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

disaster mortality since 1990
disaster mortality since 1990

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sendai earthquake tsunami damage
sendai earthquake tsunami damage

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

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

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

DRR in context & why 2015 matters

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

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

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

WCDRR & the climate question

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

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

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

Making climate change part of DRR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time to include climate change in the immigration debate

hanna lake dried up
hanna lake dried up

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

Last month, The New York Times released the results of a poll, showing that Hispanics are far more likely to view climate change as a pressing issue that directly affects them. Fifty-four percent of Hispanics rated global warming as a extremely or very important, compared to just 37% of non-Hispanic whites. Moreover, nearly two-thirds (63%) of Hispanics said that the federal government should do a lot or a great deal to tackle climate change.

There are a number of reasons to explain this high level of concern, such as the fact that Hispanic households are far more likely to live in neighborhoods adversely affected by pollution. Minority communities are also more acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as heat-related mortality.

This increasing awareness about climate change among Hispanics may appear odd to some, at first glance. As Coral Davenport put it, “the findings of the poll run contrary to a longstanding view in politics that the environment is largely a concern of affluent, white liberals.” Timothy Matovina, executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, voiced this conventional wisdom in January, arguing,

Many Spanish-speaking immigrants are worried about surviving from one week to the next. Going to the latest rally on climate change or writing letters to their local chamber of commerce about some environmental issue that sounds to me more like something a middle-class person would do with time on their hands.

Climate change and drought in the American Southwest & Central America

What this argument misses, however, is the myriad ways that climate change is intertwined with other key issues, like immigration. Recently, NASA scientists released a study examining how climate change will affect drought conditions throughout the American Southwest and Central Plains. The study also investigated the impacts on Central America, particularly Mexico. As the map below illustrates, under a business as usual emissions scenario, there is a greater than 80% likelihood that the region will experience a megadrought of at least 30 years between 2050-2099. The historical risk of this type of megadrought is less than 12%.

This study was the first of its kind to compare projected drought trends to the historical record for the past millennium. While droughts of this type did occur during the Medieval Climate Anomaly, a warmer-than-average period lasting from 1100-1300 CE, future droughts will be exceptional. Even if the world takes steps to dramatically curb carbon emissions by mid-century,  climate change will lead to drought conditions that are “unprecedented” in at least the last 1,000 years.

nasa drought projection 2095

The portions of the continental US and Mexico that will be affected by extreme drought this century under a business as usual scenario (courtesy of NASA).

This latest study supplements earlier research showing the looming specter of drought for the region in question. A 2012 Nature Climate Change study by Aiguo Dai, for instance, concluded there would be “severe and widespread droughts in the next 30–90 years” through much of the world, particularly the US and Central America. And a 2011 study from Michael Wehner et al. found that an ensemble analysis “exhibits moderate drought conditions over most of the western United States and severe drought over southern Mexico as the mean climatological state.”

Climate change, drought, and immigration

So what does this research have to do with immigration and Hispanic Americans? Well, we have considerable evidence that droughts are a major driver of migration. As I wrote last January, high temperatures and declining rainfall significantly increase rates of migration in Pakistan. Males living in rural parts of the country, for instance, are 11 times more likely to migrate during periods of extremely high temperatures, while both men and women are more likely to leave their villages under drought conditions.

But the evidence linking climate-induced droughts and migration is not just contained to Pakistan. Because declining rainfall and elevated temperatures combine to lower crop yields in arid and semi-arid areas around the world, drought is likely to be a driver of out-migration in a number of regions. A 2010 study in PNAS found just such a link in Mexico. Declining yields of corn due to drought could increase rates of immigration from Mexico to the US by up to 9.6% through 2080.

Last week, Joe Romm connected the NASA drought study toUS immigration policy. In a post, which is somewhat inartfully titled “If We Dust-Bowlify Mexico And Central America, Immigration Policy Will Have To Change,” Romm writes:

But what are the implications for our poorer neighbors to the south? There will be virtually no part of their countries that are not in near-permanent Dust Bowl or severe drought. And of course their coastal areas (and ours) will be trying to “adapt” to sea level rise of perhaps 3 to 6 feet by 2100 (and likely faster rise after that). Again for all but the wealthiest coastal areas, the primary adaptation strategy will probably be abandonment.

