“Give Disaster a Chance”

CHRIS WOOD: NATURAL SECURITY
Published September 27, 2013

Where I live, in Mexico, screens have been filled with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ingrid and tropical storm Manuel along the country’s coasts. Mexico is in no doubt about the reality of climate change, and is instituting a national strategy to respond to it. 

Meanwhile those relative few in the Canadian and US media who pay attention to such things have jumped on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report to comfort skeptics with the idea that global warming has slowed down or perhaps even paused over the last 15 years. 

A pause! Why, it’s the next thing to global cooling and a complete collapse of that whole, human-caused climate-change hoax conspiracy!

Of course there are good reasons why the IPCC’s fifth compendium of climate science acknowledges a flutter in the century-long incline of global average surface air temperatures, without stepping back from the ‘unequivocal” assertion that human emissions are forcing the climate into alarming and unfamiliar territory. To the contrary: its certainty about that is stronger than ever. 

There are also good explanations for why the relatively flat record of one indicator over a decade or so is fully compatible with evidence that increasing heat is altering other strands of the climate system.

But if you are one of those dwindling—but still influential—people who has not accepted the conclusion that human activity is pushing the Earth toward conditions that endanger humanity, it would be better if I don’t explain.  

It will only make you dig your heels in deeper. 

That, regrettably, is what researchers at Yale, Harvard and Cornell concluded. They found that once someone makes up their mind about an issue in a way that aligns with key emotional values—such as their identity, their politics, or beliefs about what others in their community believe—cognitive reasoning kicks into reverse. The more evidence they encounter that should contradict their views—the more they dismiss those facts and double-down on their beliefs.

This may discourage some of those trying to push or cajole society toward a survivable future. They shouldn’t worry. To paraphrase Edward Littwak, give disaster a chance.

It was Littwak who observed, in an essay entitled Give War a Chance, the “unpleasant truth … that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace.”

The same could be said of other kinds of catastrophes. To take a homely example, the reason that fire departments exist and most commercial buildings have fire suppression systems, is that before they did, numerous entire cities burned to the ground.

Or, as Ronald Wright, the author of A Short History of Progress, puts it: “Societies behave much like individuals. They find it very hard to change their behaviour and give up self-destructive habits until circumstances force them to do so. It took two world wars before Europeans decided they could not go on slaughtering one another as they had for thousands of years.”

War, given a horrific chance, brought peace.

So, I could point out that the lower atmosphere is only one place where heat can accumulate. It can also be absorbed into the oceans which, being made of water, can soak up a lot more of it than air before their temperatures rise much. Or that heat can be absorbed by water molecules evaporating from lake and sea surfaces into the air. 

All of that is happening. But if you are a disbeliever, please forget I mentioned it.

Nonetheless, for North America either to prepare for a different climate or help delay its onset, large numbers of disbelievers in influential offices, particularly in corporate U.S. media and Canada’s petroleo-phile national government, must accept the urgency of those tasks. 

And if reason can’t do the job, it will have to be brute force. Happily, nature is obliging.

Mexico’s floods and landslides killed more than 145 people. An early estimate put the cost of clean-up and rebuilding at US$1.2 billion, rivalling the US$1.75 billion in damage wrought by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The damage in one state alone—Sinaloa—would rank as the country’s eighth-worst-ever natural disaster. 

In the rest of North America in the last twelve months, Hurricane Sandy did $65 billion in damage to the Jersey Shore and New York City; mountain flooding left thousands homeless in High River, Alberta; and nearly identical flooding killed at least ten and stranded thousands in small towns surrounding Boulder, Colorado. 

Alberta’s insured damages alone are predicted to rise above $1.6 billion (total eventual damages have been spit-balled at up to $5 billion), making this spring’s floods the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history. Colorado’s losses are still being calculated.

By contrast, Canada’s biggest city emerged shocked but probably no more than $600 million poorer from the heavy rains that overwhelmed Toronto’s creeks and sewers in July. And the long-burning fire that threatened the iconic landscape of California’s Yosemite National Park was contained (more or less) at a cost of only some $100 million.

Still, these sums add up. In an ordinary year, even routine adverse weather costs Americans some $485 billion, according to the United States’ National Center for Atmospheric Research. But these are no longer routine times.

The number of weather-related natural disasters has doubled in number since 1990—from roughly 200 a year to 400. At this rate, the raging greenies at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecast, extreme weather will “endanger economic assets” worth US$45 trillion a year by 2050–slightly more than half of total world economic output in 2012.

Reason may not bring resistant believers around to reality. Disaster will have its chance. cwood@factsandopinions.com

Copyright © 2013 Chris Wood