Why we need to link disaster risk reduction to the sustainable development goals

disaster mortality since 1990
disaster mortality since 1990

Trends in disaster mortality since 1990 (courtesy of the Global Assessment Report 2015).

I know I said that my next post would be on the Syria climate change & conflict paper; that’s coming next, I promise. But I wanted to finally get around to cross-posting this piece I wrote for the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction first, because it completes the logical chain I started in my last post – climate change feeds into DRR which feeds into sustainable development.

As we enter the year 2015, we approach the final target date for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In many regards, the MDGs have been successful. The number of people living on less than $1.25 per day fell from 47% to 22% by 2010; the global burden from HIV/AIDS and malaria has been ameliorated significantly; and more than 2 billion people have gained access to clean water.

Despite these successes, the international community has been unable to halt environmental degradation. Though MDG 7 called for integrating the principles of sustainable development and reducing biodiversity loss, the destruction of critical ecosystems, such as wetlands and tropical forests, continues apace. Additionally, global carbon emissions have increased by 34% since 1990. Failing to stem this tide will could reverse many of the gains made through the MDGs. As Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said last April, “Climate change is the single greatest threat to a sustainable future.”

It is for this reason that the international community proposed developing a set of so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the Rio + 20 Conference. These SDGs will pick up where the MDGs left off and further embed the principles of sustainable development and environmental protection.

But, just as we cannot hope to promote sustainable development without addressing climate change, we cannot expect to achieve the SDGs without tackling the threat posed by disasters. The number of disasters worldwide has spiked in recent years, increasing from roughly 100 disasters per decade during the first half of the 20th century to 385 per year from 2000-2010.

Strangely, a consensus appears to have emerged among some economists that disasters may have limited macroeconomic impacts and can actually be beneficial in the long-run. According to this theory, disasters tend to have a stimulative effect for economies by sparking large-scale reconstruction efforts and attracting financial support from the international community.

From an economic perspective, there are several shortcomings to this theory. It assumes that disasters are exogenous events, rather than part of the normal political and economic order. It is also assumes that disasters significantly alter the existing economic order. Yet, low- and middle-income states lack the capacity to replace their productive capital on a broad scale. Moreover, most developing countries lack the necessary human capital to maximize such new technologies. Accordingly, even when disasters provide a boost in the short-term, economies should ultimately return to their pre-disaster state.

More importantly, this theory ignores the political economy of disasters, which disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable. Disasters tend to undermine the social, political, and natural capital upon which vulnerable groups depend to make their livelihoods. For one, they can severely damage the natural capital upon which most low-income households rely. It can take years, if not decades, for this capital stock to regenerate. The specter of frequent disasters also makes low-income agricultural households more risk averse. In Ethiopia, this threat has reduced economic growth by more than one-third. And disasters can create significant, long-term consequences for the most vulnerable groups. Women living in camps for disaster survivors may find themselves at an elevated risk of physical and sexual violence. After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, the rate of rape among women living in FEMA trailer camps was 53.6 times higher than the rate before the storm.

Taken together, disasters can undermine the vital coping mechanisms of low-income households. Consequently, they may become locked into debilitating poverty traps. Households need to maintain a minimum asset threshold in order to provide for their needs and retain the ability to move up the economic ladder. Evidence suggests that a large number of households fell below this threshold as a result of asset destruction during Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and the 1998-2000 droughts that affected Ethiopia. Such environmental shocks may lock poor households into spirals of poverty and degradation from which they may never escape.

It is for these reasons that the international community must embed the principles of disaster risk reduction into the SDGs. Failing to account for the deleterious impacts of disasters would undermine this enterprise and risk stymieing further progress on poverty alleviation. Moreover, as we enter a greenhouse world, the risk from climate-related disasters and environmental change will only become more apparent. The time has come for the world to mainstream disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation into development planning. The risks of not acting are too great to ignore.

Climate overshadows disaster risk reduction. Here’s how to change that.

sendai earthquake tsunami damage
sendai earthquake tsunami damage

Fires rage in Sendai, Japan, following the devastating earthquake & tsunami that hit the area in 2011 (courtesy of the AP).

Next Saturday, the Third Wold Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) kicks off in the coastal city of Sendai. Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Disaster risk reduction (DRR) has been on international agendas for decades, but it tends to get overshadowed by climate change. DRR is the broader, less famous, older sibling of climate change; think of it as the Frank to climate’s Sylvester Stallone.

The WCDRR is a follow-up of the 2005 conference in Kobe, Japan, which produced the Hyogo Framework for Action, a 10-year plan to reduce disaster risk and enhance resilience worldwide. That, in turn, served as a successor to the 1994 Yokohama Conference, the first international meeting on DRR, which led to the development of the landmark Yokohama Strategy and Plan for Safer World. (If you’re noticing a theme here, you’re right; Japan is more or less the center of the world when it comes to DRR. It is highly vulnerable to a number of natural hazards and has, accordingly, become a leader and innovator in this space. The 1995 Kobe earthquake, which killed more than 5,000 Japanese, served as a catalyst to place DRR onto policymakers’ agendas. Sendai, for its part, has the unfortunate distinction of being the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear crisis, which is the costliest disaster in history at $235 billion.)

DRR in context & why 2015 matters

The Hyogo Framework defined it as a strategy to bring about “the substantial reduction of disaster losses, in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets of communities and countries.” Minimizing the risks and damages wrought by disasters is critically important, given their dramatic costs in blood and treasure. According to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), the world lost a combined 42 million life-years annually as a result of disasters from 1980-2012. On average, disasters cause at least $250 billion in economic losses each year, a number that UNISDR expects will climb considerably due to economic growth, demographic changes, and climate change.

DRR encompasses more issues than climate change, generally speaking. While climate change will generally influence climatic and hydrometeorological disastes, DRR includes all types of disasters, including geological ones like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. While the former varieties tend to get a lot of the attention, the latter types are often far deadlier and more destructive. 2015 marks the anniversaries of a few of these severe disasters, including the aforementioned Kobe earthquake, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. These three disasters alone killed more than 306,000 people, affected over 9.3 million, and caused more than $113 billion in damages, according to EM-DAT.

More broadly, 2015 is shaping up to be a landmark year for the international community. The WCDRR is taking place in conjunction with this September’s UN Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals and December’s Paris Conference on climate change. Unsurprisingly, given the scale of what’s yet to come, the Sendai Conference has largely stayed below the radar. You won’t see any major world leaders giving speeches like you will in New York, and the conference won’t produce a document with binding targets like we may get out of Paris. Instead, as the zero draft makes clear, WCDRR will lead to a voluntary agreement that sets global metrics for disaster impacts, defines progressive international principles for DRR, and outlines actions that governmental and nongovernmental actors can take at all levels.

WCDRR & the climate question

Interestingly, even though many observers expect the Sendai Conference to help set the table for the SDGs and Paris Conference, these issues, particularly climate change, have thus far been nearly absent from the conversation. As RTCC noted yesterday, climate is more or less morphed into Sendai’s version of Voldemort – that which shall not be named:

But compared to a planned UN climate change deal in Paris this December, or the Sustainable Development Goals process, this is not making headlines. In part that’s because the proposals – which are still under negotiation – are non-binding and will not require countries to make any financial pledges. It’s also due to the decision by the UN office for Disaster Risk Reduction – conscious or otherwise – to delink the talks from global warming, instead focusing on wider “natural disasters”. This UN body is desperate to avoid the toxic clash of developed and developing countries its climate cousin has suffered from since the early 1990s. Even mentions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body which has a number of publications on disaster risk, are omitted from the draft text. Presenting the 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction on Wednesday, its head Margareta Wahlström appeared at pains not to mention the ‘c’ word.

Decoupling DRR from climate change may prove to be something of a two-edged sword, however. While keeping the two issues separate may help shield WCDRR from some of the political controversy that has tended to overshadow the UNFCCC process, it also limits opportunities to link DRR to climate change and, more broadly, the SDGs. Keeping these three critical processes on parallel tracks that rarely, if ever, intersect reduces opportunities to find commonalities. As a result, we may miss ways to use interventions or funding streams to address them at the same time. Worse yet, keeping these topics siloed may lead us to pursue projects that appear beneficial in one area, but are actively harmful in another.