Much of the population of Mexico and Central America — likely over 100 million people (Mexico alone is projected to have a population of 150 million in 2050!) — will be trying to find a place to live that isn’t anywhere near as hot and dry, that has enough fresh water and food to go around. They aren’t going to be looking south.

Romm calls this scenario “a humanitarian and security disaster of almost unimaginable dimensions.” Unfortunately, like all too many commentators before him, Romm makes broad statements about environmentally-induced migration, a topic that is incredibly complex and multi-layered. It’s exactly these types of sweeping generalizations that has led others to claim we would see up to 50 million “climate refugees” by the year 2010. Not quite.

Putting environmentally-induced migration in context

First of all, from a legal and academic sense, there’s no such thing as a climate refugee. But beyond that, it’s not helpful to reduce an issue as complex as migration to a string of simplified absolutes. Arguing that drought conditions will inevitably force people to abandon their villages, en masse, ignores a large collection of evidence to the contrary and effectively robs these people of their agency. We need to do better than that as a community of people who purport to care about the interests of individuals on the front lines of climate change.

Romm’s claim that abandonment will be the primary adaptation strategy has little support. Migration carries considerable costs and risks for individuals, so it is almost never the first choice people pursue. Environmental stress is one of many considerations that people have when deciding to migrate, but it is important to remember that this decision includes a number of social, economic, and political factors.

When examining migration patterns, we need to consider both the push and pull factors involved. Drought can be a major push factor that drives people from their homes, but there generally needs to be pull factors on the other end to attract people to destination communities. We have plenty of evidence of this from Mexico, where multiple studies from migration scholars at the University of Colorado have found that emigration to the US largely occurs among households that have previous experience with migration and/or have access to established migration networks. While declining rainfall does appear to drive households to migrate from Mexico to the US (especially for households living in dry portions of Mexico and during periods of extreme drought), the existence of social networks for potential migrants is “dominating” these flows. Whether or not households choose to migrate during dry spells is largely predicated on this factor.

None of this is to suggest that, as large portions of the Southwest and Central America enter persistent drought conditions, the number of people entering the US across the southern border (with or without legal approval) won’t increase. It almost certainly will. We have already seen spikes in migration from countries such as Guatemala, which is currently enduring an historic drought.

But, if we are proactive, things need not devolve into the worst case scenario Romm laid out. The US and our neighbors need to work together to both enhance the adaptive capacity of people living in Central America, so they can be better prepared to weather a changing climate in situ and to reform immigration policies to facilitate the movement of people throughout the region.

Migration has always been a vital adaptation in the face of external stress, and we should consider it through that lens. It is likely time for the international community to begin including migration and displacement in the broader discussion about climate change policy. Perhaps it can be couched under the national adaptation plans or the work program on loss and damage. But we need to be very careful not to let migration get subsumed within climate change. As I’ve noted, there could be significant unintended consequences of creating a special protected class for climate migrants. What about internally displaced persons who cannot access international assistance? What about the 40-80 million people who have been displaced by large dam projects worldwide?

We must also be careful about hyping waves of climate refugees. There is already enough backlash against immigrants worldwide, and pushing such doomsday scenarios may just serve to heighten that opposition. Rather than building figurative and literal barriers to immigration, we need to begin upgrading our domestic and foreign policy to support and protect potential migrants of all stripes. In a greenhouse world, we can no longer afford to consider immigration policy in a vacuum.

The NRC is wrong – we’re nowhere near ready to research geoengineering

mr burns solar shade
mr burns solar shade

Geoengineering: The Simpsons already did it.

Last week, the National Research Council released a lengthy, two-volume report on geoengineering. The central crux of the report and the surrounding debate seems to be that, sure, geoengineering is a crazy idea, but, we need to at least research it, because we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess, and we need every tool available at our disposal. Even the IPCC has dipped a toe in the water, noting in its Fifth Assessment Report that we will most likely end up surpassing the 2ºC warming threshold if we exceed 450ppm of CO2. The only way to get back under that threshold is through the “widespread deployment of bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation in the second half of the century.” Given these realities, it seems logical to at least start researching geoengineering, right? It’s better to have that arrow in the quiver and never need it than need it and not have it.

