Why Hurricanes Harvey and Irma Won’t Lead to Action on Climate Change
By Scott Gabriel Knowles
Clustered disasters hold our attention in ways that singular events cannot—they open our minds to the possibility that these aren't just accidents or natural phenomena to be painfully endured. As such, they can provoke debates over the larger "disaster lessons" we should be learning. And I would argue the combination of Harvey and Irma has triggered such a moment.
The damages caused by the storms will undoubtedly lead to important lessons in disaster preparation and response. For many, though, the most urgent call for learning has been to acknowledge at long last the connection between climate change and severe weather.
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Will this cluster of disasters provide the lever that will move climate change in the U.S. from a "debate" to an action plan?
It's easy to view disaster history in this cause-effect way—to hop in time from disaster to disaster and spot the reforms as though they naturally emerge from adversity and commitment to change. But as a historian with a focus on risk and disasters, I can say this view can be misleading.
Early in the 20th century, the U.S. went through an era of profound concern over urban disasters that seemed to threaten city life itself.
In December 1903, the Iroquois Theatre Fire in Chicago killed more than 600 audience members due to faulty construction. Just over a month later, in February 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire consumed 140 acres of the city. That same month, a major fire ravaged Rochester. In June of the same year, more than 1,000 people died due to a fire aboard the General Slocum steamship in New York City.
Newspapers of the era were full of anger and fear over the dangers of fire and the unscrupulous actions of greedy builders and ship line operators. Despite the intensity of this 1903-04 disaster cluster, Americans would see many more such disasters (San Francisco 1906, Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 1911) before consequential reforms in fire safety were passed into law.
Eventually, those reforms did arrive, but not all at once, and not with one bill. The reforms were distributed in building codes, city plans and product safety standards that came into place by the 1930s. The disasters defined moments in time; reform was generational.
The aftermath of September 11 provides another telling example. The disaster led to multiple investigations and studies, including the best-selling 9/11 Commission Report. Perhaps the most lasting effect of September 11 was the restructuring of government that created the Department of Homeland Security.
However, we should be careful when we leap quickly from disaster to reform. The federal response to 9/11 appeared swift and decisive but was in fact following a script set in place over the previous decade through repeated attempts by some policymakers to reshape the government's capacity to respond to the terrorism threat.
It took years for scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology to finally explain the exact causes for the collapse of the Twin Towers. And in doing so, they uncovered fire, structural and evacuation vulnerabilities in the towers. These flaws were first witnessed in the 1993 bombing but dated back to the 1960s when the buildings were designed and built. The September 11 reforms did come, but only as part of a broad continuum of concern, research and debate over policy choices that had long preceded that terrible day.
Slow-moving disasters versus events
This brings us back to Harvey, Irma and the climate change connection. We have not seen any storm-day conversions on climate change in the Trump administration—indeed, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Sec. Scott Pruitt remarked that it was "insensitive" to even broach the topic while the storms were still active.
There is plenty of evidence in social psychology to indicate that individual perceptions of risk—or individual commitments to an ideology—cannot be easily shaken be external factors, even factors as dramatic as storms like Harvey, Irma or even Katrina.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
This fits the historical pattern: Clustered disasters might sharpen our senses to the risks in our midst and even disturb our complacency, but they will not necessarily lead directly to new legislation or personal ideological shifts. Strong commitments to land use, profits and real estate development have historically militated against calls for caution, restraint and mitigation, even though these types of laws make Americans safer from disasters. This dynamic will not be altered by two hurricanes, no matter how terrifying their effects.
Better indicators of change, drawing from history, have proven to be events that cluster over much larger stretches of time. A "slow disaster" frame allows civil society and scientific researchers to build a case for change that is strengthened by disaster events. For example, the red alert about the toxicity of DDT raised by Rachel Carson in 1962 had immediate effects, but that was only one early step in a series of events that followed. It should be seen as part of a much more impactful and slower process of reform that led to the creation of the EPA in 1970 and a wave of environmental regulations that took effect in that decade.
This relationship between discrete disaster events and slow disaster eras is a critical one for us to understand. We might just now be at the very beginning of such an era in the public consciousness over the connections between disasters such as hurricanes, fires, droughts and the slow disaster of climate change.
It's frustrating for people who want quick government action on climate change to be told they should play a "slow disaster" game. And why shouldn't they be angered if they have experienced the loss of a loved one or a home in the disasters of these past weeks? Still, it's useful for us to see that even the most devastating disasters are probably points on a longer timeline—one that might lead to reform if and when broad-based political action prepares the way.
Indeed, disaster victims making common cause with scientists and engineers has been one proven way to bring about a type of learning from disaster that might be more effective towards achieving ambitious changes. These could include the U.S. reentering the global community on climate action and the passage of laws that would require climate change planning to affect future construction.
But the hurricanes of Harvey and Irma will be a catalyst for a new age of realism regarding the hazards of climate change only once civil society and our politicians recognize them as part of a pattern that stretches over decades, not weeks. Our urgency to learn from disaster is important, and it is a moral imperative. We would be wise to harness this urgency to form a generational commitment to reducing the suffering from disasters.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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