Why peace & international engagement may threaten Burma’s fragile ecosystems

cyclone nargis damage
cyclone nargis damage

Damage to the Irrawaddy Delta following Cyclone Nargis (courtesy of ECHO).

This article is cross-posted from New Security Beat.

Political and economic changes in Burma have been as rapid as they are surprising. In just three years, the country has gone from an isolated military dictatorship to a largely open country that is at least semi-democratic and has formally adopted a market economy. Both the European Union and the United States have eased economic sanctions, and dozens of foreign firms have moved in. Foreign direct investment increased by 160 percent in 2013 alone.

But the transition to an open and free state is far from finished and continued progress far from inevitable, as the country’s tattered ecosystems show.

Conflict and conservation

Nearly from the moment of its birth as a country, Burma has been beset by violence. Since 1948, the government has faced armed rebellions from no fewer than 30 ethnic minority groups. This constant warfare directly contributed to the military coup in 1962 and has helped drive corruption, structural violence, and economic stagnation.

Yet, counterintuitively, peace can sometimes end up being worse for the environment than war. According to Jeff McNeely, warfare among pre-industrial societies has historically led to the development of large buffer zones along borders; these buffer zones, in turn, developed into refuges for biodiversity. Modern warfare can likewise foster the development of such buffer zones, benefiting biodiversity and environmental conservation, though McNeely emphasizes that any such benefits are “incidental, inadvertent, or accidental.”

Cold War-era isolation has facilitated the development of modern refuges along the border between the Koreas and in the area surrounding the former Iron Curtain. But such havens may come under threat once the fog of war lifts. Judy Oglethorpe et al. note the environment is particularly at risk in the period immediately following conflict. Private actors move in to quickly exploit newly available resources, and post-conflict governments frequently prioritize revenues over long-term natural resource management.

One need look no further than the mid-1990s see this effect in Burma. Following the country’s second military coup in 1988, the junta began buying off the leaders of armed ethnic groups with resource revenues. In particular, the regime effectively used logging concessions to secure a number of ceasefire agreements.

However, according to Karen Ballentine and Heiko Nitzschke, “securing such ceasefires through a combination of economic inducement and military threat does not guarantee a sustainable or just peace, particularly where, as in Burma, the entrepreneurs of violence and corruption are rewarded at the expense of civilian well-being.” On the contrary, conflict economies in these areas simply morphed into “ceasefire economies,” and illegal logging flourished. After the junta reached a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army in 1994, for instance, the center of Burma’s illegal timber trade shifted to their former area of operations, along the northeast border with China.

Inequality and vulnerability

The risk of environmental damage from Burma’s modernization is not some looming threat; it is already unfolding. Current laws allow the government to seize land and distribute it to private actors without adequate compensation or informed consent. Such policies have contributed to a spike in large-scale land acquisitions or “land grabs,” with nearly 750 cases being reported in 2012-2013 alone.

Moreover, despite government attempts to curtail illegal timber exports, they have been on the rise. Burmese businesses exported more than 400,000 cubic meters of teak in 2013, double the government’s quota. The government continues to allow a handful of well-connected companies to dominate the timber industry, to the detriment of the country’s remaining forest cover – and more equitable development.

“Forestland conversion is predominately in resource-rich ethnic conflict areas – now the country’s final forest frontier – which is part of the government’s attempt at gaining greater state territorial control and access to natural resources,” wrote Forest Trends’ Kevin Woods in a report:

Many of these forestland conversion projects are promoted to local ethnic communities and elected officials as development projects to bring about peace and spur economic growth. In practice, however, these development projects have more to do with the well-connected Myanmar private company getting access to timber and land than central government and local state development goals.

Given these developments, Edward Webb et al. concluded in a January Global Environmental Change article that “recent policy developments seem poised to deeply and negatively affect remaining natural ecosystems across Myanmar.” They project that all remaining mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy Delta, one of Burma’s most densely populated regions, could disappear as early as 2019. Such an outcome would pose an existential threat to the more than 7.7 million people who live there, given the Delta’s extreme vulnerability to tropical cyclones.

After Cyclone Nargis killed more than 138,000 people in 2008, the UN Environment Program noted the loss of the mangroves and other environmental degradation played a key role in the devastation:

The cyclone’s impacts were exacerbated by earlier damage to the environment, including deforestation and degradation of mangroves, over-exploitation of natural resources such as fisheries, and soil erosion…The deterioration of the natural resource base, in effect, reduced people’s resilience against the impacts of Nargis.

Multilateral engagement could help

Peace and international engagement obviously do not doom a country to ecological catastrophe. But as it opens up, Burma is at a crossroads for environmental management the results of which will reverberate for security and development long into the future.

Engagement with environmental NGOs and international donor organizations may help. President Thein Sein has already expressed a desire to join both the European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance, and Trade Program and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Additionally, the World Conservation Society is working with the government to double the extent of protected areas in the country from 5 percent to 10 percent. These are promising signs, but the scale of the illicit timber trade, the threat of land grabbing, and the vulnerability of the Irrawaddy Delta remain huge challenges.

Recent changes represent important, positive steps towards engagement from isolation and towards peace from war. But the country needs to be proactive if it hopes to foster sustainable peace and development. If it works carefully in concert with the international community, it may be able to secure both. However, if Burma fails to learn from the failed ceasefires of the 1990s, by opting to prioritize rapid economic growth over true sustainable development, it may be doomed to repeat the past.

Climate hawks should focus more on the persuadable, less on the trolls

tea party global warming sign
tea party global warming sign

One of the more brilliant signs I saw at the fall 2010 Tea Party Rally at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds.

