Monday, October 21, 2019

"Folks, Wake Up!"

Dallas tornado damage today (photo source)
 A tornado ripped a path through Dallas, Texas overnight.  The damage is substantial, but so far there are no reports of fatalities or serious injuries.  In a news conference this morning, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said he thought this was quite fortunate, considering the significant population living in the affected areas and the fact that many were asleep in their homes when the storm passed through neighborhoods and commercial areas of the city. I'd agree. But I'd also hope this is a wake-up call for the Dallas region.

In March of this year, Bill Hanna, a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, penned a warning to those living in the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) area, admonishing them to prepare for the worst, as the location of the metro area is ripe for a significant tornado strike.  He quoted Martin Lisius, a storm chaser, filmmaker and executive director of the Texas Severe Storms Association who wrote: 

“Folks, wake up! DFW is within the highest risk area for violent class tornadoes in the entire world!  It’s just a matter of time and it won’t just happen once. It’s part of our normal climate and will be here for a long time.”

Maybe that's the lesson that should be on everyone's minds today.  Maybe nature is simply trying to remind Dallas that "You've been warned."

Monday, October 7, 2019

Mold and the Changing Climate

I addressed the issue of mold in the college campus setting in a previous post, here.  The widespread nature of the problem and its relationship to the changing climate, make it an issue that should be included in any hazard mitigation plan.  I researched a number of existing campus 'HazMit' plans, but mold wasn't identified as a distinct issue in most of them.

One plan, however, prepared by Eastern Michigan University (EMU Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan, here), listed mold, not only as a distinct "natural hazard," but actually pulled it out for special consideration as a hazard of its own. The table of contents lists hazards as follows:
  • Natural Hazard
  • Mold
  • Technological Hazards
  • Societal Hazards
The EMU plan describes the nature of this particular hazard as one that affects, not only the facilities themselves, but lurks as an unseen danger to public health.  The plan makes note of climate "events" as the potential causation mechanism for mold growth, but does not limit their discussion to mold as the aftermath of such events.  Rather, the plan states:

"Continued humid and damp conditions contribute to further growth of molds; this is likely to occur as the result of the effects of natural hazards such as tropical storms, hurricanes, and floods. However, once mold spores are formed, they have the ability to thrive in the absence of moist and humid conditions.... Indoors, mold tends to grow where humidity levels are the highest, such as basements and showers. Molds digest organic material, and they usually grow on surfaces such as wood, ceiling tiles, cardboard, wallpaper, carpets, drywall, fabric, plants, food, and insulation."

The EMU plan lists three mitigation measures to help address the potential for mold growth:
  1. Buildings with known water intrusion issues should be inspected to identify all possible sources of water infiltration and corrective actions identified.
  2. Improving back-up power sources to insure continuous HVAC System operation necessary to control temperature and humidity. (I'd add here that HVAC systems should likewise be improved in all buildings to inhibit mold growth at all.)
  3. It may also be possible to reduce the use of “mold friendly” materials in favor of “mold unfriendly materials such a concrete block, concrete board, treated wood and new “sheet rock” materials. However, utilizing mold unfriendly materials in new construction or to replace materials removed for other reasons may be justified. 
The danger posed by mold will undoubtedly be a continuing problem throughout the country with schools and other public buildings. It's another serious, long-term consequence of climate change, exacerbated by aging infrastructure. We should be addressing it as a hazard in our campus hazard mitigation plans. And it's yet another reason to meet the deferred maintenance challenge head on.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Hope in Adaptation

Recently, Greta Thunberg, a teenager from Sweden, offered an impassioned plea to the United Nations.  She said:

"You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!...

"You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you."

Photo Source

These words focus deserved attention on the issue of climate action; but more importantly, the tone of the rhetoric and delivery underscores an even greater concern: A growing lack of hope for the future--particularly among the younger generation.

A recent article in Vice pointed out that outright despair, prompted by the impression that the changing climate will soon wipe out all life on earth, has caused many to "give up on life."  The article began with the story of a former teacher who related the following:

"Summers have been stressful to me since having my son," said Ruttan Walker, who is now an environmental activist. "It's hard to enjoy a season that's a constant reminder that the world is getting warmer. I think my anxiety just reached a peak," Ruttan Walker continued. It felt like there was nowhere to go, and although she had spoken to her primary care doctor about anxiety, she hadn't sought help with her mental health. Suddenly, she was contemplating self-harm. "Though I don't think I would have hurt myself, I didn't know how to live with the fear of... the apocalypse, I guess? My son was home with me and I had to call my friend over to watch him because I couldn't even look at him without breaking down," Ruttan Walker said. She eventually checked herself into an overnight mental health facility.