Making climate change part of DRR

What’s the international community to do? Fortunately, researchers Ilan Kelman, JC Gaillard, and Jessica Mercer have just released a paper (open access) that outlines a strategy to bring these three topics together. It’s well worth reading the whole thing.

In the article, Kelman, Gaillard, and Mercer (herein referred to as KGM) explain how some actors have framed social vulnerability as the result of individual’s “double exposure” to the effects of globalization and climate change. But, as they note, these are just two of a variety of threats that people face on a daily basis; there are also poverty, inequality, social repression, gender roles, disaster risk, environmental degradation, and the burden of disease, among others. In this environment, our focus on globalization and climate change can crowd out these other crucial issues.

Moreover, as KGM notes, some governments are actively using these two issues to pursue their own political ends:

Research in Maldives shows how climate change and globalization are being used as excuses by the government to force a policy of population consolidation (resettlement) on outer islanders. Yet the government has long been trying to resettle the outer islanders closer to the capital using other reasons, such as that it is hard to provide a scattered population with services including health, harbors, and education. Both arguments have legitimacy and can be countered, but climate change is used as an excuse to do what the government wishes to do anyway.

So what’s the solution? The international community needs to adopt a broader “multiple exposure” model that considers climate change as one challenge among many. And, according to KGM, the best way to do this is treat climate change as a subset of DRR. While the authors note that linking climate change to DRR will not be easy to achieve in the current political environment – particularly before the end of this year – they stress the need to pursue this end. As such, they provide three key principles for considering climate change as a subset of DRR:

  1. The international community must treat climate change as one contributor to disaster risk, but not the only or even the most important one. Focus on climate cannot be allowed to dominate other factors, like population growth in floodplains or economic inequality.
  2. Climate change must be seen as one “creeping environmental change” among many, such as soil erosion and desertification. KGM define this term as “incremental changes in conditions that cumulate to create a major problem, apparent or recognized only after a threshold has been crossed.”
  3. We should harness climate change’s political salience as a tool to engage policymakers in a more comprehensive discussion on sustainable development. On this point, it’s best to see the climate-DRR-sustainable development like a nesting doll. Climate change fits within the larger topic of DRR, which, in turn, must be placed within the context of sustainable development. The authors provide a great example to illustrate this: “Little point exists in building a new school with natural ventilation techniques that save energy and that cope with higher average temperatures, if that school will collapse in the next moderate, shallow earthquake.” And, beyond this, building a green, earthquake-resilient school makes little sense if it is only open to boys or the children of the wealthy.

KGM explain how taking this three-in-one approach is the most effective way to harness the strengths of all three issues: the political and power of climate change, the historical perspective and theoretical strength of DRR, and the universal legitimacy of sustainable development. Climate may get all the attention – Lord knows I talk about it enough – but it’s important to recognize its proper place and role within a sustainable development agenda.

I think this framework holds a lot of practical power and value. In my next post, I will use it to consider the recent PNAS article on the role of climate change in the Syrian civil war.

Don’t blame it on the rain: On the root causes of Northeast Ohio’s flooding problems

Floodwaters submerged vehicles in the parking lot at Great Northern mall in North Olmsted on May 12 (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

“Après moi, le déluge” – King Louis XV (1710-1774)

Northeast Ohio has a flooding problem, as anyone affected by the severe storms last evening can attest. The region has experienced at least four major flooding events in the past few months, the most serious of which occurred five months ago on May 12, when torrential rains caused widespread flooding in several communities.

As the hydrographs below demonstrate, this severe deluge caused several rivers and streams to overflow their banks throughout the western and southern portions of Greater Cleveland. Flash floods also occurred in several areas; one raging flash flood nearly washed away a vehicle containing legendary meteorologist Dick Goddard, who apparently did not heed that famous National Weather Service saying: “turn around, don’t drown.”

This hydrograph displays the streamflow for three Northeast Ohio rivers – the Vermilion River (red), the Black Creek in Elyria (green), and the Rocky River in Berea (blue) – as measured by the US Geological Survey during May of this year. As you can clearly see, the streamflow in each of these rivers spiked drastically on May 12-13, due to the extreme precipitation during that period. Both the Vermilion and Black Rivers exceeded their respective flood stages (courtesy of USGS).

Who is to blame?

Since these floods occurred, people have been looking for answers or, in many cases, someone to blame. Those individuals whose property and piece of mind were damaged by the floodwaters have, in many cases, been understandably and justifiably upset, even angry. Many of these people have turned their anger at their municipal governments for failing, for one reason or another, to prevent the floods from occurring. This anger bubbled over in some instances, leading to highly contentious public meetings, such as the one in North Olmsted during which a resident got on stage to publicly rebuke officials and call for citizens to sue the city. Residents of other municipalities, including Olmsted Township and Strongsville, are also considering class action lawsuits, accusing their cities of negligence for not investing in adequate infrastructure upgrades.

City officials, for their part, have found a different scapegoat – the rain itself. And there can be no question that the rain in some areas in the past few months has been downright biblical. North Olmsted endured 4.44 inches of rain – more rain than it receives, on average, for the entire month of May – in a couple of hours on the 12th. Put another way, that amount of rain would be equivalent to roughly 44 inches of snow. Strongsville, in turn, saw 3.58 inches of rain that evening, just under its monthly average rainfall of 3.66 inches for May.* The following month, Cleveland suffered a similar fate. The 3.54 inches that fell on June 24 made it the fourth rainiest day for the city in the past century.

Yet, major rainfall events are not uncommon for Northeast Ohio during the summer months; in fact, they are the norm. On average, roughly 40% of the total precipitation in the Midwest each year falls during just 10 days; almost all of these days occur during the summer months, when high heat and humidity can lead to major convective storms. But, what is different is the frequency with which these types of flooding events are occurring. Residents in many of the affected communities have testified that they have experienced floods on a semi-regular basis over the past 10-15 years.

Don’t blame it on the rain…or the sewers

While it may be convenient to blame these floods on the rain, it’s not that simple. As the (handful of) people who have perused this blog in the past have no doubt grown tired of reading, there’s no such thing as a “natural” disaster. Rather, disaster risk is the combination of a natural hazard, our physical and economic exposure to the hazard, and our socioeconomic vulnerability. If 4 inches of rain falls in the middle of an uninhabited tract of some national park in Montana, it does not constitute a disaster. In a sense, for disasters, if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to see it, it really doesn’t make a sound.

So, while it may make sense for people to blame inaction by public officials or the heavens for floods, these simply represent the proximate causes of the disaster. We cannot hope to address the real issue at hand by focusing simply on these; that is the equivalent of treating the symptoms of the illness. Rather, we need to focus on the root causes, which one can identify through this disaster risk lens.

Since I cannot readily or adequately examine the various facets of disaster vulnerability for every community affected by this summer’s floods, I want to focus instead on the other two components of the disaster risk triad – natural hazards and exposure. Increases in extreme precipitation events due to climate change and Northeast Ohio’s ongoing sprawl problem, respectively, account for much of the apparent spike in flooding events throughout the region over the past several years. I explore each of these below.

Natural hazard: Climate change and precipitation in Northeast Ohio

Logically, the more rain that falls over an area, particularly within a limited period of time, the higher the likelihood that a flood will occur. We already know that, based on simple physics, as global temperatures increase, the amount of moisture in the air should also rise. According to the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water vapor increases roughly 7% for each 1ºC increase in atmospheric temperatures. This should lead to two general outcomes. First, it will take the atmosphere longer to reach its point of saturation, which may lengthen the periods between rain events for many areas, contributing to droughts. Conversely, because the amount of water vapor available for precipitation also rises, rainfall events should become more extreme in nature. As Dr. Kevin Trenberth put it in a 2007 study (PDF),

Hence, storms, whether individual thunderstorms, extratropical rain or snow storms, or tropical cyclones, supplied with increased moisture, produce more intense precipitation events. Such events are observed to be widely occurring, even where total precipitation is decreasing: ‘it never rains but it pours!’ This increases the risk of flooding.

We are already witnessing this intensification of rainfall in the US, particularly in the Midwest.  According to the latest National Climate Assessment (NCA), total precipitation has increased in the Midwest by 9% since 1991. Over the past century, certain parts of the region have seen precipitation totals climb by up to 20%. This increase is due largely to a spike in the frequency of extreme precipitation events. From 1958-2012, the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy downpour events jumped by 37% in the Midwest. This statistic helps to explain why, of the 12 instances in which Cleveland received more than 3 inches of rain in a day during the last century, 7 have occurred since 1994.

heavy downpours by region

One measure of heavy precipitation events is a two-day precipitation total that is exceeded on average only once in a 5-year period, also known as the once-in-five-year event. As this extreme precipitation index for 1901-2012 shows, the occurrence of such events has become much more common in recent decades. Changes are compared to the period 1901-1960, and do not include Alaska or Hawai‘i. (courtesy of Climate Central).