For years, climate hawks have devoted considerable time and energy to refuting arguments proffered by those who deny the basic tenets of climate change. This focus on countering climate deniers is evinced by the prevalence of handy lists of counter-arguments, including those from Skeptical Science, Grist, and Scientific American.

But, as I emphasized in a recent post, outright denial of the science is no longer the most potent weapon that “skeptics” have at their disposal. Instead, many of these actors have turned to denier 2.0 arguments, which frequently center on what Young and Coutinho term (paywall) the “acceptance-rejection approach.” This rhetorical acceptance that climate change is occurring opens up new pathways to forestall action on the issue by lulling the average observer into a false sense of security.

And, according to a recent article in the journal Global Environmental Change, this form of climate “skepticism” is exactly where we should be focusing our energies.

In the article, Drs. Stuart Capstick and Nick Pidgeon from the University of Cardiff develop a new taxonomy of climate change skepticism (or, as they British-ly spell it, “scepticism”). Using a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods, the researchers define two basic types of climate skepticism – epistemic and response skepticism.

Epistemic skeptics turn their attention to the physical and scientific aspects of climate change. They challenge the fundamental nature of climate science, question whether whether it is man-made, and/or emphasize scientific uncertainty to cast doubt upon the topic. Epistemic skeptics seek to “construct climate change as an objectively uncertain phenomenon.”

Response skeptics, in contrast, don’t explicitly reject the science of anthropogenic climate change; in fact, many of them accept it. Despite this acceptance, however, response skeptics:

employ this type of skepticism to justify or explain lack of personal action on climate change, or as a way of distancing themselves from the need or requirement to do so.

Theses skeptics routinely question the effectiveness of potential responses to climate change, doubt that politicians can work together to address the issue, believe that the media exaggerates the risk, and are prone to fatalistic worldviews. Response skeptics are fare more likely to demonstrate a lack of concern over climate change as an issue than epistemic skeptics, perhaps due to the fact that many from the latter group may define themselves in opposition to climate “alarmists” and scientists engaged in the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” as Senator Inhofe has claimed.

As the research from Young and Coutinho demonstrated, smart climate deniers have begun to play more to such response skeptics by utilizing the acceptance-rejection approach. Accordingly, Capstick and Pidgeon argue that climate hawks should focus more directly on this audience as well. As they note:

whilst there are clear arguments that can be made concerning the level of scientific consensus and degree of confidence in an anthropogenic component to climate change, doubts concerning personal and societal responses to climate change are in essence more disputable.

Though it has become increasingly difficult to sway epistemic skeptics (who fall into either the “Doubtful” or “Dismissive” categories in the Yale “Six Americas” construction), response skeptics (the “Concerned,” “Cautious,” and “Disengaged”) are still persuadable. Moreover, these three groups accounted for 55% of Americans as of November 2013, far more than the 27% who identify as “Doubtful” or “Dismissive.”

six americas november 2013

Global Warming’s Six Americas breakdown, as of November 2013.

Most response skeptics view climate change as an issue that will largely affect people who are distant in both space and time. They fail to see it as an immediate, concrete issue that will affect them or the people they know and love. Accordingly, emphasizing the dire impacts that climate change is likely to have or is currently having in Bangladesh, the Philippines, or small Pacific island states will not only fail to motivate them to act, it may actually make them feel less engaged and more hopeless (PDF) about the issue, leading to greater inaction and division.

Accordingly, Capstick and Pidgeon discuss the need to focus on ways to localize climate change, as previous research has emphasized. As Lorenzoni et al noted (PDF) in a 2010 study,

Local environmental issues are not only more visible to the individual, but present more opportunities for effective individual action than climate change.

Rather than devoting so much of our time, resources, and energy to convincing people about whether Antarctic sea ice is waxing or waning, climate hawks should look to connect the issue to local environmental concerns. And one of the most effective ways of achieving this goal is to frame climate as a public health issue. According to research published in 2012, framing climate change as a human health issue “was the most likely [way] to generate feelings of hope.”

Making the link between health and local environmental challenges in a greenhouse world may represent the single most effective strategy for getting people from response skeptic to climate hawk. I have tried to do this by focusing on heat-related mortality in Cleveland, Great Lakes levels, and issues of microplastic pollution and algal blooms in Lake Erie. Fortunately, there now exist a number of excellent tools that allow people to bring climate models down to the local level, from these new interactive Google Maps from Berkeley Earth to “Your Warming World” from New Scientist.

Hearing and reading nonsensical rants from climate deniers gets my blood boiling just as much as any other climate hawk. But, given the amount of research available on this issue, perhaps we should all try to take a step back, realize the deniers are trolling us, and focus on more constructive efforts instead.

What Kelly Blazek’s cyberbullying tells us about policymaking in Cleveland

kelly blazek twitter profile
kelly blazek twitter profile

Kelly Blazek’s now-defunct Twitter profile (courtesy of the Cleveland Scene).

**Update (7:52pm): Apparently Ms. Blazek apologized in a statement to Cleveland.com while I was offline. I hope she learns from this episode, is humbled by it, and works to make herself a better, more considerate human being. I can only imagine this will haunt her for a while. Now that this is over, hopefully we can back to focusing on issues that actually matter tomorrow.**

For those of you who (luckily) don’t know who Kelly Blazek is, let me give you a quick primer. Ms. Blazek is a “senior communications executive with nearly three decades of experience in global diversified industrials, professional services, PR agencies and economic development nonprofits” and the principal partner of Gemba Communications.

