Coronavirus Response Proves the World Can Act on Climate Change
By Eric Galbraith and Ross Otto
In the past few weeks, governments around the world have enacted dramatic measures to mitigate the threat of COVID-19.
It's too soon to know whether these measures will prove too little to limit mass mortality, or so extreme that they set off economic catastrophe. But what is absolutely clear is that the pandemic response is in stark contrast to the lack of effective action on climate change, despite a number of similarities between the two threats.
The alarms for both COVID-19 and climate change were sounded by experts, well in advance of visible crises. It is easy to forget, but at the time of this writing, the total deaths from COVID-19 are less than 9,000 — it is the terrifying computer model predictions of much larger numbers that have alerted governments to the need for swift action, despite the disruption this is causing to everyday life.
Yet computer models of climate change also predict a steady march of increasing deaths, surpassing 250,000 people per year within two decades from now.
As scientists who have studied climate change and the psychology of decision-making, we find ourselves asking: Why do the government responses to COVID-19 and climate change — which both require making difficult decisions to avert future disasters — differ so dramatically? We suggest four important reasons.
First, COVID-19 is deadly in a way that is frightening on an instinctive, personal level. People react strongly to mortal threats, and although the virus appears to have much lower mortality for otherwise healthy people under 60, those statistics do not quell universal personal safety fears.
The rapid bombardment of vivid detail we receive about infections, overburdened hospitals and deaths further amplifies our personal assessment of risk. Climate change has the potential to end up killing more people than COVID-19 in the long run, but the deaths are one step removed from carbon emissions, appearing instead as an increased frequency of "natural disasters."
And the slow timescale of climate change — an incremental ratcheting up of global temperatures — allows our expectations to continually adjust as the situation gradually worsens. The abstract connections between emissions and these mortal dangers prevents global climate change from achieving the urgency that the virus has, making everyone more reluctant to accept difficult policy choices.
Second, COVID-19 is a new threat that exploded into the global consciousness with obvious urgency while climate change has been on the radar for decades.
The consequences of inaction on COVID-19 loom on a timescale of weeks rather than decades away for climate change — this is not a problem for future generations, but for everyone living now. The slow, creeping awareness of the climate change threat also allowed the parallel development of professional skeptics, funded by the fossil fuel industry, who were amazingly effective at sowing doubt on the science.
There was no time for vested interests to mount similar resistance to COVID-19 policy, so governments seem to be acting on the advice of health professionals for the public good.
Third, officials from groups like the World Health Organization presented coherent and immediately actionable paths to slowing the spread of COVID-19. Governments were given a straightforward priority list of compelling their citizens to wash more, stop touching, reduce travel and go into some degree of isolation.
In contrast, the space of possible solutions to climate change is bewilderingly complex, and these solutions touch on nearly all aspects of modern life.
Even experts don't agree on exactly what is the best way to bring down carbon emissions while minimizing economic damage. This lack of clarity has contributed to confusion and decision paralysis on the part of policymakers.
Ability for Nations to Go It Alone
And, while responses to COVID-19 require close international collaboration about public health directives, travel and borders, individual nations can take effective action to slow the spread of COVID-19 within their own borders. Even the smallest countries, like Singapore, can ensure the safety of their citizens by making an effective local response to COVID-19.
In contrast, stabilizing climate requires all nations to reduce their emissions — going it alone doesn't work. This co-ordination problem may be the toughest hurdle of all when it comes to climate change. There are ideas of how the co-ordination problem could be addressed in stages, but they still require collaboration between an initial group of committed nations.
While the international response to COVID-19 has been criticized, it still gives us hope that strong climate change policy can be achieved if we manage to overcome the psychological handicaps that keep governments complacent.
At this point, the policy changes required to mitigate climate change appear far less disruptive — economically, socially and culturally — than the measures being taken right now to tackle COVID-19.
In fact, carbon dioxide emissions could probably be brought down dramatically through gradual increases in a global carbon price in ways that would be imperceptible in the daily lives of most people.
When the dust of COVID-19 settles, we should look back at this moment as proof that our societies are not enslaved to fate, and find strength in the demonstrated ability of modern societies to react to global emergencies.
Eric Galbraith is a professor of earth system science at McGill University.
Ross Otto is an assistant professor of psychology at McGill University.
Disclosure statements: Eric Galbraith receives funding from the European Research Council. Ross Otto receives funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Social Sciences and Humanities Research, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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