Unless we take action quickly to reduce our carbon emissions, this situation will only get worse in the coming decades. The NCA projects that, under a business as usual scenario (RCP 8.5), Ohio will see such extreme precipitation events four times more frequently by the end of the century.

extreme precipitation events projections

The increase in frequency of extreme daily precipitation events (a daily amount that now occurs once in 20 years) by the later part of this century (2081-2100) compared to the later part of last century (1981-2000) (courtesy of the National Climate Assessment).

Exposure: Sprawl and flooding in Northeast Ohio

I’ve also written extensively in the past about Northeast Ohio’s problems with sprawl-based development (see here for examples). As I wrote one year ago today,

Northeast Ohio has suffered from decades of sprawl and uncoordinated development patterns, leading to waves of suburbanization followed by exurbanization. In 1948, Cuyahoga County’s population stood at 1,389,532; just 26% of land in the county was developed at the time. Yet, by 2002, although the county’s population had grown by a mere .32% to 1,393,978, sprawl ensured that roughly 95% of the county’s land area had been developed.

cuyahoga county land use in 1948 & 2002

Changes in land use within Cuyahoga County from 1948 (left) to 2002 (right). Red shading indicates developed land, while the beige indicates land that is still undeveloped. The maps clearly demonstrate the decentralization of the county over the last six decades (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

We’ve come a long way since 2002. The heyday of sprawl appears to be on its last legs, as the combined effects of the Great Recession, the rise of the Millennial generation, and the gradual retirement of the Baby Boomers has led to a resurgence in the number of people living in walkable urban areas. Multiple sources have proclaimed the end of sprawl; this trend even appears to be taking root in Atlanta.

Cleveland has tried to position itself to follow this emerging trend. The city was recently ranked 10th most walkable among the largest 30 metro areas, enjoys a 98.3% residential occupancy rate downtown, has unveiled a plan to double the amount of bike routes in the city by the end 2017, and has seen a rise in transit-oriented development.

Given all of these positive indicators, why would I suggest that sprawl has increased the frequency and intensity of floods over the past decade-plus? Well, simply put, because it has. While it’s impossible for one to  deny all of these positive indicators, one also cannot ignore the facts.

In its Measuring Sprawl 2014 report, Smart Growth American ranked Cleveland 153 of 221 metros on its sprawl index. The median score was 100; cities with scores over 100 were more compact, while those with scores less than 100 were more sprawling. Cleveland scored an 85.62 (PDF), placing it below other regional metros, including Detroit (12th), Milwaukee (15th), Chicago (26th), Akron (111th), Dayton (116th), Toledo (117th), Pittsburgh (132nd), and Columbus (138). Cleveland does outperform some other nearby metros, including Indianapolis (158th), Cincinnati (166th), and Youngstown (175th).

Moreover, a recent study out of the University of Utah suggests that from 2000-2010, the Cleveland metro area became even more sprawling (PDF). Using Smart Growth America’s sprawl index, the authors examined the rate of change for the 162 largest metro areas (paywalled) during this period. While Akron actually became 2.7% more compact, Cleveland sprawled by another 13.3%, the 10th worst change of any metro area. Though the city’s number improved since 2010, our 85.62 in 2014 is still lower than the 86.01 that we had 14 years ago.

So why does this all matter for flooding? Well, simply put, areas that follow sprawl-based development models are more likely to suffer from flooding problems. Sprawl increases the percentage of land area that is covered with impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, roads, and driveways. As the extent of impervious surfaces rises, so too does the amount of precipitation that winds up as surface runoff during storms. Forested areas are excellent at controlling stormwater (PDF); trees enable 50% of precipitation to infiltrate the soil and allow another 40% to return to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. Urbanized areas, in contrast, drastically reduce the amount of water that can infiltrate into the soil, guaranteeing that 35-55% of precipitation ends up as runoff.

As Hollis (1975) has shown, urbanization increases the incidence of small flooding events 10-fold (paywalled). Additionally, if 30% of the roads in an urban area are paved, major flood events with return periods of 100 years or more tend to double in magnitude. Northeast Ohio has more than 48,000 acres of impervious surfaces, equivalent to approximately one-third of the region’s land area. Accordingly, we fall directly into that danger zone for major flood events due, in large part, to our development patterns.

Secondly, because so much of the county is already developed, many new developments are being built in existing flood zones. In December 2010, FEMA released its first comprehensive flood zone maps for Northeast Ohio since the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, these maps show a dramatic increase in the number of people living in flood zone areas, due to the outward expansion of development. Thousands of people woke up one day to find out that they had been living in a flood zone, and they were none too happy to learn that they would now have to shoulder some of the cost of that decision by purchasing federal flood insurance. Interestingly, the gentleman who filed the class action lawsuit against Strongsville over the flooding lives in a housing development in one of these flood plains.

Lastly, sprawl directly contributes to climate change by leading to additional greenhouse gas emissions. Suburban areas account of 50% of the US’s total emissions, despite being home to less than half of the population. While households in downtown Cleveland produce just 26.5 tons of GHGs annually, that number skyrockets to 85.6 tons for Gates Mills residents. Because transportation accounts for such a high portion of the average family’s carbon footprint in this region, our sprawl problem has directly resulted in additional carbon pollution.

Conclusion

There is no question that flooding represents a real threat to the quality of life of people living in Northeast Ohio. Those individuals who have been directly affected by it have every right to be upset and to demand answers. Unfortunately, however, it appears that we are losing sight of the forest for the trees. Focusing exclusively on the proximate drivers of these floods may seem like a good idea, but it allows us to escape examining the real, underlying root causes. Until we step up and begin to shift our regional development patterns away from those centered on sprawl and rampant fossil fuel use, this flooding problem will only get worse.

 

*It’s worth noting that Strongsville is one of eight suburbs that have sued the Northeast Ohio Sewer District to fight the implementation of its stormwater management program. The case went before the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday. Obviously, this action runs directly counter to the city’s interests. While the stormwater management program will lead to an increase in rates, it is also the only chance we have to begin managing runoff as a region, which is essential not only for flood control but for improving our water quality and fighting harmful algae blooms. Additionally, a portion of the revenues from this fee would be made available for cleaning up after floods and helping to prevent future flooding. Perhaps that’s why, after the May 12 storms, North Royalton withdrew as one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case. This region desperately needs the investment that will come from this program, through Project Clean Lake, though I strongly encourage NEORSD to invest a greater portion of the program’s funds into green infrastructure, which is vital for controlling floods and filtering water.

Sorry, Roger Pielke, climate change is causing more disasters

typhoon haiyan damage
typhoon haiyan damage

Damage in Tacloban from super Typhoon Haiyan (courtesy of The Daily Mail).

Back in March, controversial political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. published his first post for FiveThirtyEight. The piece centered on the argument that climate change is not contributing to an increase in scale of disasters globally; rather, Pielke argued, “the numbers reflect more damage from catastrophes because the world is getting wealthier.”

The piece immediately drew consternation and criticism from a number of individuals and even prompted Nate Silver to commission a formal response from MIT climate scientists Kerry Emanuel. In particular, Emanuel and fellow climate scientist Michael Mann criticized Pielke’s decision to normalize GDP data. As Emanuel wrote,

To begin with, it’s not necessarily appropriate to normalize damages by gross domestic product (GDP) if the intent is to detect an underlying climate trend. GDP increase does not translate in any obvious way to damage increase; in fact, wealthier countries can better afford to build stronger structures and to protect assets (for example, build seawalls and pass and enforce building regulations). A grass hut will be completely destroyed by a hurricane, but a modern steel office building will only be partially damaged; damage does not scale linearly with the value of the asset.

Pielke’s critics also noted that he used an oddly brief time span for his investigation (1990-2013), that his use of global data tends to cover up significant differences in disaster damages among regions, and that he does not account for disaster damages that have been avoided due to investments in disaster mitigation and risk reduction. There’s also the fact that he includes geological disasters (i.e. earthquakes and volcanic eruptions) in an analysis that purportedly dismisses climate change as a factor; would it really have been that hard to get the original data on climate-related disasters directly from EM-DAT?