Among other things that she lists as accomplishments, she notes that she “earned her Six Sigma Green Belt” and is “a frequent speaker on creating a gamechanger resume, interviewing, maximizing LinkedIn during a job search and boosting one’s professional presence.” Whatever that means.

Anyways, in addition to being a self-described superstar communications expert, she also hosts a Yahoo Group/email listserv for approximately 7,300 people that aggregates job openings “in the marketing, PR, events, fundraising, non-profit management, media, journalism and graphics industry.” For the nominal fee of $150, she will deign to send out an email with your job posting to this listserv; it is surely a worthwhile investment.

Now, because she is a busy and important professional, Ms. Blazek has established a firm set of rules to be included on her listserv. Every email includes the following disclaimer:

kelly blazek dislaimer

From the February 10, 2014 Cleveland Job Bank email.

She has clearly built up quite a following, and she even won the 2013 “Communicator of the Year” award from the Cleveland Chapter of of the International Association of Business Communicators.

Yet, despite her public persona as a communications expert, Kelly Blazek does not always communicate in the most, shall we say, appropriate way. When a young job seeker who was moving back to Cleveland tried to connect with her on LinkedIn, she received this in reply:

blazek email

Courtesy of the email recipient, @PettieBettie

Lest you think this email was something of an aberration and does not reflect Ms. Blazek’s character, writ large, there are several other instances which, taken together, begin to present a clear pattern.

Interestingly, despite supposedly being a crisis communications consultant, Ms. Blazek has chosen to reply to this controversy with complete radio silence. She shut down her Twitter account (which, as she notes, has 2500+ followers) and closed her personal blog, opting to house it under a new name, at least for the time being.

A few other outlets have examined how this episode may affect Ms. Blazek professionally. But I would argue there are larger issues at play here. First, we should judge people based not upon how much power or prestige they have, but, rather, upon how they treat those with less power. As Immanuel Kant wrote in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

By deviating so grievously from this dictum, Ms. Blazek’s actions were not simply unprofessional; they were immoral.

But, regardless of her actions, Kelly Blazek is not the only person at fault here. We must also point the finger at the people in power throughout Northeast Ohio who have built her up to the point where she holds herself in such esteem that she believes she can – and should – behave this way.

For some reason, a large (and seemingly increasing) number of well-connected people throughout Greater Cleveland have chosen to place all of their faith in the hands of self-appointed marketing and communications professionals to resurrect the region. We continue to pay these individuals ever larger salaries and provide them with increasing amounts of taxpayer money so that we can live under the delusion that all this region needs to grow and thrive once more is to change our PR campaigns, not our policies.

This viewpoint frequently graces the pages of The Plain Dealer, where writers spill ink over the details of these new marketing campaigns, rather than focusing on more important issues. Somehow the debate over whether or not Cleveland “rocks” or is a “plum” matters more than our insanely high infant mortality rates, our 1960s-era transportation policies, or the air pollution that routinely sends poor black and brown children to the ER with asthma attacks.

Those with the most significant platforms breathlessly hype ever project or concept as the “next big thing” that will save us, regardless of how expensive, impractical, pointless, or destructive they may be.

As a result, we end up undervaluing people with real policy expertise and fresh ideas that people in much of the rest of the country would value. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a job bank like Kelly Blazek’s could exist and, it appears, even thrive in Northeast Ohio’s economic ecosystem, yet we have nothing comparable for public health, environmental issues, alternative transportation, affordable housing, etc.

We have purposefully and intentionally decided, as a region, that we would rather pay people to repackage crappy ideas than think critically and develop good ones. That’s not to say that there aren’t good, hardworking, intelligent people focusing on these issues; there are. But the fact that we don’t know their names and tend to undervalue their work is no accident.

Ultimately, we will need to come together as a region and rethink our priorities. Because when you put policymaking authority in the hands of marketing professionals, you end up with terrible public policy, regardless of the spin.

5 ways the Opportunity Corridor is like Keystone XL

keystone xl protest
keystone xl protest

12,000 people rallied around the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2011.

Angie Schmidt has a post on Rust Wire that explores how all large development projects in Cleveland, including the so-called Opportunity Corridor, are framed through a “jobs” lens. It’s a good piece that’s well worth reading, but it got me thinking about the similarities between the Opportunity Corridor and the Keystone XL pipeline.

[For those of you who are unfamiliar with road projects in the city of Cleveland, the Opportunity Corridor is a proposed three-mile boulevard that would pass through some of the poorest neighborhoods on the East Side of Cleveland. The road would more readily connect I-490, a freeway that ends abruptly at East 55th Street, to University Circle, the heart of Cleveland’s biomedical and arts industries. The Ohio Department of Transportation calculates that the project will cost $331.3 million to complete, putting the cost per mile at an astounding $110.4 million.]

In the first post I ever wrote on this site, I examined the fight over Keystone XL according to social movement theory. Many of these insights are surprisingly relevant for the Opportunity Corridor discussion as well. So let’s explore a few of these similarities.

Bipartisan support from powerful decision makers

Keystone XL has enjoyed support from both sides of the aisle. Although the pipeline has become increasingly partisan in recent months, particularly as House Republicans have made it a cause célèbre in budget and debt ceiling negotiations, it has enjoyed broad support from powerful players. TransCanada’s main US lobbyist, Paul Elliot, was the national deputy director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, while a majority of Democrats (54%) still favored the project as of last September.

