Before Disaster Strikes: Rate and Raise Public Preparedness Now

June 15, 2009

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A new policy brief from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University concludes that American cities need to develop new measures of preparedness and rapidly roll them out across all major cities.

From the policy brief, found here:

The American public is not prepared for major disasters. That will prove costly, including to the federal government, as more and new types of disasters are expected to occur. The new Security Council Resilience Directorate – Preparedness, as one of its first initiatives, should task the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to work with federal and non-federal stakeholders and independent experts to:

  • Develop agreed measures of public preparedness, and
  • Develop and execute cost-effective, innovative approaches for ensuring timely progress in preparedness.

In the revamped federal agency performance measurement system, public preparedness should be deemed a high priority measure for DHS, as well as for selected other departments who need to be made federal partners in this effort. The new Directorate should monitor the establishment of and progress in these measures.

The brief concludes, “More, more severe, and new types of disasters can be expected to occur as a result of new types of threats (e.g., biological, cyber, nuclear/radiological) and more as well as more severe threats due to increased global interconnectedness and climate change. Yet, most Americans are not adequately prepared to respond to or recover from a catastrophic disaster, and many expect the government to take care of them.”


Sea level rise threat from West Antarctic ice sheet may be lower than previously believed

May 15, 2009

A new paper in Science suggests that the potential contribution to sea level rise from a collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet has been “greatly overestimated.”

The paper suggests that should the ice sheet collapse, global sea levels will rise will only 3.3 metres, not the five or six previously thought.

The Atlantic and Pacific seaboards of the US, even in the case of a partial collapse, would experience the largest increases, threatening cities such as New York, Washington DC and San Francisco.

Whew, I feel safe now.  Interestingly, paper does not revise estimations of how probable such a collapse might be.  It does offer what appears to be a more complex and possibly realistic assessment of the mechanics of such a collapse, should it occur.

Instead of assuming a complete disintegration of the whole WAIS, Bamber and colleagues used models, based on glaciological theory, to simulate how the massive ice sheet would respond if the floating ice shelves fringing the continent broke free. Vast ice shelves currently block the WAIS from spilling into the Weddell and Ross Seas, limiting total ice loss to the ocean.

The full press release can be found here.


Beddington: World faces perfect storm in 2030

March 25, 2009

In a statement which has already gotten much press elsewhere, the UK’s chief scientist Prof. John Beddington suggests we face a “perfect storm”of crisis drivers by 2030.

The Guardian reports, 

A “perfect storm” of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions, the UK government’s chief scientist will warn tomorrow.

“We head into a perfect storm in 2030, because all of these things are operating on the same time frame,” Beddington told the Guardian.

“If we don’t address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move out to avoid food and water shortages,” he added.

It is music to our ears to hear such well placed politicians and scientists reflecting the realities of tomorrow’s complex, interlinked and massively vulnerable world.

 


New maps of risk show USA and China to top global ranking for economic loss due to natural disasters

March 11, 2009

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From the press release of the risk mapping firm, Maplecroft:

In 2008 natural disasters cost the world US$200 billion. Global maps, produced by risk specialists Maplecroft, show the United States and China to bear about 90% of this burden and be the countries most susceptible to economic losses.

Whilst the human impact of natural disasters is predominantly concentrated in developing countries, with 90% of deaths occurring in these regions, the increase in both frequency and severity of climate related disasters is increasingly impacting upon developed and emerging economies including China.

So far this century, more than 800,000 people have been killed by natural disasters, more than 2 billion have been affected, and damage costs total over US$800 billion. Whilst disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes can not be prevented, we can reduce the risk they pose to business and society by reducing our vulnerability. We can do this by mapping and assessing the risk, being better prepared and responding more effectively when potentially disastrous natural events occur. 

A PDF of the full press release can be found here.


Researchers link drought and urbanization to “perfect storm”

March 11, 2009

Researchers in a NASA-funded study have found that a rare mix of interacting conditions were responsible for a recent unprecedented urban tornado in Downtown Atlanta, Georgia, USA. 

One of the main agendas of the Humanitarian Futures Programme is to help organisations prepare for complex, interconnected crises unlike they have ever experienced before.  We call these synchronous, sequential and simultaneous failures, defined below:

  • Synchronous failures – major systems failures, eg, energy collapse, affecting infrastructure and basic survival mechanisms in transnational contexts.
  • Sequential crises – series of crises “feeding off” each other, like falling dominoes cascading into each other and magnifying their effects.
  • Simultaneous crises – major crises occurring at the same time, stretching existing resources and abilities to cope.

The downtown tornado in Atlanta (CNN coverage here) is an excellent example of how such crises can occur.  Researchers studying how and why this rare tornado occurred write,

“The Atlanta tornado, though forecasted well, caught us by surprise because it evolved rapidly under very peculiar conditions during a drought and over a downtown area,” said Dev Niyogi, an assistant professor of regional climatology at Purdue and lead author of the modeling study.

The press release can be found here.


