Societies' Near-Sightedness Poses Main Obstacle to Extreme-Weather Preparation

Sandbags on Water St. near Wall St. | Flickr, ritahogan

Extreme weather: Everybody talks about it, but human nature often gets in the way of our doing something about it. This was the consensus among scientists who participated in a discussion about "Building Resilience to Extreme Weather," at the AAAS headquarters auditorium in downtown Washington, DC.

Scientists, engineers and others who study extreme weather have proposed numerous ways to reduce the suffering and damage inflicted by hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, deluges, droughts and such. Obstacles to implementing these measures often arise because peoples' perspectives are short-term and localized, while nature's patterns are vastly longer-term and global, the speakers said.

Weather extremes actually "are tremendously valuable, and make the planet more, not less, liveable," said Bill Hooke, director of the Policy Program at the American Meteorological Society. Big storms assist in crucial heat transport between the equator and poles, and hurricanes provide rainfall vital to human survival, he said. "It's just our social accommodations," such as building codes, "that aren't working out so well … Disasters are a socially-caused phenomenon."

Society could benefit greatly by taking the same approach to natural hazards as that taken by the aviation industry toward air disasters, which means "learning from experience," he said. For instance, if a wing falls off a plane, the official reaction is that "this must never happen again.'" By contrast, when it comes to floods, hurricanes and the like, in large part because of people's very profound connection with the places and circumstances in which we live, "we say we're going to rebuild like before, and …make sure our grandchildren suffer just as much." Hooke drew a laugh by noting that he had, earlier in his career, earned the nickname Doctor Doom.

$65 Billion

The cost of damage in the United States from Hurricane Sandy

NOAA National Climate Data Center

Climate Change and the Single Superstorm

With winds over a punishing 300 kilometers per hour, Typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged the Philippines in early November, was the most powerful recorded cyclone that made landfall. At the United Nations climate talks shortly afterwards, the Philippines' representative, Naderev "Yeb" Sano, connected human-induced climate change and the devastating storm, making an emotional appeal for countries to "stop this madness" and take action against global warming. But, how strong is the connection between climate change and the strength of individual storms like Haiyan or Hurricane Sandy?

For climate scientists, making such connections is "risky territory," journalist Richard Kerr reported in the 8 November issue of Science. "There is no question that global warming is real, but the science linking any one hurricane, drought, or flood to climate change is shaky, at best," and researchers have not found compelling evidence that global warming boosted the strength of Hurricane Sandy, Kerr wrote.

September's massive assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found only "low confidence" that intense tropical cyclone activity had increased measurably since 1950, according to Science Insider. However, the IPCC has found that, "more likely than not," global warming will drive an increase in intense tropical cyclone activity in the western North Pacific and North Atlantic by late in this century.

Kathy Wren
From left to right, moderator David Kestenbaum with Megan Linkin, John Nielsen-Gammon and Bill Hooke. | AAAS/Kathy Sawyer

Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, whose state is suffering a prolonged drought, said that one of the most important problems he has seen is a mindset that limits local planners to consideration only of their own experiences and not the bigger picture, in part because of limited resources. "Their model was basically if it happened [here] before, it might happen again." They tended not to plan for events that have happened elsewhere and might yet happen to them. One result, he said, was a kind of "roulette" in handling the water supply.

The gathering was the second of three in the annual "Science and Society: Global Challenges" series sponsored by Georgetown University Science in the Public Interest, AAAS and the American Chemical Society. It took place on 28 October, the eve of the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy's deadly rampage through northeast coastal communities and just two weeks before the record-shattering Typhoon Haiyan laid waste to swaths of the Philippines, killing thousands.

Megan Linkin, a meteorologist who assesses risks for the reinsurance company Swiss Re, told the audience that Sandy was "the seminal event" that "made me realize how vulnerable we are." The storm was not even a major hurricane by the time it struck, but it wrought shocking havoc because of the civilization exposed in its path. A worst-case hurricane has not targeted this coast, she said, since a hurricane thought to be the equivalent of a modern-day Category 4 struck Massachusetts in 1635.