Similarly, the Opportunity Corridor has enjoyed support from a wide array of political leaders in Ohio. Republican Governor John Kasich is, unsurprisingly, firmly behind the project, using it as a way to garner additional support in heavily Democratic Northeastern Ohio. But several Democratic lawmakers, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Cuyahoga County Executive (and gubernatorial candidate) Ed FitzGerald. Possibly the project’s biggest booster has been the center-left Plain Dealer, whose editor is a co-chair of the panel backing construction.

No longer a done deal

As recently as 2011, most policymakers assumed that Keystone XL was an inevitability. More than 70% of “insiders” in an October 2011 National Journal poll said the project would get final approval before the end of that year.

But the insiders underestimated the opposition to Keystone, which coalesced in the summer of 2011. Bill McKibben, the head of 350.org, worked to build a coalition of environment, labor, and social justice organizations that has effectively stalled the project for almost three years.  The fact that President Obama has publicly dismissed many arguments that Keystone proponents have made demonstrates just how effective this organized action has been.

Likewise, a movement has begun to build in opposition to the Opportunity Corridor. Angie Schmidt has been a leader in this movement, and she formed Clevelanders for Transportation Equity last year as a focal point. While the project still seems fairly likely to go forward, it has not been without backlash. The GreenCityBlueLake Institute continues to question its utility, while residents of the “Forgotten Triangle” have begun to speak out against the impact the project will have upon them.

Social and environmental costs

Thirdly, both projects would carry clear social and environmental consequences for populations that are politically, socioeconomically, and ecologically vulnerable.

Poor, marginalized communities of color live along both ends of Keystone XL. The pipeline begins in the tar sands fields of northern Alberta, where a number of First Nations tribes have lived along the Athabasca River for generations. This area has undergo dramatic changes in the past several years. Tar sands extraction has polluted the water extensively, and cancer rates in the region are 30% higher than average. At the other end of the proposed pipeline – Port Arthur, Texas – extensive pollution from oil refining creates severe health issues for residents who are overwhelmingly low-income persons of color. Children living in this area are 56% more likely to contract leukemia.

Likewise, the Opportunity Corridor is slated to run through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Cleveland. Five of the six affected neighborhoods have poverty rates higher than Cleveland’s 31.2% rate; in two of them, roughly two-thirds of residents live in poverty. The people living in these are also overwhelmingly Black or Hispanic and suffer from health outcomes more common in least developed countries than the United States.

minority populations opportunity corridor neighborhoods

The six neighborhoods affected by the proposed Opportunity Corridor are overwhelmingly home to persons of color (courtesy of ODOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement).

In 2008-2009, the asthma rates in this area stood at 15.6% (PDF), nearly double the national average (8%). In 2009, infant mortality rates in these neighborhoods were staggering, reaching as high as 69 deaths per 1,000 live births; that number is higher than the rates for Bangladesh, Burma, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda. Many of these health disparities are due, at least in part, to extremely high rates of air pollution. Even ODOT acknowledges that truck traffic will increase in these neighborhoods and will run at much higher speeds (approximately 45 mph), which may exacerbate these issues further.

Given the severe environmental health implications of these projects, it is unsurprising that the EPA has cast shade on the environmental impact statements done for both projects.

Symbols of a larger issue

Both projects are major symbols of the paradigms they represent. Keystone is part of our fossil fuel-driven economic model that is slowly destroying our climate with every ton of greenhouse gases emitted. The Opportunity Corridor, in turn, is a microcosm of Northeast Ohio’s obsession with the sprawl-based, car-centric development model. While stymieing either project would fail to topple the superstructures that they represent, it would be a symbolic victory that allows us to say we are not going to be blindly beholden to such models any more.

It’s all about jobs

Except when it isn’t. Rather than portraying these projects for what they are – a pipeline that will benefit Canadian oil companies and a large highway project that will supposedly reduce nonexistent congestion – proponents have framed them as jobs projects. And it’s certainly hard to argue with the need to invest in our infrastructure and provide employment opportunities to the hard-hit construction industry.

Keystone XL’s supporters have used industry-driven studies to claim that it would create tens of thousands of short-term construction jobs, along with thousands of permanent jobs in related industries. Opportunity Corridor backers have also claimed that it would create jobs for construction workers and help spark a manufacturing renaissance on the city’s Southeast side.

But the evidence suggests that these claims are overblown. If you really dig into the numbers, you find out that, not only are these projects unlikely to live up the hype, but fixing our existing infrastructure would actually create more jobs.

Economics for Equity and Environment and the Labor Network for Sustainability recently released a report that considered the economic impact of repairing our existing oil/gas and water pipelines, rather than building Keystone XL. It found that investing $18 billion to repair these pipelines would create more than 300,000 jobs. This amounts to five times as many jobs and 156% as many direct jobs per unit of investment as Keystone. This endeavor would both counter the fossil fuel behemoth and pay greater economic dividends; it’s a clear win-win.

In turn, it seems likely that spending the money allocated for the Opportunity Corridor to repair Cleveland’s existing roads would be far more beneficial. While no one has directly analyzed the economic impact of such a proposal, a 2009 study from the Political Economy Research Institute found that repairing existing roads creates 16% more jobs than expanding road infrastructure (PDF). Using their numbers – 17,472 jobs per $1 billion invested – would suggest that repairing Cleveland’s roads would create 6,890 jobs, compared to the 5,940 from building the Opportunity Corridor (interestingly, even proponents estimate it would only create 5,300 jobs).

Overall, the similarities between Keystone XL and the Opportunity Corridor are striking. So it makes sense that the two movements opposed to their construction are following similar, grassroots tactics. While it’s too early to say how either fight will end up, I encourage Opportunity Corridor opponents, who seem to have a steeper hill to climb, to take heart. Even if the road is eventually built, you now have an opportunity to start building a strong coalition to fight for sustainable development and transportation equity over the long haul.

