For the love of God, refugees aren’t the reason people are homeless

No, I really don’t think that’s the case, person who has never been homeless or a refugee.

In the week – God, has it seriously only been a week? – since President Donald Trump signed his despicable, potentially illegal Executive Order (EO) kneecapping the refugee resettlement program and temporarily suspending all entry from seven Muslim-majority countries, I’ve seen a lot people sharing memes, videos, and posts similar to the ones above and below.

The faux outrage struggle is real, I guess.

These items express faux outrage that refugees, who are apparently storming into this country, according to the Tweeter-in-Chief, are taking food and shelter away from homeless Americans, particularly veterans.

I know I shouldn’t treat these entreaties as sincere, because they aren’t. Most, if not all, of the people sharing this type of content have never met a refugee. They don’t view refugees as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. They instead caricature them, as our President does, as barbarians at the gates who are somehow uniquely violent and dependent.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, let’s take these claims at face value. Because, when you do that, my God do they fall to pieces.

During the first seven years of the Obama administration (FY 2009-2015), the United States government spent an average of $1.47 billion per year (page 11) on Migration and Refugee Assistance, once you subtract out the money spent on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCOs); OCO spending is essentially money spent abroad to stem the flow of migrants/refugees at the source by helping to address the push factors driving people to flee their homes.

For FY 2016, the State Department estimated the federal government would spend a total of $1.48 billion, while this number was set at $1.54 billion for FY 2017. We know that, due to this EO slashing the number of refugees the US intends to resettle by more than half from 110,000 to 50,000, this latter number for FY 2017 will necessarily decrease.

But here’s the thing – the US is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. Refugees are not preventing the federal government from spending money on homeless veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has invested billions to tackle the homelessness among veterans since 2009. In FY 2017, for instance, the VA allocated $1.6 billion – more than the government would have spent on refugee resettlement – on programming for homeless veterans. Fortunately, this investment is paying dividends, as the VA estimates that homeless rates among veterans have fallen by at least one-third since 2010. This is excellent news, though much work remains. But if you only decided to care about homeless among our military veterans as a justification to support this EO, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

The same sentiment holds if you are only raising budgetary concerns now, but never said a word when Republicans forced President Obama to implement sequestration, which cut discretionary funding to the VA. Or if you don’t seem to object to Congress forcing the Department of Defense to spend money on technology and materiel the military doesn’t want. If you said nothing about the $1.4 billion spent on defunct and unnecessary Abrams tanks since FY 2015, refugees aren’t the problem. You’re the problem. The same goes for the $30.7 billion spent since FY 2015 on the F-35, which President Trump scored via tweet about during the transition.

If you supported a candidate for President who grandstanded to avoid a primary debate by claiming he was hosting a grand fundraiser for veterans, then only donated money to veterans groups after the Washington Post called him out on it, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

Perhaps you supported President Bush’s ill-conceived adventure into Iraq, which destabilized the Middle East and set the stage for the growth of ISIS. This war is one of the major drivers of the current refugee crisis and many of the ongoing challenges our veterans face. If so, refugees are not the problem. You are the problem.

Do you support the President’s intention to repeal the financial reforms enacted under Dodd-Frank? You know, the reforms put in place to help guard against the financial crisis that precipitated the Great Recession? That Great Recession that was built upon a housing bubble that left thousands of people homeless? If so, refugees are not the problem. You are the problem.

But we haven’t really even begun talk about homelessness writ large yet. Homelessness, at least among non-veterans, is not an issue that the federal government addresses. It’s tackled primarily at the local level, where your vote and your input is even more important.

So, do you vote in local elections? Do you vote for candidates who support effective policies to tackle homelessness, chiefly those that seek to actually provide affordable rental units directly to homeless individuals? If not, refugees are not the problem. You are the problem.

Do you support local officials and nonprofit organizations that provide housing, whether temporary or permanent, to homeless individuals regardless of whether or not they have substance abuse issues? Or do you force homeless people to go through treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues before gaining access to housing support? If so, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

Perhaps you voted for a Republican governor that refused to expand Medicaid in his or her state. Do you support the current effort by Congressional Republicans to turn Medicaid into a voucher program, which would slash benefits and prevent people from taking advantage of it at the times it is most needed, like during recessions when homeless rates increase? What about Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which expanded mental health coverage to millions of Americans? That same ACA which bent the cost curve for healthcare expenses, which are the single largest reason for personal bankruptcies in the US? If so, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

One of the myriad causes for homelessness in many cities is the rising cost of housing. There are a number of factors that affect housing prices, but none is more important than supply. We can help to mitigate price spikes by building more, denser housing units. Even if these units do not sufficient include low-income units – which they should – they can relieve stress on other properties, opening them up for new residents. But local residents, particularly homeowners who stand to benefit from ever-increasing property values, often fight these types of projects. Others still promote zoning restrictions to ensure that “those people” cannot live in their neighborhoods.

Are you a NIMBYist? Do you support exclusionary zoning policies like minimum lot size, height restrictions, and mandatory parking minimums? If so, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

It’s a time-tested American tradition to blame the Other for our problems. If we don’t have enough money to solve all of our social issues, it must be the fault of the last person through the door. But that’s bullshit, and you know it’s bullshit.

Refugees are entitled to our help, support, and investment. They earned it with their blood, sweat, and tears. We have an obligation to defend, support, and care for them. That does not mean that we are unable to protect other vulnerable populations, like military veterans and homeless children. It never has, and, hopefully, never will.

So stop pretending otherwise. If the people sharing these stupid memes want to know whom to blame for our homeless population, maybe they should look in the damn mirror for once.

Does sprawl make the urban heat island effect worse?

urban heat island effect by city
urban heat island effect by city

Cleveland experiences the fourth strongest urban heat island effect in the United States. Could our sprawling development patterns be to blame? (courtesy of Debbage and Shepherd, 2015).

A few weeks ago, NASA officially announced that the record-breaking, “Godzilla” El Niño event that dominated much of our weather over the past year plus had finally come to an end.

