Let’s not learn to love disaster

Although many thought Hurricane Sandy was a sufficient alarm, the West simply keeps pushing the snooze button.

Although rich nations suffer much more economic loss during natural disasters, poor nations pay the highest price when it comes to the disruption of human life [AP]

Even as utility companies continued their struggle to clear downed trees and restore power in New Jersey and New York last fall, it seemed that almost everyone, from climate activists to reporters to politicians, was speculating that superstorm Sandy might, at long last, have sounded an alarm loud enough to wake us all up to the climate crisis.

Then President Obama made it official when he declared in his second inaugural address on January 21, “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.” Droughts and fires have indeed devastated large areas of the continent in recent years, but it was almost certainly Sandy that prodded the president into speaking as forcefully as he did.

But nowhere is there much confidence that when it comes down to taking decisive action, either the Obama administration or anyone else is likely to take more than “baby steps“. The US Congress has taken months to authorise relief for victims of Sandy itself; forget about preventing the next Sandy.

Hitting the snooze button

For those who’ve been waiting for a wake-up call from a major disaster, even a Frankenstorm wasn’t big and bad enough to do the job. If national and international policymakers failed to adapt to our new reality after the record-shattering European heat wave of 2003, the Hurricane Katrina calamity in 2005, or Russia’s heat-and-fire emergency – associated with unprecedented floods in Pakistan – in the summer of 2010, then we shouldn’t expect significant change after America’s near-record weather-disaster losses in 2012.

And no one outside of the Philippines seems even to recall typhoon Bopha. In December, one month after Sandy, Bopha struck the island of Mindanao, causing about $1 billion in damage, displacing 850,000 people, and killing almost 2,000 (making it the strongest storm on record to hit the Philippines’ big southern island and the world’s deadliest disaster of 2012). For comparison, Sandy killed 131 but caused a whopping $62 billion in economic damage.

Governments and corporations worldwide have failed to reduce greenhouse emissions in the face of bigger and bigger natural disasters for the very same reason that they have failed to respond to the slow, steady drip-drip-drip of depleted wells and melting glaciers: they have built entire economies that depend on huge energy inputs and ever-expanding consumption, and they can’t back out now.

 Climate Question – Degrees of Change

As David Owen puts it in his 2012 book The Conundrum: “Modern life is mainly the product of our steadily growing talent for usefully setting things on fire.” To start living with far less fuel combustion will, inevitably, mean running economies on far less total energy – which means running them in low gear. So from the point of view of those with vast wealth at stake, the cure for climate disruption would be far more devastating than the worst earthquake, flood, or hurricane.

Our recognition of a human hand in the creation of destructive weather is actually part of a broader dawning awareness that purely natural disasters are a thing of the past. It is now widely accepted that if you look closely at almost any calamity, you’ll find that it was partly created or amplified by the human economy going about its day-to-day business.

Landslides can be triggered by supercharged cyclones or normal heavy rains, but they are often made possible by deforestation, road- and dam-building, and the takeover of good valley lands by cash crops, which pushes family farms onto erodible slopes. Mud volcanoes [PDF] and earthquakes can be triggered by natural-gas drilling operations. Dams and levees control flooding – up to the point at which they precipitate even worse flooding. The impact of sea-level rise is worsened by steady subsidence of the land on which we’ve built coastal cities. In concrete-rich, tree-poor cities, hot spells morph into killer heat waves. Black carbon and sulfur compounds in air pollution can create local droughts and trigger floods. And where natural buffers like mangroves have given way to shrimp farms or beach resorts, the 2004 tsunami caused far worse damage. 

But because economies today can’t survive without the profits and wealth accumulation that come from encouraging these and many other human and ecological tragedies, economists continue to treat “natural” disasters as entirely external, inevitable phenomena that must be tolerated and, if possible, turned to business’s advantage.

Experts in wealthy countries like the United States are confident that any catastrophe – short of an Earth-cracking asteroid or “robotic enslavement” – can be absorbed [PDF] without long-term negative effects on the world’s wealthy economies (and as the media are sure to note after every disaster, the short-term effects on some sectors of the economy can be strongly positive).

Disaster, it seems, can be treated as just another routine risk to property that is passed along from businesses and homeowners through insurance companies to reinsurance companies. From there, it can even be offloaded to financial markets in the form of “catastrophe bonds”, “hurricane futures”, and other financial inventions.

Crisis generation

Setting aside the dismal record that such strategies have chalked up in real estate and other parts of the economy since 2007, I would argue that this ability to shuffle, deal, and place bets on our domestic disaster risk is dangerous; it tends to erode our necessary sense of urgency to curb the many practices that are contributing to the increase in numbers and intensities of disasters worldwide.

Trading on catastrophe doesn’t do very much either for ordinary people in the global South (or many in the North) who bear the brunt of any disaster’s human and ecological impacts and suffer the kind of real-world long-term damage that you can’t insure against.

Between 2000 and 2009, the world’s 47 highest-income countries experienced 950 natural disasters while the 41 lowest-income countries saw 689. The results of those events, however, were very different. There was an average of 17 lives lost per disaster in rich countries, compared with 344 lost per disaster in poor ones. Meanwhile, losses in money terms were $297 million per disaster in rich countries and $15 million in poor ones.

For economic losses, the rich-to-poor ratio was 40:1, whereas it was 1:20 for destruction and disruption of human life. That means that on average, the economic damage per life lost was 800 times as great in high- as in low-income countries. Impacts from the two megastorms of 2012, Sandy and Bopha, come very close to that average ratio.

So when judged by their consequences, disasters in the rich and poor worlds are wholly different types of phenomena. Softening economic losses cannot reduce the more tragic human losses in either region. Meanwhile, attempts by nations of the North to address disasters in the South almost always turn out to be extensions of the same development strategies that are already generating crisis after crisis.

Provision of relief and programmes to reduce vulnerability must be improved and adapted to the new reality. But more importantly, the rich countries must do even more by doing a lot less to cultivate fresh disasters. That means curbing greenhouse emissions of course, but it also means ending exploitation of people and resources in the tropics while deeply cutting consumption of products like foods, biofuels, minerals, and manufactured goods that are obtained through deforestation, air and water pollution, and degradation of soil and waterways in countries that simply can’t afford another disaster.

Stan Cox’s new book Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing will be published this spring by The New Press.