Ohio can’t afford the GOP’s massive giveaway to the oil & gas industry

fracking well ohio
fracking well ohio

A hydraulic fracturing well looms large over the Ohio countryside (courtesy of Ideastream).

In March 2012, the Ohio House of Representatives introduced HB 487, a bill which included changes to the way that Ohio taxes oil and gas extraction in the state. Ohio’s current system of regulating oil and gas production was implemented in 1972. Almost everything about the energy sector in the United States has changed drastically in the last 40-plus years; I wish I could say these regulations were included.

Ohio’s existing severance tax

Ernst & Young analyzed Ohio’s existing severance tax and Governor Kasich’s proposed changes (PDF) in 2012. E&Y compared Ohio’s tax policy to that of seven other oil and gas producing states. Of the eight states, Ohio has by far the lowest effective tax rate (ETR). The state’s combined ETR of 1.8% is 80% lower than the average in the seven other states. Based on a 2011 analysis from Policy Matters Ohio, this tax rate has cost the state millions in foregone tax revenues. From 2001-2010, the  value of the oil and natural gas extracted within the state was $8.38 billion. But Ohio collected a mere $26,017,858 in taxes – equal to 0.31% of the market value. That’s not at typo. Using these numbers, Policy Matters projected the amount of severance taxes that Ohio would collect from shale gas production from 2012-2015, compared to five surrounding states. Of the $10.77 billion in estimated value, Ohio will capture just $39.8 million in taxes. Compare this number to West Virginia and Michigan, whose 5% tax would bring in $538.4 million.

The Kasich proposal

Clearly, Ohio’s current severance tax sucks. Governor Kasich’s plan was supposedly introduced to rectify this issue. The proposal would have doubled severance taxes on oil from conventional, vertical wells to $0.20 per barrel and altered the tax on natural gas from vertical wells to the lessor of 1% of the market value of the gas or $0.03 per thousand cubic feet (mcf). It would have also priced oil and gas from horizontal wells, which is produced using the controversial hydraulic fracturing method, separately. This oil would have been taxed at 1.5% of the market value for one year, then at 4% for the lifetime of the well. Natural gas from fracking wells would have been taxed at 1% across the board. E&Y’s analysis found that this proposal would have increased the effective severance tax rate from just 1.8% to 2.7% overall; however, Ohio would still have the lowest tax rate in the region. Under Kasich’s proposal, Ohio’s ETR for an average oil/gas well would be just 40% lower. What a relief.

Ohio Republicans strike back, introduce HB 375

And yet, Ohio Republicans balked at Kasich’s plan. During budget deliberations, the plan was completely stripped out of the bill. Recently, Ohio Republicans finally offered up their alternative to Kasich’s proposal. State Rep. Matt Hoffman (R-Lima) introduced HB 375 on December 5. Shockingly, the bill has overwhelming support from the oil & gas industry.

Thomas Stewart, head of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association, issued a statement saying the bill “includes a sensible modification of the severance tax based on actual well economics.”I’m not sure what energy economics textbook Mr. Stewart is reading from, but suffice it to say he’s just a tad off the mark. Headwaters Economics issued a report in 2012 that included a list of 12 recommendations for crafting fiscal policies for the oil and gas sector. HB 375 goes against every single recommendation. So let’s compare the bill to just three of these recommendations.

1. Maintain a high effective tax rate

Headwaters argues that it is essential for states to keep a high ETR on their mineral deposits, because it provides additional resources to mitigate the impacts of drilling and allows them to invest in long-term economic development.

kevin bacon dancing

Even 1980s Kevin Bacon knows that the oil & gas industry isn’t footloose (courtesy of People Magazine).

Contrary to fear-mongering from industry reps and the Ohio GOP, the oil & gas industry is not going to flee the state and give up concessions just because the state increases slightly its pathetically low severance tax. As Headwaters notes, Montana had an ETR of 4.6% for oil and gas in 2011. Neighboring North Dakota, in contrast, keeps its rate at 9.9%. Despite this, North Dakota has seen significantly more drilling activity, and Montana’s poorly-designed tax policy cost the state $60 million in foregone tax receipts in 2010 alone.

The minerals sector is not directly comparable to other economic activities, like the service sector. Oil and gas producers migrate to where the oil and gas deposits are, not where taxes are lowest. The industry is not, in economics parlance, particularly footloose. If it were, then Texas and Alaska, where tax rates are 8.2% and 25%, respectively, would not be leading producers. There is simply no valid evidence to suggest that slightly higher severance tax rates will keep companies from drilling here.

Yet, HB 375 institutes tax rates even lower than Kasich’s proposal. It would lower the tax on conventional gas from $0.025 per mcf to $0.015 per mcf. It also repeals the regulatory cost recovery assessment fee passed in 2010 to offset the costs of land reclamation. And, for horizontal wells, it introduces a severance tax of 1% of the value of net proceeds from oil/gas sales for 20 months; this tax then increases to 2%.

2.Remove “holiday” incentives

Several states have production tax “holidays” during the early days of oil and gas production. The logic behind these tax holidays is based on the fact that, for conventional wells, there is a lengthy gap between the drilling phase and the production phase (when the oil/gas is actually flowing). This gap can be upwards of two years for vertical wells.

But this model does not apply to horizontal wells. The drilling phase for a horizontal well is compressed, and the production phase typically jump starts thereafter. The majority of oil/gas from horizontal wells is extracted during the the first two years, after which production drops precipitously – by more than 60% in just one year in most cases.

shale gas production cycle

This image from the EIA charts the production cycles of shale wells across five different shale plays.