Not suprisingly, Pielke and a number of his friends, colleagues, and allies defended the piece, portraying Pielke as the victim of a coordinated witch hunt from climate activists and radical environmentalist bloggers. In an interview with Pielke, Keith Kloor, someone with whom I have disagreed on many occasions but respect, wrote that various commenters had “used slanderous language in an attempt to discredit” Pielke’s work. The basic argument is that few people had any real qualms with the research itself; instead, Pielke’s critics could not escape their personal feelings towards him and allowed those to color their critiques of his work.

Disaster frequency in the Asia-Pacific region

All of this is just an excessively long introduction to a new study published this week in the journal Climatic Change. In the article, researchers Vinod Thomas of the Asian Development Bank, Jose Ramon G. Albert of Philippine Institute for Development Studies, and Cameron Hepburn from Oxford University (herein known as TAH) “examine the importance of three principal factors, exposure, vulnerability and climate change, taken together, in the rising threat of natural disasters in Asia-Pacific” during the period from 1971-2010.

Now, there are three key reasons why this article piqued my interest and why its results are relevant to the topic at hand, particularly in contrast to Pielke’s research:

  1. The Asia-Pacific region typically accounts for at least a plurality of all disaster metrics – frequency, victims, and economic damages. From 2002-2011, according to EM-DAT (PDF, see page 27), Asia-Pacific was home to 39.6% of disaster events, 86.6% of disaster victims, and 47.9% of economic losses.
  2. The overwhelming majority of disaster events, losses, and victims in Asia result from climate-related disasters. For instance, the region accounts for 40% of all flood events (PDF, see page 6) over the last 30 years, and three-quarters of all flood-related mortality occurs in just three Asian countries – Bangladesh, China, and India.
  3. Both the size of the region’s populations and economies have grown dramatically over the past 40 years. As the figure below demonstrates, East and South Asia have seen GDP per capita growth rates of 8.4% and 5.6%, respectively, easily outpacing other regions. Asia-Pacific is also rapidly urbanizing. From 1950 to 2010, the number of Asians living in urban areas grew seven fold to 1.77 billion (PDF, see page 32). Many of these individuals live in areas highly exposed to disasters; for instance, 18% of all urbanized Asians live in low elevation coastal zones. Accordingly, if population growth and increased exposure to disaster risk were the ultimate drivers of increasing disaster occurrence, Asia would likely be the test case.

So, does this new research validate Pielke’s assertions that disasters are not becoming more frequent and, if they are (which they aren’t), it has nothing to do with manmade climate change?

In a word, no.

Unlike Pielke, who apparently believes that normalized economic losses represents an appropriate proxy for disaster occurrence, TAH actually examine the frequency of intense disasters over a four-decade period. And whereas Pielke considers damages from geological disasters, which, – given the fact that we have not suddenly entered an age of earthquakes – are a function of increasing physical and economic exposure, these authors focus exclusively on climatological (droughts, heat waves) and hydrometeorological (floods, tropical storms, etc.) disasters, which can be influenced by a changing climate.

Moreover, TAH only consider the occurrence of intense disasters, which they define “as those causing at least 100 deaths or affecting the survival needs of at least 1,000 people.” The use of this metric ensures that any increase in the number of observed disasters is unlikely to be the result of better reporting mechanisms alone, countering Pielke’s assertion that any perceived increase “is solely a function of perception.”

TAH explore the frequency of climate-related disasters in 43 Asian-Pacific countries, using both random and country-fixed effects*, which provides them with a greater sense of the validity of their results. They use the log of population density as a proxy for population exposure, the natural log of real income per capita as a proxy for socioeconomic vulnerability, and both average annual temperature and precipitation anomalies as proxies for climate hazards. Additionally, they break the data into 5 subregions and the timeframe into decade-long spans as sensitivity tests.

Climate change is increasing the frequency of disasters in Asia-Pacific

Results show that both population exposure and changes in climate hazards have a statistically significant influence on the frequency of hydrometeorological disasters. For each 1% increase in population density and the annual average precipitation anomaly, the frequency of such events increases by 1.2% and 0.6%, respectively. The authors then applied these results to historical trends in three Asia-Pacific states – Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. As a result, a moderate increase in the precipitation anomaly of 8 millimeters per month (well within the observed changes for Southeast Asia over the past decade) leads to 1 additional hydrometerological disaster every 5-6 years for Indonesia, every 3 years for the Philippines, and every 9 years for Thailand.

In contrast, the models suggest that only changes in precipitation and temperature anomalies affect the frequency of climatological disasters. While a 1 unit increase in the average precipitation anomaly (logically) produces a 3% decrease in the number of droughts and heat waves, an equivalent jump in the annual average temperature anomaly leads to 72% increase.

It is not surprising that population exposure would play a role in determining the frequency of disaster events; if a tropical storm hits an uninhabited island, it doesn’t get recorded as a disaster. But what is surprising, if you take Pielke at his word, is the clear influence of our changing climate. As TAH conclude,

This study finds that anthropogenic climate change is associated with the frequency of intense natural disasters in Asia-Pacific countries. A major implication of this is that, in addition to dealing with exposure and vulnerability, disaster prevention would benefit from addressing climate change through reducing man made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Ultimately, there can be no question that climate change will, is, and has changed the frequency and nature of disasters globally. That’s not to say that exposure and vulnerability are not playing an important role; we know they are. Bending over backwards to inject climate change into every event and subject, as some climate activists are prone to do, is misleading and irresponsible. But so is cherry picking data to downplay its role in shaping the nature and scope of disaster events, when the data tell us otherwise.

*Obviously I am, by no means, an economist or statistician of any repute. That said, here is how TAH define the difference between random and country-fixed effects: “In panel data analysis, while the random effects model assumes that individual (e.g. country) specific factors are uncorrelated with the independent variables, the fixed effects model recognizes that the individual specific factors are correlated with the independent variables.” Accordingly, because there is likely some correlation between the independent variables, it is impossible to assume that they are completely exogenous variables.

Will climate change disasters really lead to more conflict? Maybe.

naval station pensacola
naval station pensacola

Damage to Naval Air Station Pensacola following Hurricane Ivan in 2004 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

The US military has devoted a considerable amount of attention to climate change, which makes sense given the various risks it poses to military operations. These risks include potential increased demand for humanitarian responses to climatic disasters and the threat of climatic changes, such as stronger tropical storms and sea level rise, to existing military installations. For instance, Hurricane Ivan knocked one of the Navy’s key bases, Naval Air Station Pensacola, out of commission for a year.

Climate change’s most severe potential military threat – increasing the risk of violent conflicts – is also its least likely, by far. Yet, unsurprisingly, this has gotten the lion’s share of attention from the media.

Last week, Eric Holthaus at Slate published an interview with retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley. The piece is worth a read. I would say the Rear Admiral’s comments accurately reflect the views of many military officials who are concerned about climate change.

Let me just preface this by noting that Rear Admiral Titley has forgotten a hell of a lot more about military strategy, history, and operations than I will ever learn. But I do take exception with the way that he framed the issue:

Let me give you a few examples of how that might play out. You could imagine a scenario in which both Russia and China have prolonged droughts. China decides to exert rights on foreign contracts and gets assertive in Africa. If you start getting instability in large powers with nuclear weapons, that’s not a good day.

Here’s another one: We basically do nothing on emissions. Sea level keeps rising, three to six feet by the end of the century. Then, you get a series of super-typhoons into Shanghai and millions of people die. Does the population there lose faith in Chinese government? Does China start to fissure? I’d prefer to deal with a rising, dominant China any day.

If you take Rear Admiral Titley’s comments at face value, you’d be forgiven if you came away believing that climate-related disasters may inevitably spawn violent conflict. This is an all-too-common perception, one to which I used to subscribe.

What can we say about disasters and conflict?

But the fact remains that nothing about disasters inherently leads to conflict. Quite the opposite, really. There have been a few studies that find such a connection, including a one in 2008 from Philip Nel and Marjolein Righarts (PDF), who examined the connections between various forms of disasters and the risk of civil conflict onset. They found that disasters increase the likelihood that civil conflict will occur. Such disasters may create incentives for rebel groups to attack state institutions, or they can generate new grievances from heightened resource scarcity.