The risks & rewards of geoengineering

The problem with geoengineering is that even researching it carries clear risks. In July 2013, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program published a report titled “Backdraft: The Conflict Potential of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.” The report includes a chapter on geoengineering (“climate engineering” in their parlance) by Achim Maas and Irina Comardicea of aldephi, a German think tank.

In their piece, Maas and Comardicea lay out the potential benefits and drawbacks of climate engineering. On the one hand, climate engineering would not need to upend our existing fossil fuel-based global energy system and may be a more appealing option for certain actors. This approach would also allow developing states space to continue to exploiting their fossil fuel reserves as a way to lift their citizens out of extreme poverty, helping to level the potential trade-offs between tackling climate change and global poverty.

On the other hand, tinkering with our climate system could generate some severe unintended consequences. First, it fails to tackle the root cause of climate change, so it is far from an actual solution. Second, it does nothing to curb the impacts of climate change outside of global warming, most notably ocean acidification. Third, the potential side effects of climate engineering could be widespread, and we cannot predict them for sure. We may end up altering the color of the sky or the chemistry the oceans. Fourth, once we start playing God with our atmosphere, we can never stop. According to a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, if we engaged in solar radiation management (SRM) for 50 years, then stopped, we could end up getting all of the delayed warming from that period in just 5 to 10 years. That type of warming would be unprecedented, and we could have no way to adapt.

The trouble with research

But none of the above specifically explains why researching climate engineering is, in and out itself, fraught with risks. Maas and Comardicea delve into this issue at length. Because of the scope and the scale of climate engineering, we cannot accurately replicate it in a lab, and there is no way the international community would sign off on a global chemistry experiment without knowing the real world implications. And that necessitates experimenting outside of the lab.

Say we decided to inject sulfates into the atmosphere on a “small scale” in order to see if we could reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. The risks of even a theoretically controlled experiment could be significant. Thanks to a study that also came out last week, we know that the increase in aerosol emissions in Europe and North America during the Industrial Revolution altered precipitation patterns in the northern tropics, contributing to a “substantial drying trend” after 1850.

The impacts of climate change and, by extension, climate engineering, are so distant in time and space that we would have no way of knowing exacting where, when, and how the potential consequences of this kind of experiment would play out. What if a prolonged drought occurred in the Caribbean or the monsoon shifted dramatically in South Asia? We would be unable to pinpoint the cause of such a change – whether natural or manmade – for several months or years.

And, during this period, all sorts of social and political consequences could occur. We already know, for instance, that aerosol pollution from India has intensified tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea, including a category 4 cyclone that hit Pakistan in June 2010. Pakistan is already acutely aware of the impacts of drifting air pollution from India. What if the country experienced another disaster on the scale of the 2010 Indus River floods and decided that Indian interference in the atmosphere was to blame?

As Maas and Comardicea argue,

Even if there may be no direct connection between a state’s regional climate engineering scheme and the crop failure of another state, it may provide a convenient scapegoat and lead to increased tensions…The possibility of unilaterally implemented climate engineering, either via world powers or smaller coalitions of states, may thus lead to a “climate control race.” In the same way that states raced to develop arsenals of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, states may compete to develop and control climate engineering technology.

There is already a track record to suggest that states can use weather as a tool of war. The US employed cloud seeding techniques from 1967-1972 as part of “Operation Popeye” to try and interrupt movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Such actions directly led to the 1978 Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), which barred the using environmental modification to cause harm. But even ENMOD has not halted efforts to control the weather. China, for instance, has widely employed cloud seeding, most famously to clear the skies over Beijing in the run up to the 2008 Olympics.

Governance before research

With all of these potential consequences in mind, what do Maas and Comardicea recommend to stave off the worst effects of climate engineering? In a word, governance:

To reduce the conflict potential of climate engineering, a transparent international dialogue on the research and applications of climate engineering technologies is crucial prior to any field research (emphasis added). Ongoing talks and deliberations should involve a wide variety of stakeholders, and critically evaluate the potential technological benefits and pitfalls, as well as the regulatory development of the range of climate engineering techniques…

In conclusion, the NRC is wrong here. We need governance, first and foremost, before undertaking research and absolutely before trying out any of these crazy ass schemes in the real world. The risks are too great to play it by the seat of our pants. I’m not here to say that we should never employ geoengineering at any point, for any reason. I think it’s a terrible idea with a dramatic downside, but there may come a time when we have no choice. Then, and only then – as a very last resort – should we be ready to employ it. But we are a long way from that point, and we are still a long way from reaching the day at which we can even begin to researching to prepare for this day. Let’s get through Paris first without saddling this conference with yet another intractable problem.