Irreversible climate change, meet unstoppable political force

February 16, 2009

Geoengineering, complexity, and the uncertain political necessities of tomorrow 

Last month Susan Solomon – Nobel Prize winning chair of the IPCC – and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a paper entitled “Irreversible climate change because of carbon dioxide emissions.”  (Summary of the paper found here, BBC coverage found here.)

The study found that, “If CO2 is allowed to peak at 450-600 parts per million, the results would include persistent decreases in dry-season rainfall that are comparable to the 1930s North American Dust Bowl in zones including southern Europe, northern Africa, southwestern North America, southern Africa and western Australia.”  In other words,

…changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are completely stopped. 

Even if we stopped all CO2 emission now, the Earth will still experience significant warming over the next 1,000 years.  This sounds like pretty damning evidence from some of the best scientists working on the issue.

Two recent articles have examined political and technological responses to this very, very bad news, both focusing on large scale geoengineering.  Ideas range from the fantastic, such as large floating mirrors in space that reflect sunlight, to the mundane, such as dumping tones of iron sulphate into the ocean to encourage the growth of carbon eating plankton.

Jamais Cascio, co-creator of many cool things such as the massively multiplayer online futures experiment Superstruct, has a powerful argument why geoengineering is both a very bad idea and yet also politically inevitable.  In an article for Grist, entitled “Plan B”,  he writes:

Geoengineering is risky, likely to provoke international tension, certain to have unanticipated consequences, and pretty much inevitable.

Cascio’s main points are that despite the widespread uncertainty about the technical aspects of geoengineering, projects are likely to go ahead anyway, with significant political consequences.  

The political issues geoengineering raises are directly relevant to the post-Welphian context within which the Humanitarian Futures Programme operates.

  • With geoengineering being global in impact, who determines whether or not it’s used, which technologies to deploy, and what the target temperatures will be? 
  • Who decides which unexpected side-effects are bad enough to warrant ending the process? 
  • Given that the expense required for sulfate injection (and likely cloud-brightening) would be low enough for a single country to undertake, what happens when a desperate “rogue nation” attempts geoengineering against the wishes of other states?  
  • And with the benefits and possible harm from geoengineering attempts being unevenly distributed around the planet, would it be possible to use this technology for strategic or military purposes? 

Alex Steffan argues that such projects have a huge “epic fail” potential.  He suggests that, “It’s bad planetary management to build large, singular and brittle projects when small, multiple and resilient answers exist and will suffice if employed. It’s bad planetary management to assume that this time — unlike essentially every other large-scale intervention in natural systems in recorded history — we’ll get it right and pull it off without unintended consequences.”  

Climate scientist Ray Pierrehumbert writes, “[Geoengineering] is not really insurance. It’s more like building a lifeboat, but a lifeboat based on a design that has never been used before which has to work more or less perfectly the first time the panicked passengers are loaded into it.”

These risks alone should make any sane civilisation shy away from such “all or nothing” bids for survival.  We at HFP find so interesting is the tone of urgency involved in this debate.  These issues are being discussed with a refreshing sense of clarity, scientific understanding, and political calculation.  It is as if our lives really are at stake, time might already have run out, and we might really only have one shot at getting it right if we are to survive.  What survival might look like is another issue, but it is clear that planetary survival is a desirable outcome; certainly in line with humanitarian aid’s underlying ethos.

The humanitarian community should be following this debate, if not directly engaging in it.  Its outcome has large and game-changing implications for the way aid is done, indeed, if it will even be done at all.  Cascio touches on this issue briefly in a related comment to Steffan’s article, 

The political clashes, accusation of crimes against humanity, and potential for catastrophe [which are ] possible in a geoengineering scenario are even more likely in a scenario where emissions reductions fail to work in time, and we’re left fighting over environmental scraps…

This is sobering realism.  It paints a realistic and scary picture of the panicked international response that could occur if things begin to change quicker than expected.  In the end, argues Cascio, it’s not the technical issues which will matter.  It’s the political pressure that will decide how we respond:

If we start to see faster-than-expected increases in temperature, deadly heat waves and storms, crop failures and drought, the pressure to do something will be enormous. Desperation is a powerful driver. Desperation plus a (relatively) low-cost response, coupled with quick (if not necessarily dependable) benefits, can become an unstoppable force.

Welcome to the 21st century; where irreversible climate change meets an unstoppable political force; with massive, vital, and unknown consequences.


Researchers produce map of likelihood of dying by natural hazard in USA

January 6, 2009

This is an interesting mapping exercise from some researchers in the US.  

UNC-Columbia used historical mortality data from the United States to construct a map of the probability of dying from natural hazards.  It is based on historical data and thus doesn’t include future projects of climate change.  But is nonetheless quite interesting.

From the press release:

A map of natural hazard mortality in the United States has been produced. The map, featured in BioMed Central’s open access International Journal of Health Geographics, gives a county-level representation of the likelihood of dying as the result of natural events such as floods, earthquakes or extreme weather.

The full paper is available here or here.

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