But while the monster has returned to its hibernation deep below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, its impacts have already been and will continue to be felt across the United States. Around the same time that it made this announcement, NASA also revealed that April and May were the warmest such months on record in the US, meaning that every month since October 2015 has broken the existing record for that month. This eight-month streak of heat is, obviously, unprecedented. To date, the average temperature in 2016 is 1.9°F (1.08°C) above the average for the 20th century, making it a full 0.43°F (0.24°C) above the mark for the first five months of 2015.

You remember 2015, right? The warmest year on record? Well, not for long. NASA scientists are already more than 99% certain that 2016 will break that record, just as 2015 had claimed the mantle from 2014.

The impacts of 2016’s extreme heat

The extreme heat is having clear effects. It is contributing to wildfires consuming wide swathes of the West. Ozone levels are higher than normal across the country, as high temperatures foster the development of harmful, ground-level ozone more readily. So far, Greater Cleveland has already experienced six days when ozone levels exceed 70 parts per billion (ppb), the most at this point since 2012.

But the most acute impact of high temperatures heat-related mortality, a subject that I’ve written about considerably. Extreme heat is the deadliest type of disaster in the US, killing more people than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and lightning strikes combined each year. As I’ve discussed in the past, climate change is only exacerbating this issue; the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) noted that the global death toll from extreme heat rose by around 2,300% from 2000-2010, compared to the previous decade.

change in disaster deaths by decade

The change in the number of deaths, by disaster, from 1991-2000 to 2001-2010 (courtesy of WMO).

Nearly all regions have seen a spike in dangerous heat, but the risk of heat-related mortality is not distributed evenly. While an individual’s vulnerability to extreme heat is the function of a number of factors, one of these is where s/he lives. Generally speaking, those of us living in cities are at greater risk due to the so-called urban heat island (UHI) effect. I won’t go too far into the science behind the UHI effect; suffice it to say that the combination of dark surfaces, a lack of urban trees, and the production of waste heat from various sources like air conditioners increases the temperature of cities, relative to rural areas. According to the U.S. EPA, the temperature of a large city can be more than 20°F higher than surrounding rural areas under the right (or wrong?) conditions.

Last September, Forbes published an article examining the scale of the UHI in various cities throughout the US. Strikingly, it included a map (see above) stating that Cleveland has the fourth strongest UHI effect in the country. Now, if you’re one of the literally tens of people who has inexplicably read something I’ve posted on this site, you may be familiar with my general dislike of sprawl. I’ve discussed research linking it to population decline, limited social mobility, climate change, and poor air quality, among other things.

So, I wondered, could Cleveland’s strong UHI effect be the result of our development pattern? Given that sprawl affects so many important phenomena, it seems reasonable to assume it would have an effect on UHI, right? To the peer-reviewed literature! [Cue 1970s Batman transition music].

Is suburban sprawl actually linked to the urban heat island effect?

At first glance, it may seem odd to posit that suburban sprawl would play a role here; the phenomenon is called the urban heat island effect, after all. But a handful of studies strongly suggest that sprawling development patterns do, in fact, exacerbate the UHI effect.

Two of the most convincing papers come from Brian Stone, Jr., a professor at the Georgia Tech School of City and Regional Planning and an expert on urban environmental planning and climate change.

In a 2006 study (paywalled) that he coauthored with Jon Norman from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Stone examined the link between land use patterns and the UHI effect in Atlanta. The researchers broke properties into groups based on four variables: extent of impervious surfaces, lawn and landscaping, tree canopy, and the number of bedrooms per residential structure. This categorization enabled them to study the magnitude of surface warming produced by property type.

Stone and Norman concluded that the size of residential lots – in other words, residential density – was closely tied to black body flux, a measure of surface warming. As one moves from the highest density lot type to the lowest density, the amount of surface heat released increased 6-fold. Other land use features closed tied to suburban and exurban development – namely large lawns – also exacerbate the UHI effect. A one unit increase in the area of a plot covered by lawn and landscaping increases the net black body flux by 0.51 units.

As the authors conclude,

The results of this analysis provide compelling evidence that the size and material composition of single-family residential parcels is significantly related to the magnitude of surface warming in the Atlanta study region. Specifically, smaller, higher density parcels were found to be associated with a lower net black body flux than larger, lower density parcels…

[The] results of this study support the hypothesis that lower density, dispersed patterns of urban residential development contribute more surface energy to regional heat island formation than do higher density, compact forms.

Connecting sprawl and the UHI across cities

On its own, one study does not prove the relationship. Fortunately, Stone followed up with a 2010 paper that he co-wrote with Jeremy Hess and Howard Frumkin of the University of Washington, which studied the connection between urban sprawl and the number of extreme heat events (EHEs) in 53 cities from 1956-2005.

To measure the relationship, they took the correlation between the mean annual change in the number of EHEs from 1956-2005 and the sprawl ranking for each of the cities in 2000. Whereas the most compact cities experienced 5.6 more extreme heat days in 2005 than in 1956, that number was 14.8 for the most sprawling cities. In other words,

The most sprawling cities experienced a rate of increase in EHEs that was more than double that of the most the most compact cities…These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that urban sprawl contributes to EHE frequency.

Exploring some competing research

Now, I should note that there is other research that does not jibe with Stone’s work. Last year, Neil Debbage and Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia took another look at urban form and the urban heat island effect. Using a different measure for UHI (the difference in average rural and urban temperatures) and a different measure for urban form (an index measuring various variables of city shape, contiguity, and land uses), Debbage and Shepherd studied the degree to which city configuration affected urban heat in the 50 largest US metro areas from 2001-2010.