Minnesota’s DOT is ready for climate change. ODOT? Not so much.

duluth flood damage
duluth flood damage

Heavy damage to a road in Duluth, Minnesota following flooding from the Tischer Creek in June 2012 (courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio).

Climate change will have profound and diverse impacts upon infrastructure throughout the United States, including transportation infrastructure. Rising sea levels, stronger storm surges, more severe flooding, land subsidence, soil erosion, melting permafrost, and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles will all strain our already aging, deteriorating roads, bridges, and ports. The American Society of Civil Engineers has consistently given the country’s infrastructure a D or D+ on its annual report card since 1998, and the US slipped from fifth place in 2002 to 24th by 2011 in World Economic Forum’s transportation rankings. Throw in profound and unpredictable changes to the climate that facilitated the rise of human civilization, and you have a recipe for disaster.

It is for this reason that the President Obama’s administration has attempted to drag the federal government into the 21st century on climate change planning, despite considerable institutional inertia, not to mention stalwart opposition from Congressional Republicans and special interests. Just last week, the President issued an executive order requiring all federal agencies to include long-term sea level rise projections during the siting, design, and construction of federal projects. Planning for such changes and the threat of 100- and 500-year flood events, which will become drastically more frequent in a greenhouse world, will be of vital importance for the US Department of Transportation. Critical institutions are already at risk from near-term climate change. Parts of Oakland International Airport, for instance, could wind up under water during the daily high tide if sea levels rise just 16 inches.

But, given the complexity of our federal system of government and the aforementioned institutional inertia, the administration’s actions will take time to trickle down to the state and local level, where many of the daily decisions on transportation infrastructure construction and maintenance occur. While this fragmented structure has enabled some progressive state and municipal governments to take steps to combat climate change in the absence of meaningful legislation from Congress, it can also create a highly uneven system in which certain locales are far more inclined to incorporate climate change considerations in transportation planning. Given the fact that the roads, bridges, and ports we build today will likely still be in operation 30-50 years from now, each day that we delay increases our adaptation deficit – that is, the gap between our current level and an ideal level of adaptive capacity to a changing climate.

To demonstrate this uneven level of adaptation, consider the different approaches to climate change planning from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT). This week, Minnesota Public Radio is featuring a series on climate change in the North Star State. An article this morning discussed how the state has adapted to more severe rainfall events in recent years.

In all three cases, whether officials say it in so many words or not, they are adapting their cities’ infrastructure to a changed climate, one that has been dumping more rain and bigger rains on Minnesota.

Warmer temperatures have an impact on infrastructure as well – more freeze-and-thaw cycles mean more potholes, for example. But because roads require relatively constant maintenance, road planners can adapt to a changing climate on the fly.

Not so with storm and wastewater systems, which are built to last as long as a century. That, say urban planners, is where the real challenge lies, and it is where some Minnesota cities have been focusing their efforts to adapt to climate change.

As the article notes, severe rain and flash floods have taken a drastic toll on infrastructure, including transportation systems, in recent years. Fortunately for Minnesotans, MnDOT has been leading the way in the effort to incorporate changing precipitation patterns and flood risks into planning. The agency recently completed an assessment of climate change risks to infrastructure in two districts, District 1 and District 6, which are located in the northeast and southeast portions of the state, respectively. In the introduction to the assessment, MnDOT writes,

Recognizing this, MnDOT planners and engineers have long considered minimizing the risk of flash flooding in the siting and design of the state’s roadway network. However, as has been the standard practice worldwide, they have traditionally assumed that future climate conditions will be similar to those recorded in the past. Climate change challenges this assumption and calls for new approaches to understanding vulnerabilities across the highway system and at specific transportation facilities so that appropriate actions, adaptations, can be taken to minimize expanding risks.

