Climate Change

Cyclone Fani: Act of God in Anthropocene?

Natural disasters as cyclones, its frequency and pace, must be directly linked to climate change

By Avilash Roul
Published: Monday 06 May 2019

Our generation is faintly versed with ‘Hand of God’ — the infamous hand goal by former Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona in THE 1986 Fifa World Cup. However, Cyclone Fani (pronounced Foni, which means the hood of a snake) termed as an ‘Act of God’ by an Air India official, while denying some compensation for passengers, surely deserves a broader understanding of climate change and the increasing pace, fury and frequency of cyclones.

While the official might be responding to a stress situation of passengers being stranded at the Delhi airport, the broader question that remains to be pondered over is that whether the natural phenomenon is still ‘natural’ or does it have a human component?

Despite epistemological discord between geologists and environmentalists, the present geological age is aptly defined as the ‘Anthropocene’. It was popularised by atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen in 2000 due to grave human influence on the planet that leads to mass extinctions of plant and animal species; pollution of oceans and alteration in the atmosphere including climate change, among other lasting impacts.

We are in the age of humans. Thus, in the time of Anthropocene, assuming that cyclone Fani is an act of god is a contradiction. It has a fair share of act of humans. Climate change is not an act of God in this epoch.

While the Earth is roughly 0.8 degree Celsius warmer than it was last century, the timing, frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones is directly linked. According to many scientific studies, warmer oceans have intensified cyclones.

Cyclone Fani is the third in 150 years to strike in the month of April with such intensity. The human contribution to climate change in terms of greenhouse gases (GHG) has a direct effect on origin of cyclones and its intensity, and so it’s rampage.

If it is an act of God then why has it devastated the abode of God’s own place? The coastal temple town Puri, in Odisha, which hosts the temple of Lord Jagannath, has become a ghost town after Fani struck there on May 3. The devastation has spread out in other districts as Fani moved north-eastward.

Odisha, which faced the wrath of previous cyclones especially in 1999, and is arguably the leading state in India for its disaster preparedness, must not consider this as an act of God. While the government in 1999 made a lifelong mistake by considering it to be an act of God, the present government led by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, aimed for a zero loss strategy and evacuated 1.2 million people, receiving praises from across the world.

Despite loss of over 30 lives so far, 35 per cent of green cover and infrastructure damage, the government with 40 million people has shown courage and bravery to face the fury. The exact loss and damage estimation should be in public domain in couple of days.

Act of God provisions, also known as ‘Force Majeure’ clauses, relate to events outside human control — natural disasters. Generally, these provisions eliminate or limit liability for injuries or other losses resulting from natural disasters.

For insurance purposes, act of God, are defined as events that occur through natural causes and could not be avoided through the use of caution and preventative measures. Ultimately, the key is who could be reasonably be considered at fault — at least until people would find a way to sue God.

In India, the private insurers avoid providing insurance in the name of act of God during disasters. However, government insurers has some provisions. Coverage for acts of God is not always straightforward as it is usually in insurance company’s interests to make it so. An Indian movie — Oh My God — has clearly enacted the linkages of act of God and disaster quite well.

The question of act of God is not confined to Cyclone Fani or India. In the process of denying as an act of God, it has to be linked to the cause and effect of disasters. Subsequently, it leads to the liability for which, countries or companies that are contributing to the causes, must shoulder responsibility. This is difficult not only to pin point the culprit but also to have a consensus on the liability. Therefore, it has large ramification in the ongoing negotiation on loss and damage under the United Nations Framework of Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC). The act of God is an overstatement in the age of Anthropocene.

In 2013, member countries of the UNFCCC established a mechanism to address the loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change, including extreme events and slow onset events. The progress has been slow due to the liability clauses and many countries that are responsible for large GHG emissions are deliberately hiding under the pretext of act of God.  As the liability is highly political, politics over post-disaster impacts never brings the act of God clause when blaming someone.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proactively declared more than Rs 1,000 crores central aid for three probable cyclone-affected states — Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal before the landfall of Fani.

Even, on May 4, 2019 he tweeted to visit day after tomorrow (as the same name of a 2002 Hollywood movie on climate change) to make an aerial survey in Odisha for stock taking the damage caused.

Did he declare such central aid for Kerala, Chennai or even Odisha pre-disaster since he became PM? During this unprecedented election theatrics, each act or word or for that matter tweet is considered political despite one might have genuine concern.

This act of proactive aid declaration, a special convening meeting with official or the tweet, the PM is aiming at voters of the remaining phases of general elections in eight states accounting for 169 Members of Parliament. However, Patnaik, who has an unblemished record of making the state as one of the leading model resilient states in India for its preparedness of disaster — has already made aerial survey on May 4.

But as usual, the blame game has started in the aftermath of the Cyclone Fani. Every 20 years or so, a very severe cyclone has been striking Odisha hard since 1971 with numerous intermittent cyclones. In 1999, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was in Delhi, super cyclone took more than 10,000 human lives with a trail of destruction from which Odisha took years to recover but Congress who was in power in the state in 1999, is yet to recover in the state.

Cyclone Fani has struck 20 years after and NDA II is again at the Centre. A comparison of Centre-State relation in time of disaster with then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Modi vis-à-vis disasters in states must not be ruled out in the following days in print and electronic media during this election season.

But, recovery and rehabilitation would be on high priority with the people who have suffered from Fani. Post-1999, Odisha has shown tremendous capability of resilience under Patnaik's leadership to numerous disasters with or without outside support. Force be with you all in Odisha.

(Avilash Roul is a guest professor and principal scientist, Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras)

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