With a changing global climate, the panel members said, what seem to be abnormally frequent, intense or otherwise extreme weather phenomena may become the new "normal" at the same time that humans, expanding to populate more geographical nooks and crannies, become increasingly vulnerable to these events.

Of course, communities must weigh costs against benefits. Moderator David Kestenbaum of National Public Radio, a physicist, pointed out that, because society cannot afford to prepare for all the worst case scenarios, there must be trade-offs.

"Prove to me we're underprepared," he challenged the speakers. "Where do you draw the line?"

It's important to remember, Linkin responded, that we are adapted to the climate we have, not the altered climate of the future. "So you can say, okay, we're prepared for big storms, but not for the bigger storm surge due to sea level rise."

The problem is exceedingly complex and the uncertainties are numerous and "broadening," the panel members agreed, especially given that no one knows what strategies society will adopt or how the climate will respond in turn. For example, Hooke said, the experts "didn't exactly forecast that a tsunami in Japan would bring about the end of nuclear power in Germany," which began closing its plants following the Fukushima disaster.

For governments, Linkin said, the short-term costs of action tend to outweigh the long-term costs of inaction. An elected official gets no credit if he buys insurance against a disaster that fails to materialize during his limited time in office. However, insurers in some cases - she cited her company's work with New York City - have leverage to encourage communities to take simple preparedness measures in order to reduce the cost of any insurance they do buy.

In Texas, Nielsen-Gammon said, the drought lasted long enough compared to the legislative cycle that lawmakers took money from a fund "paradoxically called the 'rainy day fund'" to pay for new reservoirs, treatment facilities, conservation promotion and the like.

 
A now-defunct but "hugely popular" federal program called Project Impact offers a useful model for how communities might prepare for natural hazards, according to Bill Hooke of the American Meteorological Society. | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

There are reasons for optimism, the panel members said, as they see key players learning from events and increasingly thinking "outside the box." For example, Linkin described a project called "Resilient Cities," launched by the Rockefeller Foundation, with support from the Clinton Global Initiative, Swiss Re and others. It is experimenting with financing mechanisms to provide volunteer participants with technical support and other resources to improve their infrastructure and public services. These cities ideally would then become models for more widespread adaptation.

Other measures the panel members favored included:

  • The establishment of risk-based pricing for national flood insurance. Allowances need to be made for low-income, long-time home owners in vulnerable locations whose homes would rapidly lose their value but in the case of the well off, as Nielsen-Gammon put it, "let the people who actually choose the risk pay the price of it."
  • A "resilience star" program to promote individual preparedness (similar to the "energy star" program that encourages homeowners to buy efficient products). Experiments with this approach are underway.
  • Changes in individual attitudes, including something as basic as peer pressure. Just as society stigmatizes a parent who fails to fasten a child's seat belt properly, for example, Hooke said, it could stigmatize "letting your kids go to sleep in a flood plain" without prudent protections.

144

The number of U.S. weather events since 1980 that caused $1 billion or more in damage.

NOAA National Climate Data Center

This attitude adjustment should also include upgrades in our terminology, the panel said. For example, experts should eliminate references to "the hundred-year storm" or the "fifty-year storm," which can be misleading. Risk from natural hazards is distributed along more of a continuum, and definitions are technically complex. Even more fundamentally, Hooke said, phrases like "act of god" invite passivity.

As for the long-running political controversy about climate change, especially about the degree to which human activity causes it, the scientists said it tends to become relevant mainly when they are dealing with long time frames — say 30 years or more — and mostly at the top echelons of the political hierarchy. Down where the rubber meets the road, and when dealing with more immediate concerns - they said, this debate is not a big "driver."

What works best is not "flogging non-scientists with the facts," Hooke said. It's more effective to find a project that brings people together to reduce a specific risk. "Not only can it save money," he said. "It can build trust."