This project…represents a starting point for developing these new approaches. The focus of this pilot study is on flash flooding risks to the highway system. While flooding is not the only threat to the state’s highway system posed by climate change, it is likely to be one of the most significant and has already caused extensive disruptions to the transportation system in many areas.

If only Ohio had taken such a proactive approach to this issue. To be fair to ODOT, the agency does appear to be considering climate change in its planning process. There is a section devoted to the issue in Access Ohio 2040, the state’s long-term transportation planning vision. Perhaps strategically, the document refers to it as “climate variability” and completely bypasses the question of what is causing climate change. Now, the supplement to this section does touch on the fact that greenhouse gas emissions, including those from transportation, are driving the observed changes, though it does so somewhat halfheartedly. And then there’s the presentation on climate change infrastructure vulnerability that seems more focused on the potential benefits for the state from altering our extant climatic systems.

But, at least ODOT appears to have faced up to the issue. Access Ohio 40 calls for the state to complete a Statewide Climate Variability Study “within the next two years.” If the state meets this metric, the study should be finished by summer 2016, leaving the state roughly 18 months behind MnDOT. Now, I should note that, unlike ODOT, MnDOT’s assessment was one of 19 pilot projects funding by the Federal Highway Administration through its 2013-2014 Climate Change Resilience program. Then again, states, metropolitan planning organizations, and other entities had to actually apply to secure FHWA funding. I can find no evidence that Ohio bothered applying. Additionally, I have searched through the State of Ohio’s FY 2014-2015 transportation budget, and I find no evidence that the legislature has ponied up the $250,000-500,000 that ODOT stated it would need to complete its climate variability assessment. So I question whether Ohio is on track to finish the assessment by next summer.

And, even if ODOT has made some commitment to climate change adaptation at the strategic level – a highly dubious proposition – there is absolutely no evidence that this commitment has worked its way down to the project level. Consider the Opportunity Corridor, one of the largest projects currently being funded in the state. A handful of individuals and organizations submitted comments to ODOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the project, imploring the agency to take climate change into account. Here’s how ODOT responded in its Final EIS:

[I]t is analytically problematic to conduct a project level cumulative effects analysis of greenhouse gas emissions on a global-scale problem… Because of these concerns, CO2 emissions cannot be usefully evaluated in the same way as other vehicle emissions. The NEPA process is meant to concentrate on the analyses of issues that can be truly meaningful to the consideration of project alternatives, rather than simply “amassing” data. In the absence of a regional or national framework for considering the implications of a project-level greenhouse gas analysis, such an analysis would not inform project decision-making, while adding administrative burden.

In other words, we think your request is stupid and a waste of time, so nope.

ODOT does not operate in a vacuum. I’m sure there are a lot of good civil servants trying their best to meet the needs of Ohioans at the agency, but its direction is ultimately shaped by the elected officials in power in Columbus. Governor Kasich may at least pay lip service to climate change, but he has shown no inclination to actually act on the issue. Quite the contrary – he is responsible for signing SB 310 into law last June. Attorney General DeWine, for his part, is currently suing the EPA to stop its efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

And then there’s the GOP-dominated statehouse. The only reason Senator Bill Seitz will ever leave the legislature is through term limits, regardless of how many bombs he tosses about enviro-socialist rent seekers or the Bataan death march. And Senator Troy Balderson, the person who sponsored SB 310 and serves on the committee that regulates electric utilities, was blissfully unaware of the EPA’s plan to regulate coal-fired power plants a year after it was announced. It’s not exactly a shock that ODOT is a laggard here.

Those of us in Ohio who want an agency that is responsive to our desires to create an equitable, low-carbon, fiscally responsible transportation system need to keep pressuring ODOT, but we also need to win elections. Until then, our civil servants and public officials will keep their heads firmly lodged in the sand.

Sorry, Roger Pielke, climate change is causing more disasters

typhoon haiyan damage
typhoon haiyan damage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disaster frequency in the Asia-Pacific region

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

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

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

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

In a word, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Could climate change actually increase winter mortality?

great lakes ice cover
great lakes ice cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

cold weather death correlations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mean winter temperatures stockholm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to tropical Cleveland, part 3: Climate change in your backyard

If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you exactly three times that climate change is going to be a bigger deal for Cleveland than people seem to realize.

