“Slow-onset” hazards

Here is the question for today: “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?

Often we hear that climate change is a slow onset event. People trot out the “frog-in-boiling-water” metaphor. Remember that bit of folk wisdom? Put a frog in a pot of boiling water, and it’ll immediately jump out, saving its skin. But put that same frog in water at room temperature, and ever so slowly raise it to a boil, and it’ll remain in the pot, allowing itself to be cooked.

Or so we’re told.

And those same folks then tell us that’s the danger that climate change represents. They say our problem is that the changes around us are so gradual that we’re unable to recognize and then respond to them in a healthy, planet-and-people-saving way.

But here on the ground in the middle of that climate change, it looks as if something different is going on. The reality? We’re talking about climate change all the time. Just today the New York Times ran yet another editorial on the subject[1]. Climate change continues to receive fairly substantial media attention. We’re not ignoring it…it’s not escaping our notice. Problem is, we’re conflicted about what to do about it. Maybe if we got inside the frog’s head, we’d find that it was internally conflicted: “It’s getting hot. Maybe I should jump. But maybe not. Maybe it’ll start to get cooler. No, I’d better jump. But perhaps I could wait a little bit longer. Boy it’s hot. I feel fidgety. No, maybe I feel sleepy, lethargic.”

But scientists are focused on the problem like a laser beam. Or more precisely, like thousands of laser beams, each illuminating one piece of the climate change puzzle, accumulating evidence. The IPCC reports and the science dialog sound more like a weather-forecast map discussion…a spirited, free-wheeling exchange of ideas about where the climate is headed over the coming century, with disagreements openly aired and debated. When a hurricane is making landfall in a day or so, any map discussion or huddle among forecasters has to be brief. And for a category-five tornado just ten minutes away from hitting a town, any forecaster discussion will be even more truncated. But for a century-long forecast, there’s more time. And when it comes to the range of possible societal actions that might be taken, and outcomes desired or feared – perhaps it’s worth taking a bit of extra time to make sure there’s agreement on the course we should follow. Maybe, when it comes to climate change, this is how it feels when things are going well. And quite possibly similar arguments might be made with respect to sea level rise or even global food security.

That’s one perspective.

But now let’s look a little closer. What we find is that in each of these so-called slow-onset events, there’s a highly-localized, rapid-onset punch line.

Take climate change. The problem with climate change is not that temperatures are rising one ten-thousandth of a degree Celsius everywhere for 30,000 straight days. That’s what’s underway in an average sense, but the actual warming is a lot patchier, and more intermittent than that. The climate we accept as normal is in fact the average or sum of extremes of hot and cold, and those extremes of heat, in particular, are slated to get worse. Moreover, those extremes of heat are right around human skin temperature now, and we know from our experience with the heat waves we have currently that when temperatures remain at or near our skin temperature for extended periods, we don’t respond well[2].

And in point of fact, much of the worry with climate change is not the temperature change per se, but rather associated changes in pattern, extent, location, timing, amount, and form (snow versus rain) of precipitation. Most rainfall and snowfall occurs most places during extreme events. That Dallas-Fort Worth area amidst all of today’s wildfires? It gets more rain annually, on the average, than Seattle.  What’ll happen to patterns of rain and snow? That’s what matters.

And, truth is, that’s not so much the worry either, is it? The real worry is the combined impact of the changes in temperature and precipitation on water resources in general and on food production/agriculture in particular. And here again some may characterize global food reserves in terms of “number of days of reserves.” But the real presentation of food shortages is far more acute and localized…as witnessed by the current famine in the horn of Africa. And those famines are driven as much by politics, by policies, by ethnic frictions, and other social causes as they are by drought conditions and other physical changes.

So, with regard to this first question posed by next week’s conference on community resiliency, “The threats from climate change, sea rise, drought and desertification, food security and many other slowly developing crises are more often than not linked to dramatic events that focus media, public, and political attention. And these threats are indeed relatively well recognized and understood.

Witness the fact that they’ve been raised as a topic for discussion. The problem would seem to be that for a variety of reasons, we lack the will to tackle them. We’re more disposed to find our points of disagreement and argue those…or maybe worse yet, throw up our hands and cluck our tongues in feigned helplessness. We’d rather surface and refine and intensify our disagreements than join together and make common cause to face these problems. A variety of reasons? Well, here’s one of the main ones. We’re recognizing those at greatest risk are the poorest, the already-disenfranchised, those with the least resources… in a word, those other-than-us.

Frankly? We can do better. So let’s do so.

[1]The thrust of that piece? According to the Times, with the notable exception of Jon Huntsman, not a single Republican candidate is facing the challenge squarely. Even Mitt Romney is backpedaling.

[2]Recently my wife and I took a two-week trip out west, visiting the Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion National Parks. We also stopped by Hoover Dam, one of the great engineering achievements of the 20th century. We read about the dam’s construction. Summer temperatures reached 1200. In the diversion tunnels, temperatures soared to 1400. Some 20,000 men worked on the dam over the five-year period it was built; most of the 200 who died didn’t fall from the cliffs, or perish in explosions; they died from heat prostration. Picture a world in which more of us experience such heat, more of the time. But it won’t be most of us; it’ll be the poorest, and/or those in special circumstances – certain jobs, or locations.

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