Contrary to Stone, Debbage and Marshall found that both more compact and more sprawling cities experience a stronger UHI effect, provided they are highly contiguous. That is, the contiguity of urban form may matter more than its composition; designing cities so that they are made up of either cul-de-sacs or skyscrapers as far as the eye can see makes them more vulnerable to extreme heat. According to the authors,

A ten percentage point increase in the spatial contiguity of high-intensity urban development, the equivalent of shifting roughly from Orlando to Seattle, was predicted to enhance a city’s average UHI intensity by 0.4°C…[In turn] a ten percentage point increase [in low-intensity urban development] was predicted to enhance a city’s annual average UHI intensity by 0.3°C. Therefore, as suggested by the bivariate analysis, both low and high-density urban land uses appear to amplify the UHI effect if they are high contiguous.

Importantly, Debbage and Marshall note that, while compact development may not solve the UHI on its own, it does provide a litany of other benefits, from improved air quality to better public health. Accordingly, urban planners may want to promote less contiguous, higher density urban development by designing networks of smaller green spaces, expanding the urban tree canopy, and installing white and green roofs throughout cities. A 2014 study by Stone and colleagues found that implementing these types of policies can offset projected increases in heat-related mortality due to climate change by anywhere from 40-99%.

Wait, so does sprawl make the UHI effect worse?

So what can we take away from all of this?

First, yes – the evidence does suggest that sprawl exacerbates urban heat islands. Low-density, suburban-style development increases the amount of impervious surfaces, which raises lowers the surface albedo of urban areas. It also increases the amount of excess waste heat that cities produce, as larger houses require more energy. And sprawl typically leads to forest clearance for development, reducing the extent of the urban tree canopy. All told, these factors increase the amount of heat cities generate, and they prevent this additional heat from dissipating rapidly at the urban fringe.

Second, the fact that sprawling development patterns are not the only type urban form that increases the UHI effect may not be as relevant as it may seem. While dense urban areas may also promote UHIs, they also make it easier to address both the causes and effects of heat-related mortality risks. Residents of dense cities produce fewer carbon emissions per capita, mitigating climate change. And the economies of scale in these dense neighborhoods increases the efficacy of mitigating extreme heat; opening a cooling station or installing shade trees are more effective in these areas, for instance.

All told, we can add the urban heat island effect to the list of social problems that sprawl makes worse. Maybe we should rename it the (sub)urban heat island effect?

Why we should account for air quality when planning bike lanes

critical mass
A rendering of the proposed Cleveland Midway, a network of protected cycle tracks that would run across the city (courtesy of Bike Cleveland).

A rendering of the proposed Cleveland Midway, a network of protected cycle tracks that would run across the city (courtesy of Bike Cleveland).

In a lot of ways, cyclists get a raw deal. We ride a 25-pound machine on the same roads as people driving 2,000-pound steel boxes at high rates of speed. We struggle to carve out a small piece of the road, even as we get buzzed by passing cars or get screamed at by furious drivers who could kill us at a moment’s notice. There’s no such thing as a fair fight between a bike and a car. If I get into a head on collision with a careless driver, I lose.

Transportation people define cyclists (along with pedestrians, children, the elderly, and the disabled) as “vulnerable road users.” We are the ones most at risk of getting injured, or worse, in a collision.

For the most part, cycling and transportation safety activists have worked to try and bridge the yawning gap in safety between drivers and vulnerable users. So we push to implement road diets, to install bike lanes, to lower speed limits, to educate drivers and cyclists alike about road etiquette. And we do all of this, rightly so, in the name of safety.

The positives – and negatives – of cycling

Part of the impetus behind the push for improving bike infrastructure is the myriad benefits associated with active transportation, which I laid out in detail in my last post.

We all know the advantages of expanding cycling. It reduces wear and tear on roads. It improves safety for all road users. It helps promote vibrant neighborhoods and may increase retail sales. It can fight obesity and enhance public health. And it reduces local air pollution and helps tackle climate change.

But there’s two sides to every coin. We know that individual cyclists take a real risk each time they venture onto the road, even as the rise in cycling enhances safety for all. Could this same dilemma be true for air pollution and public health? The evidence seems to say yes.

Cyclists and exposure to air pollution

On the one hand, cyclists help to improve both local and regional air quality, full stop. Bikes are emissions free and every mile spent cycling rather than driving keeps roughly one pound of carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere. The more people who move out of cars and onto bikes, the more we can mitigate transportation-related air pollution (TRAP) and reduce everyone’s exposure to its harmful effects.

it's a trap

Admiral Ackbar hates air pollution.

Yet, on the other hand, not every road user is exposed equally to TRAP. The specific characteristics of a vehicle can dramatically affect the levels of pollution that people riding in or on it can experience. We know, for example, that pollutants can concentrate inside of school buses, ensuring that children on board may be exposed to much higher levels of particulate matter and air toxics than they would otherwise. The same is true for heavy-duty truck drivers.

When it comes to drivers, however, that 2,000-pound steel box puts you at a significant advantage. Unlike cyclists, who have no air exchange buffer, drivers can roll up their windows and turn on recirculated air, lessening their personal exposure to TRAP, even as they produce it.

Multiple studies back this up. In a recent paper (paywall), Carlos Ramos, Humbert Wolterbeek, and Susana Almeida compared the exposure of cyclists and drivers to various air pollutants, using samples from Lisbon, Portugal. Though the authors found that drivers actually inhale five time as much carbon monoxide (CO) and more than twice as much CO2 as cyclists, respectively, the same was not true for other, more harmful pollutants. Cyclists were exposed to 30% higher concentrations particle pollution and ground-level ozone, on average.

As Ramos, Wolterbeek, and Almeida note, drivers tend to face higher concentrations of primary pollutants, like CO, because they remain in direct proximity to the pollutant source. Cyclists, in contrast, are able to limit their exposure to primary pollutants, but they breathe in much higher levels of secondary pollutants (ozone, PM2.5).

Exposure to pollution isn’t the whole story

It would be really consider convenient to end the discussion here and wash our hands of this whole issue. Drivers are exposed to higher levels of one type of pollution, while cyclists face higher levels of another.

But, like most things, this isn’t as simple as it can seem on the surface. The health effects of air pollution isn’t simply a product of pollution levels. Rather, it’s a function of concentration, length of exposure, extant health status (e.g. is the person elderly or asthmatic), respiratory rate, and inhalation route (nose or mouth).