Well, thanks to the indispensable US Geological Survey, I now have even more data to back me up. With the help of NASA, the USGS has taken the data on temperature and precipitation from the various climate models used by the IPCC and broken it down to the county level. Thanks to this awesome new tool with a terrible name (NEX-DCP30), you can now find out what the mean temperature projections for April are in Charles Mix County in South Dakota from 2025-2049, if that’s your sort of thing.

NEX-DCP30 provides breakdowns for each county in the continental United States for three time periods (2025-2049, 2050-2074, and 2074-2099), compared to the averages from 1980-2004. You can even toggle between RCP (Representative Concentration Pathway; e.g. projected emissions scenario) 4.5, a mid-range scenario, or RCP 8.5, which is a worst-case scenario. Christmas came early for climate nerds like me.

Naturally I decided to check in on the projections for the state of Ohio and for Cuyahoga County. Here’s what I found.

Using the mid-range warming scenario (RCP 4.5), Ohio’s mean temperature will increase by 2.5°C (4.5°F) during the period 2050-2074. This puts it right in the middle of the pack – it’s average temperature change is tied for 16th of the contiguous 48 states, making it higher than 23 states, tied with 8, and lower than 15.

temperature increases mid-range emissions

Average temperature increases for the lower 48 states in 2050-2074, under RCP 4.5 (courtesy of USGS).

In the same scenario, Cuyahoga County warms at by 2.6°C (4.7°F), slightly more than the state as a whole. As you can see below, the state appears split along a diagonal line, that starts in Columbiana County and ends by cutting Hamilton in half. Those counties above the line warm at a higher rate than those below it. Overall, in the RCP 4.5 model, Ohio and Cuyahoga County warm at roughly the same rate as the country as a whole.

temperature increases ohio mid-range scenario

Average temperature increases for the 88 counties in Ohio in 2050-2074, under RCP 4.5 (courtesy of USGS).

These rates change under the RCP 8.5 model. Under this scenario, Ohio warms by an alarming 3.6°C (6.5°F) by 2050-2074, a rate of change above the national average. As the map below suggests, those states that are farthest North and/or are located in the interior of the country will experience the most warming. Ohio experiences warming greater than 26 states, the same as 4 states, and less than 18 states. While Alaska will likely see the greatest warming of all 50 states, Minnesota’s 4.0°C is the most among the lower 48.

temperature increases ohio worst case scenario in 2050-2074

Average temperature increases for Ohio’s counties in 2050-2074, under RCP 8.5 (courtesy of USGS).

Once again, under this scenario, Cuyahoga County outpaces the state as a whole. The county will see temperatures increase by 3.7°C (6.7°F). This number exceeds most of the state, though the greatest warming will take place in Northwest Ohio and in the counties along the Indiana border.

temperature increases worst case scenario 2050-2074

Average temperature increases for the lower 48 states in 2050-2074, under RCP 8.5 (courtesy of USGS).

Alarmingly, if you fast forward to the end of the century (2074-2099) using RCP 8.5, the picture becomes even bleaker. Ohio warms by a terrifying 5.3°C (9.5°F), while Cuyahoga County once again comes in higher at 5.4°C (9.72°F). The average July temperature in Ohio and Cuyahoga County would increase by 6.4°C, reaching 96.08°F and 93.74°F, respectively. Mid- to upper-90s would become the rule, not the exception.

change in monthly temperatures in worst case scenario

Mean monthly temperatures for the State of Ohio (left) and Cuyahoga County (right) in 2075-2099, under RCP 8.5 (courtesy of USGS)

Cleveland annual mean temperature currently stands at roughly 10°C (50°F), while the annual average maximum temperature of 15°C (59°F). Under a high-emissions scenario, Cleveland’s climate could became much closer to that of Oklahoma City than what we are used to experiencing now.

The current rate of climatic change – which The Geological Society now says is unprecedented in the history of the planet (PDF) – is far beyond what we are able to absorb. For a region that is not acclimatized to extreme heat and is highly vulnerable to heat-related mortality, climate change poses an immense public health risk to Northeast Ohio.

So, once again, I caution you that, while things may not become as bad in Cleveland as they may elsewhere, they’re still going to be crappy. To paraphrase The Lorax, unless we all start caring a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.

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.