By providing a five-year tax holiday, HB 375 effectively ensures that Ohio will forfeit the overwhelming majority of tax revenues from its oil and gas deposits. By the time that the tax rate increased to 2% in year six, it’s entirely likely that drillers may have simply moved onto the next well.

3. Guarantee adequate local share in revenue collections

A central tenet of good oil/gas policy is to guarantee that the benefits of the fuels are adequately shared with communities on the front lines of extraction. As I’ve written before, the US isn’t somehow immune to the impacts of the natural resource curse. Far from it. One can find evidence of the resource curse from horrifically high mortality rates (PDF) in Appalachia to skyrocketing crime rates in North Dakota to groundwater pollution from fracking in multiple states to increased damage to infrastructure in Texas.

HB 375 does nothing to support front line communities. Ohio’s past two biennial budgets have taken a toll on local governments. Ohio Republicans balanced the state budget by holding onto tax revenues that should have been returned to local governments. The 2014-2015 budget reduces the amount of money local governments will receive by $1.4 billion. HB 375 simply exacerbates the issue further. Under the proposal, the funds raised would go to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to cover the costs regulating the industry, remediating abandoned wells, and conducting geological surveys for the industry. Any additional funds would go to reduce personal income taxes. This policy would disproportionately benefit the wealthy and leave those directly affected by drilling on the outside looking in.

HB 375: Great for the industry, terrible for Ohio

All told, Policy Matters Ohio found that HB 375 would cost the state $620-800 million over the next decade, compared to the Kasich proposal (which is far from ideal policy). The bill amounts to little more than a giant handout to the oil & gas industry. Ohio’s current oil/gas severance tax is a 40-year old relic of terrible policymaking. It would be a challenge to make a policy that’s worse.

Somehow, Ohio Republicans have crafted a bill so terrible that it gives existing law a run for its money. If you were looking to develop a policy that took the full advantage of our natural resource endowment and benefited ordinary Ohioans, you could hardly do worse than HB 375. But, on the other hand, if your goal was to benefit the wealthy, well-connected, and your political benefactors, you would be pressed to outdo HB 375.

This bill is egregiously bad policy. Naturally, I expect it will be on Kasich’s desk by the spring.

Suburbs are terrible for the climate

carbon footprint map northeast ohio
carbon footprint map northeast ohio

Map of household carbon footprint intensity by zip code in Northeast Ohio (courtesy of the Cool Climate Network).

That’s the message of a new study from researchers at UC Berkeley. The research, which analyzes spatial differences in household carbon footprints (HCF) was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (paywall).

Unsurprisingly, the study finds that suburban areas have, on average, HCFs that are up to twice as large as the national average, which the authors place at 48.5 tons of CO2 per household. In dense urban centers, these numbers can be half the national average. On the whole, principal cities account for just 30% of total carbon emissions, while suburban areas account for 50% of emissions, despite having less than half of the total population. The significantly higher level of HCF in suburban areas, which reach above 85 tons of CO2 in certain areas, has the effect of offsetting many of the efficiency gains made by living in dense urban cores.

As Christopher Jones, a co-author of the study, notes:

“Metropolitan areas look like carbon footprint hurricanes, with dark green, low-carbon urban cores surrounded by red, high-carbon suburbs,” said Christopher Jones, a doctoral student working with Kammen in the Energy and Resources Group. “Unfortunately, while the most populous metropolitan areas tend to have the lowest carbon footprint centers, they also tend to have the most extensive high-carbon footprint suburbs.”

I decided to take a look at the variation of HCFs within Northeast Ohio. As expected, Cleveland and Akron both fit the model of a “carbon footprint hurricane,” as described by Jones. As the study notes, carbon emissions already start from a higher baseline in the Midwest due to the region’s heavy reliance upon coal for electricity generation (fortunately, in 2012, coal generation fell to 67% [PDF] of Ohio’s electricity generation from 85% in 2008).

HCF numbers stretch from lows of 21.1 tons and 26.5 tons in downtown Akron and Cleveland, respectively (numbers which are 57% and 45% below the national average), to highs of 75.4 tons in Hudson (155% of the average) and an astonishing 85.6 tons in uber-wealthy Gates Mills (176% of the average).

household carbon footprint for 44113

Household carbon footprint numbers for my home zip code, 44113

The two factors that ultimately supercharge HCF levels in Northeast Ohio’s suburbs are two of the central features of our sprawl-based development model – transportation and housing. In my neighborhood on Cleveland’s near West side (44113), housing – which includes emissions from electricity use – accounts for approximately 13 tons of carbon annually, while transportation generates just 7 tons.

Compare those numbers to 44139, the zip code for Solon, which saw its population increase by 9.56% from 2000 to 2010. In Solon, the average household generates 21 tons of CO2 from transportation and roughly 23 tons from housing.  Not to mention that the average HCF in the suburb is 95% higher than households in 44113.

household carbon footprint for 44139

Household carbon footprint numbers for Solon

As I’ve discussed before, sprawl has been at the heart of development throughout Northeast Ohio since at least the advent of the Interstate Highway System. Despite seeing its population grow by just 0.32% from 1948 to 2002, the amount of land developed in Cuyahoga County increased to 95% from just 26% during this period.

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 (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

As the population continued to spread out, vehicle miles traveled climbed, while public transportation utilization decreased apace. Annual ridership on the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority plummeted from a high of 129,691,743 riders in 1980 to 44,680,000 in 2010 – a decrease of two-thirds in just 30 years. As a result, transportation accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions (PDF) in Northeast Ohio.