When you account for these factors, the deck becomes decisively stacked against cyclists. Because cyclists spend more time on the road (due to their slower speeds) and breathe more heavily, they inhale higher levels of pollution in nearly every instance.

How cyclists can reduce their exposure to pollution

Now, there are steps that cyclists can take, at least in theory, to reduce their exposure to TRAP. Much like a cyclist can reduce his/her chances of being hit by using off-street paths or side streets, s/he can alter the amount of pollution inhaled by changing routes.

A group of scientists, headed up by Nathan Good from Colorado State University, explored this issue in a study published last fall. They selected a group of 8 commuters (4 bike, 4 car) in Fort Collins and equipped each of them with portable air monitors to document their levels of exposure along their daily commutes.

They found that, on average, cyclists were exposed to 18% more black carbon (a particular harmful component of TRAP) and 25% more PM2.5. Because cyclists spent more time commuting, the actually inhaled 92% more black carbon and 96% more PM2.5.

But Good et al. also found that cyclists could reduce these numbers by shifting to alternate, lower trafficked routes. Cyclists who used these roads less traveled actually took nearly one-quarter less black carbon.

critical mass

Cleveland Critical Mass in July 2015 as seen from my bike.

That said, there are some real issue with this study’s implications. Some people (including me) don’t have a viable, less trafficked route we can follow to work. Additionally, this approach shifts the responsibility for avoiding pollution intake from the public sector (policy makers, urban planners) to the individual cyclist. That’s a crappy way of doing things.

Including air pollution when planning bike lanes

Fortunately, additional research provides at least a partial answer.

In a 2014 study, Piers MacNaughton and colleagues looked at (paywall) how different types of bike routes affected TRAP intake among cyclists in Boston. They compared pollution levels along bike paths (those separated from vehicular traffic) and on-road bike lanes.

Unsurprisingly, the authors found that cyclists experienced significantly lower levels of air pollution while using off-road bike paths. But set that aside for now.

The important findings of this study are related to particular components of bike infrastructure. MacNaughton et al. found that two bike lane variables – vegetative cover and the number of intersections – significantly affect TRAP intake among cyclists.

Reducing the number of intersections a cyclist has to cross not only cuts his/her travel time, it also limits the number of idling vehicles s/he will face. And increasing the amount of vegetation between cars and cyclists can help slash pollution levels, as plants filter out a variety of air pollutants. According to the authors, a one unit increase in vegetative cover lowers black carbon and nitrogen dioxide levels by 3.4% and 11.6%, respectively.

As the authors conclude,

Cyclists can reduce their exposure to TRAP during their commute by using bike paths preferentially over bike lanes regardless of the potential increase of traffic along these routes. Based on these results and the relevant cyclist safety literature, urban planners should push for the development of bike paths instead of bike lanes whenever possible and should design bike paths with vegetation between the cyclists and the vehicle traffic.

Redefining the “vulnerable” in vulnerable road users

With all this in mind, the concept of “vulnerable road users” takes on a new meaning. Cyclists are not only at a greater risk of being injured or killed in a collision, we are also at a heightened risk of suffering the ill effects of TRAP.

Planners must start taking this into account. Bike infrastructure that may make sense from a safety standpoint may not hold up when we account for air pollution. And don’t get me started on vehicular cycling advocates. Cleveland’s decision to design bike lanes that buffer the curb already made no sense from a safety perspective. When you add air quality to the equation…?

Other projects seem to make more sense, in contrast. Both the Midway and the Eastside Greenway place vegetative buffers between cyclists and traffic. This feature provides a double dividend, as they would improve safety and help reduce pollution levels.

Ultimately, it’s time to broaden our horizons on bike infrastructure. Just as we shouldn’t expect indicidual cyclists to bear the risk of being run over to improve road safety, so too shouldn’t we expect cyclists to inhale poison so the rest of us can breathe cleaner air. Let’s start accounting for air pollution exposure and intake when planning bike lanes.

Why developed countries should back loss and damage in Paris

schoolchildren typhoon haiyan
schoolchildren typhoon haiyan

School children in the Philippines contemplate the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (courtesy of Pio Arce/Genesis Photos).

A number of critical issues remain unresolved, including whether countries should set a maximum safe threshold for carbon emissions and what protocols will be put in place to ensure that parties are transparent and accountable for their emissions reduction commitments. One of the trickiest outstanding issues is the question of loss and damage. For years, developing countries have called for developed states to compensate them for the negative effects of climate change, such as more frequent flooding and more intense droughts.

While developed countries committed to provide financing for climate mitigation and adaptation through the development of the Green Climate Fund in 2009, it is widely acknowledged that there are impacts of climate change which we can neither prevent nor prepare for. These residual effects are at the centre of the loss and damage debate.

This issue particularly came to the fore at the 2013 Warsaw Conference, which took place in the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated parts of the Philippines and killed more than 6,300 people.

Yeb Sano, the Philippines lead negotiator, delivered an impassioned speech in Warsaw pushing the issue. Sano, whose hometown had been flattened by the storm, fasted throughout the conference in solidarity with Haiyan survivors. He called for parties “to make clear the difference between humanitarian aid and climate change compensation in the context of historical responsibility.”

These efforts paid off, as negotiators created the Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage, which created a standing committee to research the issue and advise the UNFCCC over the next two years.

At last year’s conference in Lima, negotiators reaffirmed their commitment to discuss the issue, outlined the membership of an Executive Committee, and approved a two-year work plan. But discussions remain in a preliminary phase, and many developing states remain concerned that the Paris talks may fail to address the question adequately. Small island states, in particular, view loss and damage as an existential question, as climate change may threaten their very survival.

To read the rest, head over to the original post at RTCC.