But an array of studies dispute these findings. Back in the 1960s, sociologist Charles Fritz suggested that disasters often alter social relations and help to mitigate pre-existing cleavages within communities. If securitization requires the existence of an “other” against which people can organize, the disaster itself may take that role, leading to the development of a  “common community of sufferers,” that promotes social cohesion and cooperation.

Ilan Kelman has further suggested that this ameliorative effect can take place at both intra and interstate levels, leading to “disaster diplomacy.” He has cataloged dozens of examples of disaster diplomacy, ranging from earthquakes in Greece and Turkey (PDF) to the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (paywall) in Aceh. Overall, the preponderance of evidence suggests that disasters do not inherently precipitate violence.

So can disasters lead to conflict?

Disasters, on their own, are highly unlikely to cause conflict. But the politics of the disaster response, or the lack thereof, is a different story. Think of Hurricane Katrina; it wasn’t the storm itself that caused so much outrage and discord, but the massive failure of the Bush administration to respond adequately to the needs of survivors.

Weak governments that are poorly equipped and lack sufficient international support are unlikely to respond effectively to disasters. This outcome could potentially anger survivors and provide them with incentives to take up arms, perhaps in an attempt to seize additional resources. But the real problem emerges when governments intentionally divert relief aid for their own gain or to serve their own political ends.

On December 23, 1972, a devastating earthquake rattled Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The quake destroyed three-quarters of the city’s housing stock and killed at least 11,000 Nicaraguans as they slept. Strongman Anastasio Somoza immediately began to abuse his power to take advantage of the catastrophe. According to a 2010 Miami Herald article,

Somoza began directing reconstruction efforts from a family estate on the outskirts of Managua. Cabinet ministers, businessmen, foreign officials and international relief bosses — many of them addressing Somoza as “Mr. President” — trooped in and out all day long. It was Somoza with whom foreign diplomats negotiated aid packages; it was Somoza who decided Managua would be rebuilt.

While later independent investigations cast some doubt upon the scale and significance of the profiteering, it left an indelible mark upon Nicaraguans. As evidence of the corruption mounted, event the conservative Catholic Church turned on the regime. These events contributed to a resurgence of the Sandanista movement, which formally took up arms three years later.

managua earthquake damage

An aerial image of the damage to Managua following the devastating 1972 earthquake (courtesy of the US Geological Survey).

Evidence suggests that inadequate and/or politically motivated disaster responses may have fed into subsequent conflict in Bangladesh (following the 1970 Bhola cyclone), Guatemala (after the 1976 Guatemala earthquake), and Sri Lanka (after the Indian Ocean tsunami).

How else might disasters spawn conflict?

When conflict occurs in the wake of disasters, it is not always an unintended and unforeseen consequence. In fact, according to Travis Nelson, it can actually be a survival tactic (paywall) employed by weak states. Nelson suggested that weak leaders may be more likely to launch small, diversionary conflicts in order to distract from inadequate disaster responses and generate nationalistic solidarity.

In July 1959, severe flooding occurred along the Yellow River, killing approximately two million Chinese. The disaster occurred at a time when the Maoist regime was weak and dealing with several crises, including the catastrophic Great Leap Forward. In the midst of these crises, the regime was unprepared for the floods, and Chinese elites began openly to question Mao’s rule. In response, the regime launched a series of border skirmishes with India, which eventually fed into the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The war aroused nationalist fervor and distracted from other challenges.

But do disasters really cause conflict?

In a word, maybe. But now we’re wading into a difficult and highly complex area that deals with endogeneity. In statistical modeling, a variable is said to be endogenous when it can be affected by other variables within the model. In other words, we cannot truly isolate the variable from the effects of others, making it difficult to determine whether or not its effects are mitigated by other factors.

As I’ve written before and will continue to say until I’m blue in the face, there’s no such thing as a natural disaster. Disaster events are inherently shaped and controlled by the extant political, economic, and social environments. As a result, disasters do not occur in a vacuum, and we can’t treat them as such. So even if it seems likely that a disaster helped cause a conflict, it would be difficult to say that it was an exogenous effect, as its effects would likely be influenced by existing political and social dynamics.

While it’s true that the 1972 Guatemala earthquake helped reignite civil war (paywall), as it seems to be, it’s also true that the vulnerability of Mayan peasants to the earthquake’s effects was dictated by structural inequalities and existing violent conflict. So can we really say that the quake caused the subsequent return to war? Yes. No. Maybe. Honestly, it depends on how you define “cause.”

Did climate change cause Syria’s civil war then?

Keith Kloor hammered this point home in his recent post on the question of whether Syria’s drought caused its brutal civil war. Kloor takes Tom Friedman to task for suggesting that the Assad regime’s response to the drought helped fuel the war but failing to acknowledge that the regime’s actions also helped facilitate the drought. He quotes, at length, from an article last year where authors Jeannie Sowers and John Waterbury argue,

When terms such as ‘stressor’ or ‘threat multiplier’ are applied to drought, shifting rainfall patterns, floods, and other environmental events in the Middle East, they often obscure rather than illuminate the causes of uprisings and political change. There is perhaps no better illustration of this dynamic than Syria, where a closer examination shows that government policy helped construct vulnerability to the effects of the drought during the 2000s. State policies regarding economic development, political control in rural areas, and water management determined how drought impacted the population and how the population, in turn, responded.

So yes, the regime’s response to the drought – which may have been driven by climate change – helped incite the rebellion. But the regime’s policies also helped drive the drought in the first place. So did the drought and – by extension – climate change cause the rebellion? Yes. No. Maybe. It depends on how you define “cause.”

So will climate change really be different then?

Probably. In a 1987 article, Beverley Cuthbertson and Joanne Nigg consider under what circumstances a disaster may produce discord among survivors (paywall), which they term a “nontherapeutic community.” They find that, unlike with geological and weather disasters, victims do not see manmade disasters, like chemical spills, as natural. Accordingly, survivors often disagree as to whether a disaster has actually occurred and who is accountable. These disagreements can lead to the emergence of “victim clusters,” elevating tensions. In extreme circumstances, this could potentially lead to violence.

Given the fact that climate change is unequivocally manmade and that it has increasingly been linked to disasters, like droughts and heatwaves, it’s possible that climate-related disasters could be different. Disaster survivors could point to climate change’s fingerprints in the events that damage their livelihoods and use it as a call to take up arms. It seems unlikely, but it’s hard to be sure. Clearly, manmade climate change is different than anything we have dealt with in the past, and it is likely to change our calculus on these issues.

We may be able to say, to this point, that disasters probably don’t directly cause conflict, but as my grad school professor Ken Conca always says, you should be careful about driving forward by looking through the rear view mirror.

Could climate change actually increase winter mortality?

great lakes ice cover
great lakes ice cover

Ice engulfs much of the Great Lakes in this image from February 19 (courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory).

If you already thought that the impacts of climate change were incredibly complicated and, often, downright confusing, I’ve got bad news for you – things just got even more complex.

For years, researchers focusing on climate change concluded that increases in heat-related mortality would, by and large, be accompanied by decreasing cold-related mortality. As winter temperatures warm – which they have at an extremely fast rate – the health risk posed by extreme cold is assumed to decrease in a nearly inverse proportion. In its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), for instance, the IPCC highlighted research that projected cold weather deaths would decrease by 25.3% in the United Kingdom from the 1990s to the 2050s.

But a new study in Nature Climate Change calls this assumption into question (paywall). As the study’s authors note:

An extensive literature attests to the fact that changes in daily temperature influence health outcomes at the local levels and that [excess winter deaths] are influenced by temperature. However, our data suggest that year-to-year variation in EWDs is no longer explained by the year-to-year variation in winter temperature: winter temperatures now contribute little to the yearly variation in excess winter mortality so that milder winters resulting from climate change are unlikely to offer a winter health dividend.

In order to explore the potential effects of climate change on winter mortality rates, the authors analyzed the factors which contributed the number of excess winter deaths (EWDs) in the UK from 1951-2011. They found that, across this entire span, housing quality, heating costs, the number of cold winter days, and influenza accounted for 77% of variation in annual EWDs.

cold weather death correlations

These charts depict the correlation between excess winter deaths and either the number of cold days (left) or influenza activity in the UK. As the charts suggest, the number of cold days drove excess mortality until around 1976, when the flu became the dominant factor.

