(Still) more on “slow-onset” hazards.

Continuing the thread of the last 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? What can be done to increase our resilience to them?

We’ve discussed this at much greater length in previous posts. But here, in a nutshell, are a few points that might be worth a mention at Monday’s panel.

A key contributor to resilience? Day-to-day experience. It’s not much different from physical exercise, or any of a number of mental disciplines. Jog or do a little resistance training every day? You tone your muscles. Practice the flute every day? Science shows that your brain undergoes physical, measurable change in the process. It’s the same with day-to-day weather and seasonal changes. Most people most places have those under control. But be haphazard about that daily routine, and you lose that edge. It’s the weekend athlete who wakes up Monday morning stiff as a board.

And that’s one major challenge of slow-onset, larger-scale crises. They offer fewer opportunities to learn from experience than their smaller-scale counterparts. To pick one example of many, let’s contrast the opportunities to practice coping with thunderstorms versus, say, El Niño events.

The world over, there are perhaps 2000 thunderstorms underway at any given time. Let’s say that a given thunderstorm lasts a few hours. Maybe that means the world has experienced something like 20,000 thunderstorms a day over the 36,500 days represented by the past century.

Wow. That’s 700 million thunderstorms (give or take a few hundred million – remember, this is just a rough guess). How many might of these might you and I have experienced as individuals? Let’s suppose we live somewhere in the United States. What do you think? Let’s say we maybe experience one or more a week during the 3 summer months of the year. That’s ten or maybe even twenty a year. Now let’s estimate that the average reader of this blog is 30 years old. If you’re an average reader, perhaps you’ve been through 300-600 thunderstorms thus far. Living in some areas in the country, you might have seen a lot more. If practice makes perfect, we ought to be really, really good, at dealing with thunderstorms worldwide. Dealing with them? What does that mean in practice? It means checking the summer sky, ducking inside when the rain and lightning near. Maybe carrying an umbrella or a foldable poncho. Understanding basic rules of lightning safety – resisting the urge to stand under a lone tree. And maybe getting pretty good at thunderstorm forecasts.

By contrast, over the past 30 years there have been no more than eight El Niño events. And until recently, just in that same period or a little less, people had been able to recognize such events only in hindsight. No one had made a successful El Niño forecast.

And this is for El Niño. What about climate change? Human-induced climate change? This is our very first cut at it. And in our grandchildren’s lifetimes, it will still be our first cut at it. All those Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that have been coming out every 4-5 years? Think of those as a early, tentative, halting exchanges in the very initial stages of a group discussion on the event, and what we should do.

Now the good news is that even though we’re having only our initial conversation about climate change as an entity, the worrisome bits of the climate-change problem are very familiar to us. That’s because the practical manifestation of climate change, or of El Niño, or any such longer-term, slower-onset event is the pattern of extremes embedded within it: patterns of heat and cold, flood and drought, hurricanes, winter storms, tornadoes, and all the rest. The longer-term variations disturb the details of these hazards – where and when they occur, how strong or intense they are, their frequency and so on – but not their nature. So hurricanes might hit locations that haven’t seen them in a while. They might hit with a bit more violent force (or with less). But their impacts, their disruption, the threats they pose won’t have changed in any fundamental way. If we learn to cope more readily with the hazards we face now, we’ll at the same time improve our resilience to those that are coming in the future.

So, what can we do to improve our resilience?

Simple. We should largely set aside visions of top-down, command-and-control approaches to the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to climate change, we can, and should continue to reduce/minimize carbon emissions into the atmosphere. But we shouldn’t, and needn’t, rely on this strategy alone. We should complement such efforts with diverse, placed-based experiments in building community resiliency. Note the emphasis on diversity. We shouldn’t under any circumstances insist on a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach. We should be intentionally experimental on the local level.

Specifically, we should be comingling our researchers and our practitioners, blurring distinctions between the two. We should foster more real-world testing of scientific ideas, and we should encourage more scientific rigor in real-world practice. We can best do this by deliberately conceiving of our policies for building resilience as exploratory, as tentative, and by being quick to refine or tweak or even trash them as we gauge their effectiveness. And we should be generously sharing findings and information as they emerge, so that other communities facing risks and challenges that are in some respects similar and others different can rapidly learn from our mistakes and successes – and vice versa.

How can we raise the needed resources, especially in these times of constrained budgets? That’s the last question for the Monday panel. More on that tomorrow.

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One Response to (Still) more on “slow-onset” hazards.

  1. Pingback: On garnering resources needed to cope with “slow-onset” hazards. | Living on the Real World

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