Karachi’s Heat Wave a Sign of Future Challenges to Pakistan’s Fragile Democracy

A man (R) cools off under a public tap, while others wait to fill their bottles, during intense hot weather in Karachi, Pakistan, June 23, 2015. A devastating heat wave has killed more than 400 people in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi over the past three days, health officials said on Tuesday, as paramilitaries set up emergency medical camps in the streets. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro - RTX1HPUL

A man (R) cools off under a public tap, while others wait to fill their bottles, during intense hot weather in Karachi, Pakistan, June 23, 2015. A devastating heat wave has killed more than 400 people in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi over the past three days, health officials said on Tuesday, as paramilitaries set up emergency medical camps in the streets (courtesy of Reuters).

Karachi, the world’s second largest city by population, is emerging from the grips of a deadly heatwave. A persistent low pressure system camped over the Arabian Sea stifled ocean breezes and brought temperatures in excess of 113°F (45°C) to the city of 23 million people in June. The searing heat disrupted electricity and water service, making life nearly unbearable. All told, officials estimate the heatwave killed at least 1,200 Pakistanis, more than twice as many as have died in terrorist attacks this year.

But meteorology alone cannot explain this turn of events. Rather, as with all disasters, Karachi’s heatwave is rooted in a complex web of natural and man-made factors. “The emergency is the product of a perfect storm of meteorological, political, and religious factors,” notes The New York Times.

Karachi’s rapid growth has heightened people’s exposure and vulnerability to heat. Since 2000, Karachi’s population has doubled, making it the fastest growing megacity in the world. This population explosion has overwhelmed the capacity of local government. At least half of all Karachiites live in informal settlements, with little access to infrastructure and vital services. Unplanned expansion has also led to widespread environmental degradation. Karachi’s annual concentration of fine particulate matter is 11.7 timesWorld Health Organization standards (and more than double that of Beijing), making it the fifth most air-polluted city in the world. Karachi also faces an acute water crisis. Some of its poorest residents survive on just 10 liters per day, one-fifth of daily drinking requirements, while some estimates suggest more than 30,000 people die from water-related diseases every year.

Wide swathes of trees and other vegetation have been cleared for roads and buildings, limiting shade and exacerbating the urban heat island effect (the process by which urbanized areas absorb and retain solar radiation, significantly increasing local temperatures). Add to this the city’s construction boom which creates a major demand for manual labor and the onset of the holy month of Ramadan – during which Muslims can neither eat nor drink before sundown – and you have a recipe for disaster.

To read the rest, head over to the original post at New Security Beat.

Why South Asia’s earthquakes are always India’s “fault”

muzaffarabad earthquake damage 2005
muzaffarabad earthquake damage 2005

Damages to Muzaffarabad, Pakistan after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, was at the epicenter of the magnitude 7.6 quake (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Earlier today, I read an article from The Conversation on why it is so difficult to develop early warning systems for earthquakes, like the one that hammered Nepal over the weekend. The piece included an interesting geological factoid:

Across the Himalayas there is around 20mm of convergence (shortening) every year, roughly half of the overall convergence between the Indian and Eurasian plates. The remainder is accommodated further north, in ranges such as the Tian Shan and the Tibetan Plateau. In other words, every year a person in Siberia becomes roughly 40 mm closer to a person in central India, as the Earth’s crust deforms across the broad region between them.

This reminded me of a story that I heard from Andrew MacLeod, a former United Nations official, back in 2013. MacLeod, who worked on humanitarian issues for a number of years, played an integral role in the highly regarded international response to the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, which killed more than 73,000 Pakistanis. Here’s how he described this episode in his memoir, A Life Half Lived:

During a particularly difficult time in early negotiations with the Pakistanis, I joked that the earthquake was all ‘India’s fault’. This gross oversimplification intended as a joke brought the desired laugh at a very tense time. Geologically speaking, the joke is true. The Indian subcontinent, by continuing to push north-eastward and under the Asian continental plate at 5 cm per year, is the cause of the region’s considerable tectonic activity. This results in many earthquakes and an on-going pushing up of the mountain ranges, making the entire terrain unstable. Regular massive landslides and geological movements give the impression that this part of the world is still being born. The magnificent geography, unstable history and the political turmoil meant that when the earthquake hit, the word ‘devastating’ could only be used as an understatement.

3 things about this anecdote:

  1. This is a particularly brilliant double entendre. Using the word “fault,” which signifies both culpability and the underlying plate tectonics, is pretty damn clever.
  2. The historical roots of earthquake vulnerability often stretch back generations. Anthropologist Anthony Oliver-Smith famously described the May 1970 earthquake that hit Yungay, Peru as a “500 year quake.” By this, he meant that Peru’s vulnerability to the disaster was borne from the destruction of Incan infrastructure and land use policies enacted by the Spanish conquistadors. I guess if you look at vulnerability from the perspective of geological history, the Nepal earthquake could be seen as 50 million year quake.
  3. This episode shows how, even during times of great tragedy and hardship – such as the deadliest earthquake in the history of South Asia – humor can be the most effective tool at our disposal. Needless to say, the Pakistani officials who heard the joke loved it, which helped to ease a potentially difficult relationship between a military regime and the international humanitarian community. But you need to be careful to make the right joke at the right time. On this front, MacLeod has me beaten by a mile.

A political scientist explains what influences disaster relief aid decisions

germany search & rescue nepal
germany search & rescue nepal

Relief workers from the German NGO International Search and Rescue prepare to head to Nepal with their dog Apache (courtesy of VOA News).

In my last post, I examined a handful of studies that explored the political drivers of disaster relief aid determinations. Two of these studies were from Travis Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin Platteville. Unfortunately, Dr. Nelson was too busy with end of the semester tasks to get back to me before I published the original post, but he did send me a couple of thoughts last week. Below are my questions on the research and his responses.

Tim Kovach: In your 2010 article, “Rejecting the gift horse,” you argue that anocratic states are the ones most likely to reject disaster relief aid. Do you think that the Burmese government would have initially rejected international assistance after Cyclone Nargis regardless of the fact that the constitutional referendum was one week later, given its hostile relations with the West? Or was the political transition central to this decision?