But, when they further broke the data down into three 20-year timeframes (1951-1971, 1971-1991, and 1991-2011), they concluded that, while housing quality and the number of cold days were the primary drivers of winter mortality from 1951-1971, this effect disappeared after that point. Instead, flu activity became the only significant driver from 1976-2011. Accordingly, as they argue,

[W]e show unequivocally that the correlation between the number of cold winter days per year and EWDs, which was strong until the mid 1970s, no longer exists.

But, the authors don’t stop here. They continue by explaining that climate records actually suggest that “winter temperature volatility has increased in the UK over the past 20 years,” despite global warming. As I discussed in a previous post on heat-related mortality, the ability of people to acclimate to local weather patterns is a key determinant in temperature-related mortality rates.

As winters continue to warm, people will slowly see their comfort baseline shift; accordingly, when extreme cold snaps, like the Polar Vortex that hit the Eastern US in January, occur,

The nefarious effects on EWDs could be substantial, with especially the vulnerable being caught off-guard by abrupt changes in temperature.

Due to this increasing volatility in winter temperatures, population growth, and the continued graying of populations (people aged 65 and over are far more susceptible to influenza), it’s entirely possible that global warming could actually increase cold weather mortality rates.

A similar study from fall 2012 (paywall), also published in Nature Climate Change, lends further credence to this research. The article examined the influence of climate change on mortality rates from extreme temperatures in Stockholm; the authors compared mortality rates from 1900-1929 to those from 1980-2009.

mean winter temperatures stockholm

This chart depicts the distribution of the 26-day moving average for mean winter temperatures in Stockholm. The black bars, which show data from 1980-2009, suggest that baseline winter temperatures have increased over the last century.

The study, which examined changes in mortality rates from both extreme cold and extreme heat, found increases in both phenomena. The number of extreme cold events increased to 251 in 1980-2009 from 220 during 1900-1929. This change led to an additional 75 deaths.

Significantly, this study echoed two key findings from the UK article. First, cold weather extremes appear to have increased in frequency over the last century, likely as a result of global warming. Secondly, little evidence exists to suggest that people have adapted to the changing climate. According to the authors of the Stockholm article,

The stable and constant mortality impact of cold and heat over the past three decades, independent of the number of extreme events, shows the difficulties in adapting to changing temperatures…Future changes in the frequency and intensity of heat waves might be of a magnitude large enough to overwhelm the ability of individuals and communities to adapt. The expected increase in the number of elderly and other potentially vulnerable groups, in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population, could make the impact of temperature extremes on human health even more severe.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more complicated, it can. Two studies published in 2009, one focusing on Sweden and one focusing on Italy (paywall), established an inverse relationship between weather-related mortality rates in the winter months and mortality rates during the following summer.

In other words, because the vulnerability factors for both cold- and heat-related mortality overlap to such a degree, any decrease in winter mortality due to global warming will likely be offset by a corresponding increase in excess mortality during the summer months. As the authors of the Italian study wrote,

Low-mortality winters may inflate the pool of the elderly susceptible population at risk for dying from high temperature the following summer.

So, to all of the climate deniers or “skeptics” who claim that global warming will somehow be beneficial – I’m looking at you, Congresswoman Blackburn – please take note: climate scientists keep discovering new ways that life is going to get drastically worse, unless we act now to slash carbon emissions and prepare for the warming that’s already locked in.

Extreme heat increases migration from rural areas

hanna lake dried up
hanna lake dried up

A man walks through the desiccated remains of Hanna Lake in Balochistan, which dried up during a decade-long drought in the region (courtesy of Al Jazeera).

The link between extreme weather and migration remains ambiguous, despite the hype surrounding so-called climate refugees, but new research appears to bolster the connection.

A new study published this week in Nature Climate Change (paywall) explores the effects of different disasters on human migration patterns in rural Pakistan. In light of the severe floods that have affected Pakistan in recent years, particularly the historic 2010 floods that affected 20 million people, the authors focused on the impact that extreme rainfall and temperatures have on patterns of migration in the country. The study examines the relationship over a 21-year period (1991-2012), relying on data from three longitudinal surveys.

The authors analyze several key weather variables, including rainfall during the monsoon season, average temperatures during the Rabi (winter wheat) season, flood intensity, and a 12-month moisture index measurement.

The various measures of rainfall have no significant effect on the mobility of men or women, either within or outside of the villages surveyed. In fact, the results suggest that periods of high rainfall actually decrease out-migration within the villages, perhaps due to the fact that farm and non-farm incomes increase significantly during these periods.

These results correspond with previous studies examining the relationship between rainfall and migration. Afifi and Warner examined the influence of 13 different forms of environmental degradation on patterns of international migration. They found that only one of the 13 – flooding – failed to increase international migration flows. In addition, Raleigh, Jordan, and Salehyan (PDF) concluded in 2008 that Bangladeshis affected by flooding migrated just two miles from their homes, on average, and that the vast majority of those displaced returned home shortly after the flood waters receded.

In contrast to flooding, this study did find a robust relationship between extreme heat and out migration flows. The authors note that males in rural Pakistan are 11 times more likely to leave their villages when exposed to extremely high temperatures. These results hold for both land-owners and non-land owners, as well as asset-rich and asset-poor Pakistanis. This outcome likely stems from the fact that extreme heat decreases both farm and non-farm incomes by 36% and 16%, respectively.

The authors also find that both men and women appear far more likely to migrate during periods of both extreme high temperatures and low rainfall. This result indicates that out migration flows are likely to spike during extreme droughts.

While droughts often appear to develop due largely to below-average rainfall, they actually originate through a much more subtle interaction of precipitation and temperature. Less rainfall tends to lower soil moisture levels, which, in turn, increases heat transfer from the soil to the air and elevates surface albedo. These effects drive up temperature further, often creating a positive feedback cycle by which lower rainfall and higher temperatures work together to drive prolonged droughts.

The results of the study have important implications for governments, donor organizations, and NGOs operating in a greenhouse world. As global temperatures continue to rise, we already know that the likelihood of extreme heatwaves will spike dramatically. This outcome will likely increase rural out-migration in the developing world. Moreover, the authors suggest that their work will require donors and aid agencies to reconsider how they respond to and plan for disasters in the future.

Existing flood relief programs may potentially crowd out private coping mechanisms such as migration, particularly for the poor and risk-averse living in flood-prone areas. Our results also show the important role of heat stress — a climate shock which has attracted relatively less relief — in lowering farm and non-farm income and spurring migration. Sustainable development will require policies that enhance adaptation to weather-related risks for farmers and for enterprises tied to the rural economy. Shifting relief towards investments in heat-resistant varieties, producing and disseminating better weather forecasting data and weather insurance, and policies that encourage welfare-enhancing migratory responses might improve individual abilities to adapt to an array of weather-related risks.

What separates a storm from a disaster?

two girls tornado destruction
two girls tornado destruction

Two girls look over the devastation left by the tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma in May (courtesy of MSNBC).

My last post drew far more attention that I could have ever imagined. Unsurprisingly, it also garnered criticism, some of which was warranted. First, Typhoon Haiyan’s initial reported death toll of 10,000 appears – thankfully – to have been inflated. As of Monday morning, the Philippines national disaster agency had confirmed that the storm killed 3,976 people, with an additional 1,598 still missing.

Haiyan provides yet another reminder that, in the immediate aftermath of disasters, reports of the number of people killed are almost always wrong. A week after Hurricane Katrina, then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin warned that perhaps 10,000 people had died; the final death toll stood at 1,833. Days after Cyclone Nargis crashed into Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta on May 2, 2008, the AP reported that the storm had killed roughly 350 people. After the floodwaters had receded, Cyclone Nargis emerged as the third most destructive storm in modern history, killing 138,373 Burmese.

Another individual noted that a storm as powerful as Typhoon Haiyan would have caused significant damage anywhere it hit, regardless of the level of development or political situation in the affected areas. This is probably true. Haiyan may have been a once in a lifetime storm. As I noted, some forecasters believe it was the most powerful storm at landfall in recorded history.

Given the fact that less powerful storms have wreaked havoc in significantly more developed parts of the world, it’s hard to imagine that Haiyan would not have become a severe disaster had it hit New York or London or Tokyo. Accordingly, and given the fact that there is no such thing as a “natural” disaster, this may lead you to as what separates a storm from a disaster.

