More on “slow-onset” hazards.

Continuing the thread of yesterday’s post:

“The threats from climate change, sea rise, drought and desertification, food security and many other slowly developing crises are not linked to dramatic events that focus media, public, and political attention. How well do we recognize and understand these threats? How can existing scientific approaches help our understanding?

In yesterday’s post, we stopped just short of making the following statement, so let’s make it now: The importance of climate variability and change lies not so much in the changes of the annual and seasonal averages as it does in the influence of that change on patterns, spatial extent, duration, and intensity of the embedded extreme events.

Fact is, most of us would be hard put as a practical matter to distinguish between the two. And it’s likely that any agribusiness leader, any energy CEO, any interior (read water resources) minister of any government would say to you: “You tell me what the effect of climate change will be on extreme events, and I’ll tell you how much we need to worry.”

So, as we said yesterday, it is more than likely true that so-called slow-onset trends are indeed linked to dramatic events that rivet our attention, contrary to the italicized lead-in statement from the upcoming conference. We might therefore more correctly say that it’s the nature of those links that eludes us, that often remains out of our day-to-day view.

Therein lies the challenge. All scientists would agree that it’s virtually impossible to conceive of climate change that would not be accompanied by corresponding changes in hazard patterns. But those same scientists would also all agree that the linkages between changes in averages and changes in extremes are by no means well understood. So we have a great divide. Resource managers – those responsible for keeping the lights on, keeping bread on the table, and keeping nearly-free, nearly inexhaustible pure water coming out of the tap – see scientists as less helpful than they might be. Scientists see the resource managers as holding unrealistic expectations of what science can provide.

Well, then, what are scientists trying? What are the existing scientific approaches? There’s a mix. Some scientists attempt dimensional arguments. For example, they hope to sort out from fundamental physical principles the effect of a warmer world on the patterns of shear, ocean surface temperatures, and the interactions between the two in shaping hurricane frequency and intensity. Others seek to run climate models able to resolve the extremes (which tend to be localized geographically and short in duration). Some try techniques known as downscaling to tease out the likely small-scale details of future climates. Yet others look to climate regimes of the past for answers. And then there’s the task of intercomparing the fruits of all these studies. No single approach holds the key.

But remember! … that’s just the natural scientists. And they (we) are looking at only part of the problem, and arguably not the most important part.

Social forces – and therefore the social sciences – come into play if we are to understand the risks associated with those longer-term trends. This happens in several ways. Let’s start with one which is interesting but probably doesn’t matter so much. Increasingly, social scientists are intrigued by the links between climate and culture, even climate and traits such as optimism or pessimism, or climate and the arts and humanities.

But other social signals are more dominant. What might they be? Explosive population growth. Urbanization. Globalization of the economy. An aging demographic, especially in the developed world, but even in China and Japan. A seeming disappearance of the middle class in America, and an emerging middle class in the developing world. A widening gap between the richest few and the world’s poorest. Technological advance, and the acceleration of the pace of that advance decade by decade. The reshaping of daily life and the human prospect by new social media. On decadal time scales, the social signals swamp the climate variability when it comes to determining community resilience to hazards.

That’s fascinating, but it’s also a bit alarming. The science of these trends is nascent compared with the physical sciences. Our ability to see what is coming next is clouded in corresponding measure. This is especially true when it comes to assessing community resilience to extremes. When social change occurs on time frames short compared with the recurrence interval for the largest earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and storms, then we often fail to see how changed vulnerabilities will change the nature of disaster.

The biggest example? The rise over the past century in the essential importance of critical infrastructure – electricity, communications, transportation, water, sewage, etc. – to human affairs. This means that the disruption caused by extremes is often less a matter of property damage or even loss of life than the failure of business continuity. The human race didn’t really see this coming.

All this implies that to understand the relationship between long-term trends and the crises they engender we need understand not just oceanography, meteorology, hydrology, and climate, but also economics, sociology, psychology, communication, anthropology…and with some urgency.

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One Response to More on “slow-onset” hazards.

  1. Pingback: (Still) more on “slow-onset” hazards. | Living on the Real World

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