Travis Nelson: Having looked at a number of these cases of aid rejection, I think the main common denominator is a fear of perceived weakness. The government of Burma/Myanmar was already weak and facing a popular revolt when Cyclone Nargis struck. Any further perceived weakness could have, from their perspective, further emboldened those efforts. India transitioned from aid recipient to aid donor not necessarily because it no longer needed aid but because it wanted to be perceived as a stronger global power. Even the Bush administration’s refusal of international aid following Hurricane Katrina seems to me to be about perception of strength (to both a domestic and international audience) more than anything else. So my read is that Burma/Myanmar rejection of aid was less about the constitutional referendum and more about these broader concerns. Although the referendum itself was, of course, a factor in these broader concerns.

Tim Kovach: I’m not sure if you have read the 2009 World Bank paper (and subsequent 2011 study) from Guenther Fink & Silvia Raedelli that argues disaster aid is nearly as politicized as official development assistance. If you have, do you have any thoughts on their argument? I know that your study does find some evidence that trade, colonial ties, and military alliances influence humanitarian aid flows, but why do you think that your results differ from some of the other literature on these points?

Travis Nelson: Although I haven’t looked at their study that carefully, I don’t think my findings are that different than those of Fink/Raedelli.  Both of us agree that humanitarian aid is ultimately a mix of political interest and humanitarian need.  Individual donor states differ on which types of “political interest” are a factor in their aid decisions.  But the fact of political interest is consistent.  The same is true of humanitarian need.  When I give presentations about humanitarian aid, I often find that audiences are deeply skeptical that humanitarian aid is about anything other than the political interest of the donor.  So I think it is notable that the data does not support this conclusion.  There is still at least some humanitarianism in humanitarian aid.

 

Condoms are key for promoting responsible consumption

community health worker
community health worker

A community health worker talks to women in SIerra Leone (courtesy of H4+ Partnership).

At first blush, the idea that one action to reduce conspicuous consumption could bring about a sustainable future seems far-fetched. Sustainability is all-encompassing. There is no silver bullet; we need a thousand silver BBs. But not all actions are created equally. Some are so central that, without them, we cannot hope to bring about the future we want. Ensuring that all 7 billion people have the access to and education needed to properly use condoms is one such action.

Worldwide, more than 200 million women have an unmet need for contraception. This gap has startling consequences. In 2012, at least 85 million pregnancies were unintended. If every woman who wanted to avoid pregnancy could access modern contraceptives, there would be 22 million fewer unplanned births and 15 million fewer unsafe abortions each year.

The condom is perhaps the most important tool for tackling this issue. This simple piece of latex tackles a host of problems that undermine sustainability.

First, condoms help fight the scourge of HIV/AIDs and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). More than 1.5 million people died of AIDS-related diseases in 2013, while 35 million people live with HIV/AIDS. In turn, people contract nearly 350 million cases of STIs, like gonorrhea and syphilis, each year. These preventable infections make life far more challenging and can even be deadly. One such disease, HPV, is the leading cause of cervical cancer, which kills hundreds of thousands of women annually.

Second, condoms are vital for curbing population growth and addressing climate change. If contraceptive use increased by 14%, we could prevent 1 billion births by 2050. This step will be key for keeping global temperatures below 2ºC. Curbing population growth could, on its own, produce 16-29% of the emissions reductions we need to stave off dangerous climate change. This issue will be particularly important in the developed world, where each person’s carbon footprint is far larger. Here in the United States, where half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the average person uses 25 times more resources in his/her lifetime than one in a developing country. Clearly, condoms can reduce carbon emissions and tackle conspicuous consumption in tandem.

Third, ensuring that everyone can use condoms will increase our level of resiliency. Pregnant women and infants are uniquely vulnerable to a number of threats, like natural disasters and diseases. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, women were four times more likely to die. And, because mosquitoes are attracted to pregnant women, malaria hits them especially hard. Infection during pregnancy causes 10,000 maternal and 200,000 infant deaths every year in Africa. Reproductive health, particularly contraceptive use, needs to be a centerpiece of health and disaster management planning.

Fourth, the condom can be a key tool for women’s empowerment. Every day, millions of women are trapped by the issues related to unprotected sex. Giving them the ability to choose when and how they reproduce is essential to putting their destinies in their hands. Condoms can help reduce the amount of time a woman spends pregnant, curb postpartum depression, and slash maternal deaths. As the WHO noted, “Without fertility regulation, women’s rights are mere words. A woman who has no control over her fertility cannot complete her education, cannot maintain gainful employment…and has very few real choices open to her.”

Clearly, while the condom is not a sufficient tool for a sustainable future, it is a necessary one. Condoms help liberate men and women alike from illness, vulnerability, environmental harm, and a lack of choice.

Here’s how oil, population, and trade affect disaster aid flows

Damage in the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma on May 2, 2008 (courtesy of OCHA).

Damage in the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma on May 2, 2008 (courtesy of OCHA).

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece for Vox that examined how media coverage of certain natural disasters – or the lack thereof – can significantly affect both the likelihood of a country getting relief assistance and, if it does, the amount it receives.

I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that media coverage is the only, or even the primary factor driving disaster aid decisions; far from it. In fact, there is a fair amount of research that shows how political considerations may be the key issue dictating aid considerations.

Disaster relief is a two-way street

One important factor to consider, as I alluded to in my Vox piece, is that relief aid decisions are a two-way street. Just as donor countries determine whether or not they want to provide support, affected countries can also control whether or not they request it. Without this formal request, the United Nations cannot issue a Flash Appeal, and donor countries will have no way of getting their financial, logistical, and human resources on the ground.

So why would a country hit hard by a disaster actually refuse to accept help? In a 2010 study (gated), Travis Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, argued that, for countries transitioning from autocratic systems to more democratic ones – known as anocracies in political science parlance – “aid refusal…is at its core a political act” meant to show that the country’s leadership is able to handle the disaster recovery process on its own.