In a word – capacity.

I described the three variables that form disaster risk – a natural hazard, physical and economic exposure, and socioeconomic vulnerability. While these three define the risk that a disaster will occur, there is a fourth variable missing.

The ability of an individual or a community to sustain and overcome the potentially destructive effects of an extreme event ultimately determines whether or not a natural hazard will become a disaster. Individuals with low levels of capacity and high levels of vulnerability often sit on the precipice of disaster on a daily basis. As Wisner et al noted, for marginalized individuals with low levels of social, political, and financial capital, “the boundary between disaster and everyday life can be very thin.” Those of us who can afford health care and homeowner’s insurance may be able to overcome a minor car accident or house fire. For those who lack these assets, such events may constitute life-altering disasters that trap them into a permanent state of emergency.

Vulnerability and capacity are determined by a cumulative set of decisions that can take place over a period of years, if not decades. These decisions are rooted in dominant social structures and ideologies, which unevenly distribute disaster risk among citizens. Anthony Oliver-Smith has described the May 1970 Ancash earthquake that struck Yungay, Peru as a “500 year earthquake (PDF).” By this, he meant the vulnerability to this seismic hazard was borne from the destruction of Incan infrastructure and land use policies that started with the Spanish conquistadors. While the proximate hazards that contributed to the disaster were local, the broader systems in which the disasters occurred grew from a set of structures remote in both space and time which overwhelmed the limited capacity of people in Yungay.

red cross hazard mapping india

An IFRC staff member conducts a participatory hazard mapping exercise with women in Varap, a village in India’s Maharashtra state (courtesy of the IFRC).

But focusing solely on vulnerability is not an effective strategy for reducing disaster risk. People facing disasters have developed a variety of coping mechanisms and strategies to help them survive. These form the heart of their adaptive capacities, and it is important for development and humanitarian actors to pay attention to these as well. The International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (ICRC) has been central in developing this concept. Its Vulnerability & Capacity Analysis (VCA) tool allows actors to use participatory assessments to identify both the vulnerabilities and capacities of people living in harm’s way. Only through this process can we determine both the risks that must be mitigated and the existing assets that we can build upon.

In the wake of disasters like Haiyan, there exists a window of opportunity during which change can take place. Deluding ourselves by claiming that disasters are natural events only serves to ensure we maintain the status quo. But treating survivors as nothing more than victims who need our help and our solutions is just as dangerous.

People living on the island of Leyte understand the threat of typhoons far better than I ever will. Accordingly, they already had ways to endure them long before Haiyan made landfall. What they need is not for us to bring solutions to them. They need support in identifying what assets they already possess and the resources necessary to build upon and enhance them.

We’ll never be able to create a world in which extreme weather events no longer occur. And the science suggests that every ton of CO2 we pump into the atmosphere will only increase their frequency. But we already know that investing in disaster risk reduction pays dividends. If we make it a priority to invest in building upon existing capacities and minimizing vulnerabilities, we may be able to create a world in which disasters are far less common and less destructive.

There’s no such thing as a natural disaster

typhoon haiyan image
typhoon haiyan image

An image of Super Typhoon Haiyan as it appeared the morning of Friday, November 8, just before making landfall in the Philippines (courtesy of the Capital Weather Gang).

As we all know, Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines over the weekend. At its peak, Haiyan was perhaps the strongest tropical storm ever recorded at landfall, packing sustained winds of at least 195 mph with gusts of 235 mph. The United Nations and the Philippine Red Cross are both warning that 10,000 people may have been killed in Tacloban alone; this would make Haiyan the deadliest disaster in the history of the Philippines (though President Aquino is revising those numbers down).

I should note, however, that the true scale of a disaster is measured not in the number of dead, but in the number affected and displaced. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Haiyan affected 11.3 million people and displaced at least 673,000 Filipinos. In contrast, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed perhaps 250,000 people throughout Southern Asia but affected roughly 5 million.

The scope and scale of the devastation in the Philippines is, for lack of a better term, biblical. If you are in a position to provide support, I encourage you to make a monetary donation to the Philippine Red Cross or one of InterAction’s partner organizations working on the ground. Please donate money only. Survivors and relief organizations know what is needed, and they can source materials much more quickly and cheaply from regional sources.

As individuals and media outlets have tried to grasp the sheer scale of the devastation, they have almost unanimously referred to Haiyan as the worst natural disaster in Philippines history. The search term “Haiyan natural disaster” brings back at least 49,300,000 hits on Google, including headlines such as:

Let me be blunt: there is no such thing as a “natural” disaster. Disasters are complex, multifaceted, frequent, and overwhelming. We have a hard time fully grasping the nuance and complexity of each disaster – particularly one that strikes halfway across the world – so we turn to calling it a “natural” event. The term natural disaster is, in essence, a heuristic that we fall back upon in order to interpret the event.

In their landmark work, At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters, Wisner, Blaikie, Davis, and Cannon term the tendency to view disasters in this light as the “myth of naturalness.” As Comfort et al put it (PDF):

A disaster is widely perceived as an event that is beyond human control; the capricious hand of fate moves against unsuspecting communities creating massive destruction and prompting victims to call for divine support as well as earthly assistance.

But a tropical storm or a tornado does not a disaster make. Rather, the risk of a disaster is a product of three variables: a natural hazard (e.g. a fault line or damaging winds), physical and economic exposure to the hazard, and socioeconomic vulnerability. To borrow liberally once more from Wisner et al:

Disasters happen when hazards hit vulnerable communities whose inherent capacity is not enough to protect itself and easily recover from its damaging effects. Disasters are the product of the social, economic and political environment.

As I tried explaining to a colleague of mine last Spring, Superstorm Sandy in DC was a hazard or an extreme weather event. Superstorm Sandy on the Jersey Shore or in Lower Manhattan was a disaster. Now, granted, most of this difference was due to the severity of the natural hazard as a result of weather dynamics. But Sandy may very well have been a disaster for someone living in a flood zone in Southwest DC (high levels of exposure) or to a homeless person without access to safe shelter from the storm (high levels of exposure and vulnerability).

Pressure and Release Model chart

The Pressure and Release Model, one way to depict the construction of disaster risk (courtesy of Wikipedia).

To their credit, a lot of journalists are starting to get it. Seth Borenstein has an excellent overview today of the social, economic, and political drivers of Haiyan.

Meteorologists point to extreme poverty and huge growth in population — much of it in vulnerable coastal areas with poor construction, including storm shelters that didn’t hold up against Haiyan.

More than 4 out of 10 Filipinos live in a storm-prone vulnerable city of more than 100,000, according to a 2012 World Bank study. The Haiyan-devastated provincial capital of Tacloban nearly tripled from about 76,000 to 221,000 in just 40 years.

About one-third of Tacloban’s homes have wooden exterior walls. And 1 in 7 homes have grass roofs, according to the census office.

Those factors — especially flimsy construction — were so important that a weaker storm would have still caused almost as much devastation, McNoldy said.

Andy Revkin had a similar analysis of the massive tornado that ravaged Moore, Oklahoma in May over at Dot Earth. But, unfortunately, these types of reports are the exception that proves the rule. Most media coverage falls back upon the “myth of naturalness.” Others obsess over debating whether or not we can attribute each individual disaster to climate change. The science of attribution is improving by leaps and bounds, and perhaps in a year or so, scientists will be able to tell us whether or not they can identify the specific fingerprints of a changed climate in the DNA of Haiyan.

But taking such an all-or-nothing approach to disasters is irresponsible. Every disaster is different, not all natural hazard events are disasters, and whether or not climate change acts through individual extreme events is not the point – it’s our new baseline. Instead, we need to understand that, contrary to conventional wisdom, humans can and do influence all three of the disaster variables. And, as a result, the number of disasters has spiked over the last century. I’ll briefly explore how we have altered each variable below.

chart of disaster occurrence 1900-2011

The number of reported disasters increased dramatically from 1900-2011, from roughly 100 per decade during the first half of the 20th century to 385 per year from 2007-2011 (courtesy of EM-DAT).

Exposure

Population and economic growth and rapid urbanization have heightened our exposure to disasters significantly in recent years. According to the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), the number of people and total GDP exposed to flood risks increased by 28% and 98% (PDF), respectively, from 1990-2007. As economies develop and individuals build fixed assets like homes and infrastructure in disaster-prone areas (e.g. floodplains), economic exposure spikes. At least 3.4 billion people are now exposed to one or more hazards, while 25 million square kilometers of land is hazard-prone.