The article describes at length the concerns of scientists and others that, as they explain it, "cannot be understated." That said, as even the life experience of the aforementioned Greta Thunberg herself (related in the Vice article) displays, the best response to the fear and despair is to channel those emotions into action.   The article continues:

If despair breeds inaction, that's obviously a problem. But others think a certain amount of dread could be helpful. In an essay by four sociologists (Kasia Paprocki, Daniel Aldana Cohen, Rebecca Elliott and Liz Koslov) published in May, the authors argue for something called "useful discomfort." They write that they couldn't help but notice that their colleagues in the physical sciences are having a tough time dealing with "overwhelming evidence of an apocalypse," and that they're "largely despairing both because of what they know, and how they are being ignored, dismissed, and even outright threatened." However, they write, "We believe that our discomforts are productive. They allow us to reject catastrophism and clarify possibilities for better futures."

In the case of climate, building resilience provides a path forward. One author reminds us that humans can adapt and survive virtually anything. His reasoning?

That’s because apocalypse is well-nigh impossible. We’re like ants: We’re vulnerable to being killed en masse, but the species will survive because, like ants, we’re numerous and dispersed. No matter how many supposedly humanity-ending threats you hurl—literally, in the case of ballistic missiles—humans will continue to crawl the Earth. This comfort may be cold, but it’s still a fact….

The millennial dystopian attitude is not totally illogical. The problems we confront in this century are menacing, and they won’t solve themselves. But a resort to the logic of “it doesn’t matter what we do because we’re all doomed anyway” is both lazy and wrong.

There’s little doubt that Homo sapiens is capable of unprecedented harm. But one thing we can’t do is extinguish ourselves—we’ll have to leave that achievement to an outside celestial force.

OK, not exactly the approach I would take... But the point here is that adaptation to climate change is a reasonable solution to that particular problem.  We can survive even the most difficult global calamities.

Photo Source
More broadly, I would argue that the informed adults in society begin to speak in terms of a collective hope for a better future for all. Adopting a common vision, finding shared solutions and then encouraging their implementation is far more effective than sowing fear in an attempt to achieve the same goals.  The latter, negative approach does little to build confidence and undermines the resolve of the younger generations who will be responsible to carry the torch forward.

Teach our children there is hope for the future and that rebuilding a peaceful and resilient society is the key.  That's quite literally the only way to keep us all... out of harm's way.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Paradigm Shift

The journal Planning for Higher Education published the results of a study wherein roughly 30 organizations, including a number of colleges and universities, were asked about their preparedness in the face of a changing climate. Many were nowhere near as ready as they wished to be. Planning for resilience was lacking at most. 

This was clearly not a scientific or representative study, yet the conclusions reached by its author were quite interesting.  In the report, the author categorized a number of different “barriers to resilience planning” identified by the surveyed groups:

Financial.  Many report budgetary constraints (for planning and implementation). The short-term nature of the budget process (as compared to the long-term nature of climate change) is problematic, as is the misconception that “resilience measures are extremely expensive with a low return on investment.”

Organizational.  Some institutions just don’t know where to start.  Some lack “consistent regulations and policies.” Others say they don’t have the leadership support necessary.  Many cite a “lack of metrics for measuring progress…. Behavioral inertia” also makes it “difficult to convince people to take action against future potential impacts that cannot be quantified accurately.”

Campus Flood Map (Source)
The author concludes that “a paradigm shift in campus operators’ and users’ understanding of and attention to climate-related vulnerabilities is necessary for campus communities to become more resilient.”  So how can that happen?  The interviews rendered their own suggestions from the institutions surveyed:

SET ASIDE TIME FOR PLANNING AND PREPARATION. Resilience planning and implementation may take time, and it is therefore important to begin the process now. It is recommended that colleges and universities conduct a campus-level vulnerability assessment to determine how the campus will withstand potential harm from both short- and long-term climate change impacts. Planning efforts should include safe evacuation routes and/or preparations for dwelling in place in the event of extreme weather.

INTEGRATE SUSTAINABILITY AND RESILIENCE THINKING. The effectiveness of resilience measures can be increased by incorporating elements of sustainability, such as energy optimization, renewable energy, and stormwater control. Universities should make sure to prepare for the longer-term consequences of climate change, such as the incremental rise in sea levels, as well as the severe impact of short-term events such as storms. They should also consider campus-wide approaches, such as a holistic stormwater collection and storage system or a network of vegetative cover to reduce heat island effects during hot summer months.

KEEP ABREAST OF CHANGING REGULATIONS AT THE MUNICIPAL, REGIONAL, AND FEDERAL LEVEL. Colleges and universities should stay ahead of new and impending building and construction codes to ensure they are in compliance.


FACILITATE COLLABORATION AMONG ALL CAMPUS STAKEHOLDERS, including external stakeholders, if applicable, and determine each stakeholder group’s specific needs in order to get everyone’s buy-in.

RAISE AWARENESS. Internal audiences need to be educated on the importance and benefits of emergency preparedness and how implementing measures now can decrease future problems and associated costs.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Message of Adaptation

The landmark climate report by the US Department of Defense (DoD), mandated by the FY2018 DoD budget bill in Congress, continues to make news as its purpose and goals are debated.  The non-partisan Center for Climate and Security concludes that the report is a good start, but encourages the DoD to expand their efforts in this regard. 