A recent example of this phenomenon happened in Burma, which I detailed in a 2013 paper (PDF). Cyclone Nargis struck the southern portion of the country in May 2008, killing more than 138,000 people. But rather than accepting offers of support from the international community, the country’s ruling military junta went to great lengths to keep the humanitarian community out. It waited several days to accept international assistance, and even then it only did so on the condition that it strictly control every aspect of the process. It took a full 3 weeks for then-leader Than Shwe to allow the international community to conduct a relief and recovery effort.

Why Burma’s leaders rejected humanitarian assistance

If you view this episode in a vacuum, the junta’s actions make no sense. Why on earth would they actively refuse support, given their clear inability to help their own people?

But, when placed in context, as Nelson argues in his study, things become clearer. Burma, which had existed on the fringes of the international community for nearly two decades at that point, had valid reasons to be wary of offers of support from Western states. These same states had spent years actively undermining and isolating the junta. Moreover, Western leaders took a number of provocative steps in the days after the cyclone that likely delayed the response effort further. The United States anchored a Navy battleship just miles off the Burmese coast, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner threatened to invoke the principle of the Responsibility to Protect as a means to forcibly initiate a response effort.

One can almost – almost – forgive the junta for fearing that Western governments might use humanitarian actions as a cover for furthering regime change. As Burma expert Andrew Selth has written, “Even paranoids have enemies.”

It’s important to point out that, in accordance with Nelson’s study, the Burmese government had recently initiated a political reform process. Nargis hit just one week before a long-anticipated referendum on the country’s new constitution, a critical part in the junta’s years-long process to slowly and partially democratize the country.

I should also note that, regardless of how irrational the junta’s fears of foreign influence may have been, they actual proved to be somewhat prophetic. Thein Sein, the country’s current president, headed up the regime’s response effort and worked closely with the United Nations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This positive interaction between Sein and his international counterparts likely hastened the country’s political transition.

The politics of disaster aid

But now we need to consider the political concerns behind the other side of the equation – donor decisions. What accounts for the fact that the US provides relief after less than 1 out of every 5 disasters?

In a 2009 working paper for the World Bank1, Guenther Fink, an international health economics professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Silvia Redaelli, a senior economist at the Bank, explored these factors.

As the authors note, humanitarian aid is often seen as a different animal than official development assistance (ODA). Whereas donor countries have always attached political conditions to ODA, that rule has not applied for emergency aid. Instead, “donor governments perceive emergency aid as political unconditional.” In principle, it should be apportioned according to the greatest need.

But, as Fink and Redaelli demonstrate, donor countries have consistently failed to live up to these principles. In the study, they explore the factors driving the delivery and amount of aid after 449 rapid-onset disasters. They explored the amount of aid provided in the aftermath of these events based on information from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair’s (OCHA) Financial Tracking System. To control for political considerations, they add a number of independent variables, including population size, GDP per capita, Freedom House rankings, trade openness, the distance between donor and recipient state capitals, whether or not the recipient country exports oil, and how closely the donor and recipient country’s UN voting patterns line up.

Population density, oil exports, and trade openness all affect aid

They find that both the number of people affected and killed increases the likelihood of aid delivery, by 10-13% and 20%, respectively. But, more than that, political factors seem to drive the decision making process. Donors are 25-30% more likely to support their former colonies, and Western countries are far more eager to support oil producers.

Interestingly, donor countries appear more apt to contribute to disaster-affected countries that are not already aligned with their political interests. Unlike with ODA, which donors seem to use to reward their allies, humanitarian aid seems to be a tool to build better political relations. As the authors note, “If the acquisition of international consensus is on donors’ political agenda, emergency aid may well be a more visible, cheaper and more flexible tool to reach such a consensus than traditional development assistance.”

These political issues also mediate the amount of aid provided. When disasters occur at least 1,000 kilometers away, aid values are halved. In contrast, politically non-aligned states see 200% more aid, while former colonies can expect to receive 5 times more.

The correlation between the current allocation of aid and the actual humanitarian losses associated with natural disasters is surprisingly low.

But Fink and Redaelli dig further into the data and find that the five major donor countries – the US, Germany, Japan, Norway, and the United Kingdom – are all motivated by different interests. While the US tends to support democratic regimes, Norway is actually 14% more likely to support more autocratic countries. Germany, for its part, is 66% more inclined to provide aid to neighboring states, while Japan shows an interesting affinity for densely populated countries. And, reminding us all that the sun never set on the British Empire once, former colonial bonds increase the UK’s aid probability by nearly 30%.

The study includes two additional findings. First, the US, UK, and Norway are more likely to support oil exporters by 24%, 35%, and 39%, respectively. Secondly, the authors note evidence for a “bandwagon” effect – when more of these big 5 donors contribute to the relief effort, the total number of donor countries increases significantly.

Unlike other research, the paper also explores what factors drive private disaster aid flows. Nongovernmental donors appear more inclined to support poorer countries and are 16% less likely to provide aid to countries that get high marks for trade openness. Interestingly, private donors do not seem responsive to either the number of fatalities or whether the disaster-affected country exports oil.

Ultimately, as Fink and Redaelli conclude, “While the evidence of the various biases varies significantly across countries, the correlation between the current allocation of aid and the actual humanitarian losses associated with natural disasters is surprisingly low.”

I should note that note everyone agrees with this thesis. Nelson, for his part, authored a 2012 study (gated) that found while these types of political variables do play a role in aid discussion, “humanitarian variables are consistently significant predictors of disaster aid provision.”

So while this debate may not be entirely settled, the fact remains that the international community has a long way to go before it meets the principles laid out in the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and reiterated the 2011 Busan Partnership. If we hope to shift from a donor-recipient relationship to a true partnership, developed countries will need to more closely balance their underlying political considerations when apportioning disaster aid.

* Dr. Fink published a version of this paper (gated) in the May 2011 edition of the journal World Development.

How focusing on climate could make us miss the forest for the trees

mosul dam
mosul dam

Iraq’s Mosul Dam (courtesy of the AP).

