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

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

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