Living on the Real World? We’d better have a plan for extremes.

Today the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report on climate change and disasters that has been years in the making. It has a lengthy but descriptive title: Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. You can find the Summary for Policymakers here.

Signature IPCC! Exhaustive, thorough, based on a substantial body of evidence, developed and written by the world’s best experts, extensively peer-reviewed by both scientists and governments. Hopefully you and I will find time to absorb it.

Does that mean it’s unassailable? Probably not. As with other IPCC reports, this one will no doubt prove to be a lightning rod for policy debate. Likely by the time you’ve read this the blogosphere will already be full of analysis and criticism.

Fact is, social scientists tell us that reports such as this one don’t encounter open minds and unformed opinions. Instead they find that we, the report readers, typically have formed pre-existing views. The reports therefore function instead as Rorschach tests. What we find in them says as much about our individual and institutional predilections and history as it does about the report content.

This needn’t be a bad thing. The world need not just this and the other IPCC reports themselves but also the body of diverse analysis and reaction the reports trigger. IPCC reports should and do stimulate thought and action. They don’t prescribe it.

What should you and I keep in mind as we read?

Here are a few suggestions.

First, we should remember that the Earth does its business through extreme events and always has. Continental drift, seasonal and annual temperatures and rainfalls, streamflows, ice extent and much more are the product, the average, of accumulated extremes – of small spatial extent and short duration. Extremes are not suspensions of the normal order; they are its fulfillment.

Second, these extremes, like all nonlinear phenomena (forgive the lapse into pointy-headedness), are always integrating events. Take the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated the eastern coast of Japan last March. This was an extraordinary geophysical event. It triggered a state of emergency. But it was also an energy-sector event, transforming energy availability, policy, and economics not just in Japan where it occurred, but in Germany, half a world away. It was a public-health event. A transportation event. An agricultural event. No sphere of the natural or social or technological world was unaffected… and all the disruptions in all those normally distinct spheres played into and interacted with each other, compounding the challenge facing all those struggling to cope. Get the idea?

Third, social change matters more to what extreme events and disasters portend for our future than does climate change. Society is changing rapidly in time spans short compared with the recurrence of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and even cycles of flood and drought. This means that past experience with impacts of such extremes – once a reliable guide – is no longer a useful source of information. What happened last time no longer prepares us for what’s coming. We’ve got to dope that out some other way.

Fourth, and finally for now – there’s more but I have a meeting to attend – we’ve got to get past reacting to the crisis of the moment, and find some time in the midst of each-day-to-day scramble to mitigate the impacts of the extremes. The extremes themselves can’t be modified; at least not yet. But through land use, building codes, and other forms of forethought and action we can reduce the number, scale, and scope of disasters, and better manage the response to what’s left.

In short, as the report’s title suggests…

…we can adapt.

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9 Responses to Living on the Real World? We’d better have a plan for extremes.

  1. klem says:

    “But through land use, building codes, and other forms of forethought and action we can reduce the number, scale, and scope of disasters, and better manage the response to what’s left.”

    That’s right, improved building codes will reduce the number, scale, and scope of disasters like catagory 5 hurricanes. Oh boy.

    Improved bulding codes I can tolerate. At least now carbon taxes, carbon prices and cap&trade are now off the table.

    Based on the timing of this say-nothing report, I’d say Durban is going to be a complete failure. I can’t wait.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks for your comment, which represents a lot of the thinking out there…Much to comment on here, but I’ll simply note that I wasn’t implying that building codes will reduce the number of category 5 hurricanes…only the severity and extent of the impacts of such storms.

  2. Pingback: IPCC’s New Special Report: Adapt to Extremes, but Prepare for the Presentation

  3. Pingback: “The Times They Are A-Changin” | Climate Science: Roger Pielke Sr.

  4. Hi Bill

    This weblog post is excellent! I have just announced it on my weblog

    The approach you discuss fits closely with what we have proposed in our paper

    Pielke Sr., R.A., R. Wilby, D. Niyogi, F. Hossain, K. Dairuku, J. Adegoke, G. Kallos, T. Seastedt, and K. Suding, 2011: Dealing with complexity and extreme events using a bottom-up, resource-based vulnerability perspective. AGU Monograph on Complexity and Extreme Events in Geosciences, in press

    Best Regards

    Roger Sr

  5. Michael Cunningham says:

    As an economic policy adviser (UK, Australia & Queensland), I’ve long argued that change is inevitable and unpredictable, and that government policies need to support the capacity of the community to adapt positively to changing circumstances; to be able to take advantage of them, whatever they are, to seize opportunities rather than to be a hostage to fortune and suffer from unexpected change.

    To summarise a short policy paper in 2006:

    Economic growth is about transformation, about change. Policies which embrace openness, competition, change and innovation will promote growth. Policies which have the effect of restricting or slowing change by protecting or favouring particular industries or firms are likely over time to slow growth to the disadvantage of the community.

    Messages for policy are that: competition is the main driver of innovation and productivity growth; almost all wealth-generating innovation occurs in the private sector; government policy should focus on promoting competition rather than on supporting particular firms or industries; the failure of non-competitive firms is a necessary part of economic growth; and relaxation of entry barriers may not succeed in promoting growth if not accompanied by other changes that are favourable to business development.

    If such messages had been picked up 30-odd years ago, when the AGW hypothesis was in its infancy, we’d be in better shape now to deal with whatever comes our way than we are with the prevailing approach of depending on government intervention, regulation and central direction of responses to climate change. Climate, like everything else, always changes, our species has succeeded through its adaptability – it’s not so long ago that our race consisted of a small hunter-gatherer population in Africa. As E M Forster might have said: “Only adapt!”

    • Many thanks, Michael…

      …for an especially thoughtful comment. Readers might benefit from fuller access to your work. Is the 2006 policy paper available online? What about more recent work? Can you supply a link or two?


  6. Michael Cunningham says:

    Bill, I left work in ill-health in 2002, and have only done one piece of serious work since then, a paper on Achieving Sustained Economic Growth which specifically critiqued Queensland State government policy, but has a broader application. The first draft extensively cited relevant literature, the published version is a much crisper ten pages or so aimed at a non-specialist policy audience. It’s not online, but I can e-mail you a copy if you wish, for use as you see fit. I can’t see an address on the site, but you have my e-mail. Most of my public contribution now is via the letter pages of The Australian.

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