If you haven’t read my last post on why we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction, read that first. I’ll wait. And, while you’re at it, read my other post on including DRR into the sustainable development goals. 

As you’ll recall from my last post, I outlined new research arguing that we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction. In this post, I want to explore Syria within this context.

Last week, PNAS released a major study linking climate change (paywalled) to the historic drought that may have contributed to the ongoing violent conflict in Syria. Unsurprisingly, the study has generated a lot of attention, garnering significant coverage from The New York TimesNational Geographic, Slate, Mother Jones, and the Huffington Post, among other outlets.

The debate over the Syria study

Given the highly contentious nature of the climate change and conflict debate (see more from me on this here and here), there has been some blowback, most prominently from Keith Kloor at Discover. In his second post on this debate, Kloor finds some dissenting voices on the study, including Edward Carr from the director of the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab (HURDL) at the University of South Carolina. Carr objected to the general view within the media that this study represents proof of the connection between climate and Syria’s violence. As he noted,

I think the translation of this drought into conflict is pretty weak. Basically, they plumb the conflict literature to support really general statements like “The conflict literature supports the idea that rapid demographic change encourages instability.” No kidding – not sure a citation was needed there. But the causal change between climate change, drought, displacement, and conflict is long and crosses several bodies of data/evidence, all of which are uncertain. The compounding uncertainty in this causal chain is never addressed, so I can’t tell if it is offsetting (that is, some parts of the causal chain address weaknesses in other parts, thereby making the connection throughout the chain stronger) or compounding. I doubt the authors know, either. Basically, I don’t understand how you can get any real understanding of the likely contribution of climate change to this conflict via this mechanism.

Some members of the media who covered the study objected to the criticisms lobbied against them. And, to be fair, both sides make fair points. The media coverage of this study has been far more measured and accurate than in the past. At the same time, the critics are also correct that this study does not prove that climate change caused the Syrian civil war and that we need to be careful when saying it did.

Because I tweet entirely too much, I waded into this debate in the form of a lengthy exchange with Kloor, Neil Bhatiya from The Century Foundation, and Brian Kahn of Climate Central. In it, Kahn asked an important question: Does discussing the role of climate change really detract from focusing on the other drivers of the conflict?

It is in this context that I want to discuss the Kelman, Gaillard, and Mercer paper. In the paper, KGM argue that the extensive focus on climate change sometimes allows it to “dominate” other drivers of vulnerability and disaster risk. Climate change can drive both hazards and vulnerabilities, two of the components in the disaster risk triad, but the question of whether climate “is a more significant or a less significant contributor than other factors…depends on the specific context,” and we should not focus on it to the detriment of other contributors. We cannot miss the forest for the trees.

What KGM means for the Syria study

Here I want to turn to another issue – the policy implications of the PNAS study. For the most part, none of the media coverage of the paper discusses what policymakers are supposed to do with this information. How should it shape their interventions in Syria? What lessons can should they glean for the future? Carr’s colleague at HURDL, Daniel Abrahams, noted the problem therein, saying “I would guess policy makers see this paper as a distraction; something that fills their inbox with people tangentially paying attention to climate issues.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question over the past week, and I would argue that it is here that the KGM study’s emphasis on placing climate change in its proper context can be particularly valuable. Let’s assume for a minute that USAID wanted to operationalize the Syria study as the basis for an intervention in the region. If the agency focused on the role that climate change played in driving the conflict, it may conclude that it should invest in projects that can provide reliable clean energy and drinking water to Syria’s crowded urban centers and irrigation water to its hard-hit farmers. What project meets all of those criteria? Why a dam, of course.

USAID actually has a track record of funding the construction of a dams in drought-affected, fragile states within the region, including Iraq’s Mosul Dam and the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan. Accordingly, funding this type of project would not be out of the realm of possibility, and it would likely make sense when viewed from a climate lens. So what could go wrong wrong?

Syria’s complicated hydropolitics

Well, in a word, lots. The climate lens fails to account for the geographic and political environment in which Syria sits. Syria is the midstream party for the Euphrates River, sitting between its upstream neighbor (Turkey) and its downstream neighbor (Iraq). Additionally, the Tigris River forms the border between Syria and Turkey as it heads southeast into Iraq. Disputes over water allocations from the rivers have undermined relations among the three parties for decades.

The complicated hydropolitics within the region are often centered around the Kurds. Turkey has embarked on a massive river basin development scheme, the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), which will see it complete 22 dams and 19 power plants. Turkey’s Kurdish minority sees GAP as just another attempt to drown their cultural identity and weaken the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK). Turkey’s dam building has long been a point of contention for Syria and Iraq. Syria has supported the PKK as a proxy battle over water allocations, while Turkey invaded northern Iraq in 1997 to attack Kurdish rebels stationed there. Syria and Iraq have also fought among themselves over water issues, with both countries dispatching troops to the border in 1975.

Clearly, the construction of one or more dams could further exacerbating the region’s hydropolitics. Furthermore, the dam itself may become entangled in the conflict. The Taliban has launched a number of attacks on the Kajaki Dam against American and British forces. ISIS, for its part, has made Iraq’s dams major targets. Its capture of the Mosul Dam, which observers have dubbed “the moment IS ascended from a dangerous insurgent group to an existential threat to Iraq,” was among the major factors that drew the US into the conflict. Any militants who remained in Syria would likely see our hypothetical dam in this same light.

Lastly, new dam projects in the region would likely create widespread, deleterious consequences for Syrians and Iraqis living downstream. Large dams have displaced 40-80 million people worldwide and created a whole host of social and environmental problems. One need look no further than Iraq to see how dams can destroy livelihoods. Following the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein used dams to drain the Mesopotamian Marshes in order to punish the Ma’dan people. The UN Environment Programme has called this episode “a major environmental catastrophe that will be remembered as one of humanity’s worst engineered disasters.”

While it’s true that climate change will alter conflict dynamics and act as a threat multiplier going forward, we cannot allow this risk to blind us to other the critical considerations at play.