These data clearly suggest that a suburban lifestyle is one of the leading drivers of carbon emissions in the US. Consistent with the fact that climate change is a massive environmental justice issue, the individuals in Northeast Ohio who generate the majority of carbon pollution are the least likely to endure the effects of climate change. Instead, as I’ve noted before, it is the poor, the elderly and infirmed, and persons of color living in urban areas – where carbon emissions are lowest – who will bear the greatest burden.

Unfortunately, Jones and Kammen also conclude that increasing population density is not the solution to this challenge. They find that increasing population density 10-fold only reduces HCF by one-quarter. Accordingly, they conclude that there is “no evidence for net [greenhouse gas] benefits of population density in urban cores or suburbs when considering effects on entire metropolitan areas.”

Instead, the authors argue that we need to increase energy efficiency in suburban areas by retrofitting homes, increasing penetration of electric vehicles, and expanding renewable energy generation. This suggests that urbanization is not a silver bullet to climate change, which is an important lesson to keep in mind as we move towards a world in which roughly 70% of people live in urban areas by 2050. We cannot afford to see US-style suburbanization expand into the developing world, or we may eliminate any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

The resource curse is coming to town

The discovery of oil deposits has, in many ways, been a curse for Nigeria's Ogoniland province, which has been plagued by environmental degradation and civil conflict (courtesy of Reuters).

The discovery of oil deposits has, in many ways, been a curse for Nigeria’s Ogoniland region, which has been plagued by environmental degradation and civil conflict (courtesy of Reuters).

Oil and natural gas from shale will be a “game changer” for Ohio, one that “has given fresh life to energy development,” according to Jack Gerard, the president & CEO of the American Petroleum Institute. The Plain Dealer has matter-of-factly stated that the boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in states like Ohio is “expected to create thousands of jobs and add billions to the state’s economy.”

That expanded oil and gas production will generate myriad economic benefits is largely taken for granted in most circles. For the most part, opponents of fracking for oil and gas have focused almost exclusively on the potential environmental consequences, such as water and air pollution, radioactivity, and an increased risk of earthquakes.

But a new study from Headwaters Economics has thrown some cold water on this conventional wisdom. What if, instead of bringing socioeconomic development to energy-rich areas, oil and gas production could actually make these communities worse off?

The natural resource curse

This concept, the so-called “natural resource curse,” has long been studied in international relations and environmental circles. Several studies have demonstrated a strong connection between natural resource abundance and stymied economic growth on an international level, particularly in the developing world. In a 1995 paper, Sachs & Warner concluded that reliance on natural resource dependence can decrease economic growth by around 1% per year.

natural resource dependence and growth rates

This figure, from Sachs & Warner (2001), charts the relationship between natural resource dependence and economic growth rates from 1970-1989. As it suggests, those countries whose economies depend heavily on natural resource exports had lower real growth rates during this period, and vice versa.

There are several reasons (PDF) why natural resource wealth and dependence could harm socioeconomic development. I will outline three below.

First, a boom in natural resource extraction can increase price levels throughout the economy (PDF), raising a country’s exchange rate. As a result, resource wealthy states tend to have higher costs for export goods, reducing their competitiveness on global markets.

Secondly, higher real wages can create an incentive for individuals to forgo employment in other areas to pursue opportunities in the extractives industries. This reliance upon extractives can crowd out investment in manufacturing, limiting the ability of the industry to become more efficient over time. These outcomes can harm innovation and entrepreneurship (PDF), which may create long-lasting ramifications for the economy.

Thirdly, resource-dependent countries are highly susceptible to rent-seeking behavior and the pathologies that can come along with it, such as political violence, up to and including civil conflict. As de Soysa and Binningsbø (paywall) put it:

Resource rents apparently create factional political states, where rent capture allows politicians to survive by dispensing rents, rather than making hard choices about reform. Political survival dictates profligacy and waste, rather than providing public goods.

Rather than investing in important public goods, leaders of resource-rich states can simply make direct payments to important elites or buy off potential challengers. Resource revenues also tend to accrue to state, rather than staying in source communities. As a result, while some actors will benefit from extraction, the communities on the ground tend to suffer the effects without reaping the rewards.

The lure or resource rents can also drive groups to try to capture control of the state. As a result, a plethora of studies have shown that states dependent on natural resources experience higher rates of internal political violence (paywall) and a greater risk of experiencing civil war.

six western states oil and gas income levels

The study explores the effects of oil and gas development on socioeconomic development in six states from 1980-2011 (courtesy of Headwaters Economics).

The resource curse comes to the United States

But while the negative consequences of resource dependence are well-known for the developing world, the same cannot be said for the Untied States. In order to investigate the long-term impacts of using oil & gas extraction as an economic development policy, Headwaters analyzed the effects of an early 1980s oil boom in six Western states: Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The study explored the long-term impacts of the boom on social and economic development from 1980-2011, analyzing data from 207 counties in the states.

While many observers consider the oil and gas boom to be a positive development in the West – the curren oil boom in the Bakken shale has helped lower North Dakota’s unemployment rate to just over 3% – Headwaters’ findings challenge this perception. Rather than contributed to sustained, positive outcomes, these counties actually experienced many of the same consequences of the resource curse that I outlined earlier.

