume that mining claims have not been included. It is stated in the source.

The latest estimate from Wayne Swan puts the likely total damage at above AUD$5.6 billion.

David Palmer said...

Byron,

I see you haven't followed up on my suggestion of contacting Pielke, but that's OK, I did it for you as you can see on this thread.

As a result, Pielke and colleagues have made an adjustment and have reposted here. As you will see Ross Gittins has also been writing on the subject.

I know you feel you must rebut every comment I post, but I suggest you count to three and if you could manage it, broaden your reading/list of sources.

byron smith said...

Anthony and Yasi: from bad to worse.

byron smith said...

David - I don't feel the need to rebut every comment you make, just the frequently misleading information from a narrow range of sources. :-)

If he is comparing apples to apples, then his exclusion of the biggest losses is a matter of methodology, and his results and claims must be understood accordingly.

Gittins' SMH piece doesn't dispute the $5.6 billion figure.

David Palmer said...

I really should leave this post alone, but........

... no one is disputing the figure of $5.6 billion or $6.4 billion or whatever.

The point I hoped you could see was that in historical context the costs of the Brisbane floods is not something way above past disasters (and therefore not to be so easily pinned on climate change)

Nothing more than that.

We will get another view of this after Cyclone Yasi (and anything else to follow) when no doubt Pielke and colleagues will do more assessments.

I actually think you are the one who operates with a narrow base of sources. When I get the link I will post to my AP article and if you are interested the longer paper with citations.

Cheers for now

David

byron smith said...

David - You have spoken many times of my narrow range of sources. On what basis do you make this claim?

the costs of the Brisbane floods is not something way above past disasters (and therefore not to be so easily pinned on climate change)
False logic. Climate change is affecting all weather. We now live in different weather systems to the norm a few decades ago (i.e. the climate has changed). The cost of disasters is not the basis on which we determine whether the climate is changing.

David Palmer said...

Byron,

You give no indication of having actually studied the energy question: options, time frames, costs, effectiveness of options for reducing CO2 emissions.

I don't think you understand the desire and intention of the developing nations to develop a better life for their people and how integral clean and cheap energy is to achieving this.

I don't think you understand the fragility of western economies and their dependence on cheap and plentiful energy.

I know you are reliant on Joe Romm and John Cook and no doubt similar sources but I would like to see you widen your reading. I have before recommended Roger Pielke's The Climate Fix and Mike Hulme's Why we disagree about climate change.

Have you read them? If you did and learnt from them we could have a decent conversation.

Even though I have some serious reservations with his philosophical stance, I think you would find Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist quite a (compelling) challenge to many of your most deeply held assumptions. This can be hard, but I believe his arguments have considerable merit. I think he used to think along the lines you do but somewhere he was confronted with reality and the futility of magical thinking.

Have a look at Judith Curry's website and Keith Kloor's interviews with her (www.collide-a-scape.com).

Above you say,

False logic. Climate change is affecting all weather. We now live in different weather systems to the norm a few decades ago (i.e. the climate has changed). The cost of disasters is not the basis on which we determine whether the climate is changing

It's not false logic at all. Climate is always changing, its chaotic and trying to understand it is complex and quite possibly unknowable.

IPCC says there ought to be more extreme weather. Calculating the cost of disasters and converting those costs to a common year's cost basis is an extremely good way of getting a handle on whether we are having more extreme events.

If you disagree, you go and argue your case with Roger Pielke Jnr who buys fully into the mainstream view on rising CO2 = rising global temperatures, yet is an honest competent researcher who says, as yet, there is no evidence in the disaster record that we are having more extreme events.

byron smith said...

I have studied energy options. I am not an engineer or economist, but suspect I've read many times more than the average layperson.

I both understand and share the desire to eliminate stupid poverty. I have never said or implied otherwise and have blogged frequently on poverty and justice issues.

And I do understand the fragility of oil-addicted western economies. That is also one of the things I've been blogging about for some time now.

I have read both Pielke and Hulme. And many others besides.

However, while important, none of these points have much to do with the topic of this thread. In the face of declining fish stocks, you're doing your bit to increase the number of red herrings in the world.

Judith Curry. Really?

And Matt Ridley? Seriously? You're suggesting we all take lessons from the man whose reckless behaviour played a significant role in destroying a bank, triggering the first bank run in the UK for 130 years and a £27b bail-out? That Matt Ridley?

IPCC says there ought to be more extreme weather.
The picture is far more complex than that, especially for hurricanes/cyclones. Have you read the relevant sections of AR4 WG1? Make sure you read the FAQ, conclusion and sections specifically on Australian and the South Pacific. Perhaps a little less time reading blogs that tell you what the IPCC says and a little more reading the IPCC might be a good idea.

Lumping a variety of events into one analysis (but apparently leaving out droughts, heat waves, cold spells, dust storms, tornadoes, heavy precipitation without flooding) and looking only at a single region is hardly a very good way of seeking to answer questions of climate attribution, which is (part of) the topic at hand.

And so I do think you have made a logical mistake in your claim the costs of the Brisbane floods is [sic] not something way above past disasters (and therefore not to be so easily pinned on climate change).

It is not the case that only the most costly events can be "pinned" on climate change. That is not how it works. The climate system as a whole is changing. So asking if this or that event can be blamed on climate change is not a relevant question.

byron smith said...

(As for Australian cyclone projections, see IPCC AR4 WG1 §11.7.3.6).

David Palmer said...

Hi Byron,

I will post my AP article link in due course, but I see no point in continuing to debate someone who is so restricted in intellectual investigation.

I take your previous post to say that you haven’t read the books by Hulme and Pielke and your dismissal of Curry - a mainstream climatologist - is disgraceful.

byron smith said...

Unfortunately, perhaps there is indeed little point in continuing if you are going to take my statements and ignore or reverse them.

byron smith said...

Suncorp: Disasters may drive out re-insurers.

byron smith said...

PS I did take one of my questions to Pielke four days ago. No reply yet.

byron smith said...

John Cook (from Skeptical Science) has a very good piece in the Guardian on this topic. He experienced the flooding in Brisbane first hand (as he discussed on the ABC's The Drum recently).

byron smith said...

Current estimates of insured damage from floods plus Yasi are AUD$5.5-7.5 billion.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Climate change doubled risk of floods like those in 2000.

byron smith said...

Counting the cost of the 2010/2011 La Niña.

byron smith said...

Frank Rees: God of the Tsunami: a theological reflection on the experience of disaster and some implications for how we live in the world.

H/T Jason.

byron smith said...

Wivenhoe releases contributed to Brisbane flooding, but it is unclear by how much.

byron smith said...

SMH: Dam operators ignored weather forecasts.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Severe flooding in Colombia.

byron smith said...

DD: Qld floods still taking toll on marine life.

byron smith said...

CC: Life out west and on the edge (of wildfire). Not about floods, but about another complex "natural" disaster in which a range of human behaviours play a very important part.

byron smith said...

Indymedia: More Qld floods in Jan 2013.