Rapid and unplanned economic development has taken its toll on ecosystems, which provide vital sources of natural protection against disasters. For instance, despite the fact that intact mangrove forests can reduce the flow rate of tsunamis by up to 90%, at least half of all mangrove forests have disappeared globally. In the Philippines, 70% of mangroves were destroyed (PDF) from 1918-1993. This destruction has substantially increased physical exposure to disasters and reduced the natural environment’s ability to mitigate the risk.

Vulnerability

Of the three disaster variables, vulnerability is the most closely linked to the social, economic, and political environments. By definition, some groups appear more vulnerable to disaster risks than others. Key intervening variables include class, occupation, caste, ethnicity, gender, disability, physical and psychological health, age, immigration status, and social networks. One’s ability to access the resources s/he needs to cope with and adapt to stress – their “architecture of entitlements” (paywall) – is determined by these various factors, which shape social relations, political contexts, and structures of domination.

Differential vulnerability helps to ensure that different individuals and groups weather (no pun intended) disasters better than others. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance, women were three to four times more likely to die than men in affected areas. This outcome occurred for a variety of reasons. Due to cultural norms, most women wore bulky clothing that covered most of their bodies; when this got wet, it weighed them down. Women were also far less likely to be able to swim (PDF) given their social roles and religious mores.

Natural Hazards

Interestingly, even natural hazards –the most natural of the three variables – have also undergone changes due to human actions.  Global temperatures have increased 0.85°C since 1880. Since the 1970s, global average precipitation has decreased by 10cm per year, but it has increased by more than 20% in certain regions (including the Northeast and Midwestern US). Accordingly, the number of extreme events associated with climate change rose by 50% over this three decade period. There even appears to be evidence that human activities can alter seismic risks. Researchers have connected a string of earthquakes in states from Ohio to Oklahoma to the high-pressure injection of wastewater into underground wells.

While it is difficult for reporters on a deadline to analyze the social, economic, and political drivers of various disasters, it is important that we begin to inch away from the myth of naturalness. Placing the blame for every disaster on the “capricious hand” of God or nature is dangerous and irresponsible.

First, it strips robs disaster survivors of their agency. They are just poor victims suffering from Acts of God. Secondly, in places where disasters are common (like the Philippines) it allows people who are disconnected from the events to blame the victims for not moving away from the threat. Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – this mindset tends to make us complacent. If we accept disasters as natural events that we cannot control, what is our incentive to invest in disaster risk reduction strategies like curbing poverty, replanting mangrove forests, or hardening critical infrastructure? What is the hook for curbing carbon emissions to mitigate climate change?

The first step to addressing the rise in disasters worldwide is to admit that disasters aren’t natural. They’re manmade. Maybe if we do that we can get off our asses and do something about them.

Free parking is terrible public policy

warehouse district surface parking

I don’t normally make a point to reply to letters to the editor in the Plain Dealer. To do so would be to write myself a one-way ticket down a slippery slope into the Valley of Derp. That said, this letter from Nancy Kosmin was so wrong-headed that it called for a response.

shoppers at cleveland flea

Shoppers explore two of the dozens of vendors at the September Cleveland Flea (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

In the letter, Ms. Kosmin lamented about how difficult it was for her and others to find parking on the streets around Sterle’s Country House. Sterle’s is home to the Cleveland Flea, a new monthly flea market that features food, drinks, clothing, and wares from a variety of Northeast Ohio vendors. Ms. Kosmin could not believe that there was limited parking on the narrow side streets around Sterle’s or that Cleveland Police had the audacity to ticket people parking on East 55th Street – despite the fact that it is illegal to park on East 55th.

I’ve written in the past about Cleveland’s car culture, but I’ve only touched briefly on the issue of parking here. If you thought people were obsessed with driving here, you’ve never spoken to them about parking. From epic battles over charging for parking at the famed West Side Market to entire articles published on which suburban mall parking lot is safest for your car, Clevelanders seem to think that free parking is a God-given right.

Of course, this love of free parking ignores the various externalities associated with the practice. Donald Shoup, an expert on the economics of parking and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, has documented these impacts at length over the decades. Although 99% of all car trips include free parking and 95% of all automobile commuters park for free in the US, there is no such thing as “free” parking. As Shoup has written (PDF):

When we shop in a store, eat in a restaurant, or see a movie, we pay for parking indirectly because its cost is included in the prices of merchandise, meals, and theater tickets. We unknowingly support our cars with almost every commercial transaction we make because a small share of the money changing hands pays for parking…Even people who don’t own a car have to pay for “free” parking.

All this “free” parking carries serious costs. First, parking represents a classic Tragedy of the Commons. Free parking is a common-pool resource, and everyone has an incentive to exploit it. However, as with all commons, when every user consumes too much of it, it quickly becomes depleted. Because the free parking commons are typically exhausted, drivers often cruise around cities, searching for open spots.

Sixteen different studies from 1927-2001 have shown that drivers cruise for 8.1 minutes (PDF), on average, when looking for a parking spot; as a result, up to 30% of all traffic in downtown areas can be attributed to drivers searching for parking. In just a 15-block area in Los Angeles, this search for free curb parking led to 950,000 additional vehicles miles traveled, equivalent to four trips to the moon, 47,000 wasted gallons of gas, and 730 tons of greenhouse gas emissions (more than the cumulative GHG emissions of 49 countries in 2010).

Secondly, free parking constitutes a massive subsidy for drivers, promoting both excessive driving and sprawl-based development. In 2002, off-street parking received roughly $135-386 billion in subsidies; that same year, the US Government spent $231 billion on Medicare.

In 1997, Shoup estimated (PDF) that if a parking space that cost $124 per month was provided for free, the parking subsidy provided per mile driven was $0.27 per mile. In contrast, AAA estimated that the total cost of operating a car per mile was just $0.092 per mile. Accordingly, the subsidy provided by free parking is roughly 2.9 times greater than the cost of driving to work. This driving subsidy is greatest for shorter trips, helping to skew transportation choices away from walking, biking, and public transportation. Accordingly, “parking requirements are a fertility drug for cars.”

warehouse district surface parking

The massive surface parking lot once known as Cleveland’s Warehouse District, as seen from the Terminal Tower Observation Deck.

Thirdly, free parking and parking requirements drive up the cost of living and stymie redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods. As Professor Michael Manville has noted (PDF), forcing developers to include the cost of parking when building new housing units drives up the cost of development and becomes a barrier to investment. This crowding out effect should be greatest in areas where the cost of parking is high, where there is a large stock of older buildings, and where there is a large number of vacant buildings – in other words, the inner city.

Research from Brian Bertha in 1964 (PDF) showed that, when Oakland instituted parking requirements in 1961, construction costs increased by 18%, housing unit density fell 30%, and land values dropped by one-third. As a result, developers built larger, more expensive housing units, which negatively affected low-income residents. Manville’s work in LA supports these findings. He noted that condos without parking spaces cost $31,000 less than those with parking spaces.

Sterle’s is located in the 44103 zip code, an impoverished area. From 2007-2011, 44103 had a poverty rate of 34.5%, nearly one-quarter higher than for Cleveland as a whole. Moreover, while 26.7% all households in Cleveland lacked access to a vehicle, this number was 36.9% for households in 44103. Increasing the availability of free parking in this neighborhood may help a few visitors to the Cleveland Flea, but it would come at a high cost for residents of this neighborhood, who would face higher housing prices and even less development.

Furthermore, parking requirements have a sordid and racialized history in Northeast Ohio. In United States v. City of Parma (1980), the US District Court found that the City of Parma’s parking requirements had “the purpose and effect of severely restricting low-income housing opportunities in the City,” which “have been taken with the purpose and the effect of perpetuating a segregated community.” Bending over backwards for people driving into the city once a month would further play into these dynamics.

Call me crazy, but I had a completely different takeaway from this letter than Ms. Kosmin. Rather than seeing this episode as evidence of the plight of the poor suburban driver simply trying to exercise his/her God-given right to free parking, I see the Cleveland Flea as emblematic of the complete opposite. The event shows how parking lots can be more than just a cheap motel for your car. If utilized properly, they can actually serve as worthwhile public space that provides social, cultural, and economic value.