First, the authors found that the counties most dependent on oil and gas extraction actually had lower levels of per capita income during this period. These counties saw per capita income levels decrease by $7,000, on average. One reason for this outcome may be that boom towns typically see the cost of living skyrocket in the short-term, which can raise prices and offset income gains. In Fort McMurray, the heart of Alberta’s tar sands industry, for instance, the population has tripled in recent decades. The formerly rural area, which is now bursting at the seams, has the highest housing prices in Alberta, and is deficient in 70 of 72 quality-of-life indicators.

Secondly, the study suggests that the resource sector can have a crowding out effect. The lure of the extractives industries, which have lower education requirements, tends to lower the percentage of adults with a college education. Those counties that were most heavily invested in oil and gas had, on average, 2.5% fewer college-educated adults than the rest of the sample counties. And the environmental consequences of resource extraction are well known.

Thirdly, the authors note that “the longer a county has been specialized on oil and gas, the higher the county’s crime rate.” This outcome would seem to reflect the fact that natural resource dependence leads to rent-seeking behavior and increased levels of violence. Most oil and gas boom towns are chock full of young men. The flood of young men into the Bakken shale (where they outnumber women by nearly 2-1 in some areas) has driven up crime rates by as much as one-third in Montana and North Dakota. Many women have reported being sexual harassed and feeling increasingly threatened due to the changing demographics.

The study fails to examine the environmental and public health impacts of resource dependence. However, other studies have shown that coal-mining communities in Appalachia have significantly higher adult and child mortality rates (PDF) than other communities in the region.

While the authors of the Headwaters study are careful to point out its limitations – causality cannot be proven and the results are unique to the sample areas – it does provide a cautionary tale to officials who are hoping to cash in on their region’s natural resource endowments.

Oil and gas extraction can be a way to jump start a stagnant economy in the short-term, as the study suggests. But states need to ensure that they are taxing resource extraction appropriately and investing these tax revenues in public goods for the communities on the front lines. Though bending over backwards for the oil and gas industries – as Ohio’s Republican lawmakers appear all too eager to do – may benefit some well-connected individuals, many more in these communities will suffer in both the short- and long-term.

Oil and gas deposits can be important endowments, but they don’t constitute a real development strategy. States need to think twice before putting all their eggs in one basket.

Africa’s Great Lakes were central to human evolution

victoria falls

Cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

great lakes of africa map

The Great Lakes region of Africa (courtesy of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science).

If you’ve ever felt inexplicably drawn to Lake Erie or any of the other Great Lakes, you’re not alone. In fact, that attraction is hardwired into your genes.

Last month, two UK researchers published an article titled “Early Human Speciation, Brain Expansion and Dispersal Influenced by African Climate Pulses” in the online, open-source journal PLOS One. The piece explores a variety of close linkages between climatological variability and human evolution throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. It focuses, in particular, on the East Africa Rift System (EARS, for short), which is home to the bodies of water that make up the Great Lakes of Africa.

Africa’s Great Lakes region is home to several of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. The lake system includes Lakes Victoria, Tanganyika, and Malawi, along with several other smaller bodies of water. These lakes are the lifeblood of the region and are home not only to the world’s largest waterfall, Victoria Falls, but also to the headwaters of the Nile River.

In the article, researchers Susanne Shultz and Mark Maslin sought to determine what factors contributed to the punctuated nature of human speciation and dispersal from East Africa. They focus, in particular, upon a particularly important period for human evolution, which occurred roughly 1.9 million years ago. This period gave rise to the Homo genus and witnessed a series of major migration events from East Africa into Eurasia.

Schultz and Maslin noticed that several of these major “pulses” in human evolution corresponded closely to the appearance and disappearance of the East African Great Lakes. As a result, their research probed this connection more deeply. Their results suggest a close relationship between the growth and decline of the EARS lakes and significant steps forward in human evolution:

Larger brained African hominins colonised Eurasia during periods when extensive lakes in the EARS push them out of Africa. Taken together, this suggests that small steps in brain expansion in Africa may have been driven by regional aridity. In contrast, the great leap forward in early Homo brain size at 1.8 Ma [million years ago] was associated with the novel ecological conditions associated with the appearance and disappearance of deep-freshwater lakes long the whole length of the EARS.

As this article suggests, Africa’s Great Lakes are more than simply natural resources that serve economic, social, political, cultural, and ecological purposes. They are, quite literally, engrained in our DNA.

victoria falls

Victoria Falls lie along the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Yet, tragically, these lakes and the people who depend upon them face a host of threats. The region has experienced extremely high rates of deforestation in recent decades due to unsustainable economic development, ongoing conflict, illicit logging, and dam construction. Annual rates of deforestation in the Congo River Basin doubled during the period from 2000-2005.

The ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has displaced millions, forcing many of them to encroach upon protected areas. In Africa’s oldest park, Virunga National Park, rates of illegal logging have reached 89 hectares (220 acres) per day (PDF). And the Gibe III dam in Ethiopia is drying up Lake Turkana, threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of indigenous peoples.

Despite being home to 27% of the world’s freshwater, less than two-thirds of people in the Great Lakes region have access to improved water sources. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this issue even further. The IPCC projects that the total number of Africans facing water stress will climb to 75-250 million by the 2020s and 350-600 million by the 2050s.

But you don’t need to sit by and watch these Great Lakes dry up. Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ has been working to provide access to clean water for children in Uganda for the last three years. This winter, the organization will undertake three new projects to ensure that the children at St. Bonaventure Primary School and the Family Spirit AIDS orphanage can take advantage of their human right to clean water.

Just as East Africa’s Great Lakes are a part of our DNA, so too is access to clean water and sanitation an integral part of human development. We can all take small steps to ensure that we are protecting this human right for people at home and around the world

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.