Military assisting hurricane victims in Puerto Rico (source)
The Council on Foreign Relations outlined some of the national defense-related concerns in the report. They are significant:

Citing increased exposure to recurrent flooding, drought, desertification, wildfires, and thawing permafrost, the report highlights how climate change affects U.S. military readiness to respond to national security emergencies.

The report includes a list of selected events where mission related activities at military installations were compromised due to environmental vulnerabilities as well as a brief list of policies taken to mitigate future damages. To quantify the extent to which the military is threatened by climate change, the report tracked seventy-nine priority American domestic installations chosen by their critical operational roles. While the public report was circumspect on details given the sensitive strategic nature of the subject, it did identify climate change as an important and tangible threat to the U.S. military….

Of course, protecting operational bases against severe weather events is not the only worry the military has in the face of climate change…. Beyond direct U.S. military activities related to the homeland, the DoD report mentions that the U.S. military carries out significant humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, as directed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). If climate change does lead to an increased severity of global natural disasters, the military may need to expand its capacity to deal with traumatic events in different parts of the globe, on top of expanding requirements and strains at home….

Climate change also threatens increased destabilization in regions outside of the United States, which may put strain on deployed troops or even require U.S. military intervention. Sea-level rise could threaten rapidly developing cities along the coast of Africa like Mogadishu, Djibouti City, and Mombasa with damaged infrastructure and compromised water supplies. Any major displacement from these major cities would be a geopolitical risk and put even more strain on the already stressed global immigration channels.

Regardless of your position vis-à-vis the cause of change in the climate or our ability to abate the progress of that change, the reality of change should not be debated. Instead, as the report accurately points out, we should be doing all we can to adapt and enhance resilience worldwide.   

Perhaps this report and the subsequent studies it prompts in the US Government will help quell partisan bickering and expand this important discussion through all segments of our society.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Ten Principles for Building Resilience

Flooded Homes in Houston, TX (source)
 The Urban Land Institute, in a publication of the same name as this entry title, describes the following keys to building resiliency in communities, namely:

Ten Principles for Building Resilience
The Urban Land Institute

1.  Understand Vulnerabilities
     Understanding how shocks and stresses increase risks is the first step toward building resilience.
2.  Strengthen Job and Housing Opportunities
     Cities with a diversity of jobs and housing choices are more resilient and better prepared for extreme events and other challenges.
3.  Promote Equity
     Pursuing equity means purposefully addressing racial, social, environmental, and economic injustices to build stronger communities
4.  Leverage Community Assets
     Identifying and leveraging existing assets will enable communities to bounce back better.
5.  Redefine How and Where to Build
     Building resilience entails identifying and investing in places and infrastructure that are the most likely to endure.
6.  Build the Business Case
     Strategies that prepare for and mitigate climate-related risks can create and provide a strong return on investment.
7.  Accurately Price the Cost of Inaction
     Recent extreme weather events suggest that the costs of not investing in resilience and risk reduction are dramatically increasing.
8.  Design with Natural Systems
     Designing resilience relies upon an understanding of the function and geography of natural systems and how they can help strengthen manmade systems and communities.
9.  Maximize Co-benefits
     Risk reduction initiatives and infrastructure can also include elements that enhance quality of life and economic development potential.
10. Harness Innovation and Technology
     Innovation related to infrastructure, mobility, data and information tracking can improve response to crisis and strengthen resilience for the long term.

Each of these is is critically important to the target audience of the paper (civic leaders and their real property partners), and the paper shares both details and case studies where these principles have been successfully incorporated.  Of particular relation to this blog, is the notion of "Redefining How and Where to Build" (#5).  The paper expands, with the following:

… Redefining how and where to build entails not only proactive investment in the future, but also an acknowledgment of the inherent risks in cities’ current development patterns. Merely supporting parts of a city that have the potential for long-term growth presents a major risk: that those living and working in vulnerable areas will be forgotten. Providing support to these communities, and ensuring that all people have the social networks and physical infrastructure needed to stay safe and reach their potential, are also critical facets of building resilience.

Cities will need to establish fair approaches for supporting communities in places that are physically vulnerable to climate impacts and major events. Thoughtful relocation strategies, which seek to maintain community fabric and networks and include residents in the decision-making process, may be part of the solution. If communities or residents ultimately need to relocate, they should be provided fair compensation and offered alternatives in nearby neighborhoods, which preserve access to jobs, civic facilities, and social networks.

Pivoting land use patterns and municipal investment strategies to acknowledge vulnerabilities and enhance resilience will be a long-term process, and it may take decades for land use patterns encouraged by new policies to come to fruition. In the interim, developers, investors, and others who anticipate this potential shift are likely to see long-term potential in investments that are out of harm’s way.