Friday, September 25, 2015

Putting a Human Face on the Rhetoric

Like this one, the finalists in the BBC's latest Environmental Images photography contest (link) are stunning and thought-provoking.  They depict many areas of the World and highlight the range of problems to be addressed. Here a family in Bangladesh waits for a tidal flood to recede.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Popes, Polar Ice and Poverty

A radio talk show host yesterday complained that, in his remarks here in the US, the visiting Pope had shifted from “the spiritual” into the "realm of politics" by raising the issue of Climate Change and encouraging Americans to expand our efforts to address it.  [The same sentiment has permeated conservative media with unusual regularity in the day or two.]  Father Jonathan Morris, a Catholic priest and guest on the radio show, quickly reminded the host that the World’s climate isn’t necessarily political, but a real, tangible part of nature; adding that the host should be more surprised that the same Catholic Church that accused scientists like Copernicus and Galileo of heresy in past centuries, was now listening to what the scientific community has to say and is encouraging their parishioners to heed the warnings as well. [Similar Father Jonathan Morris Interview here.] 

Undeterred by that argument, the host expressed his view that the Pope should instead be focusing on religious and human rights (e.g., “taking care of the poor”), rather than jumping on one side of what he called "a scientific debate."  "This is America," he boasted, "We don't need an outsider coming into our country to tell us what to do."  The priest's respectful response was to remind the host that the Pope’s remarks focused on God's creation of the Earth (per the Bible) and the respect and reverence we should show for that creation—a very religious topic indeed.  And in terms of "caring for the poor," he then asked the host to consider the real victims of Climate Change--specifically those who live in poverty in parts of the world highly susceptible to sea level rise, drought, severe storms, flooding, disease, famine, etc. "That's the Pope's message here," he said.

The Pope addresses a joint session of Congress today (photo credit/article link here)
In my opinion, Father Morris nailed the argument tight with that comment.  It's not about us. The Pope--like any sincere religious leader--has an obligation and calling to remind us all (Catholic or not) who are blessed with more, to do all we can to minimize the impact our own lifestyle on the planet’s environment.  In fact, even if we don’t believe the climate is changing (or that the things we do will prevent further change), it’s worth the effort taken to mitigate the result of changes that do occur, given our inherent responsibility to care for our fellow humans.  If generally accepted science is wrong, then our efforts mean we are living in a cleaner and more efficient World that's better equipped to maintain its human and non-human inhabitants. What’s the harm in that? But if that science is right, then someday perhaps we’ll be very thankful we listened.

Furthermore, we (individuals, organizations, churches, communities and countries) who are blessed with relative wealth, education and prosperity, have an obligation to devote some of our time and means to help better the lives of others (here and abroad) who do not have the means or expertise to prepare for devastating climatic events that seem to be coming with increasing regularity and severity.  In essence, we should be adapting to climate change and helping others do the same.  Adaptation is intended to help make our human settlements more resilient to these events and, not only minimize the potential damage and loss of life, but allow civilization to bounce back quickly to normalcy.

Sadly, the parts of the world most susceptible to the impact of climatic events (due to their geography, politics and/or economic capabilities) are also those whose populations are least able to prepare.  Thus the final piece of the climate change puzzle deals with the vulnerability of these regions/societies and underscores the responsibility we have to consider their needs as well as our own.  And what more valuable tool for helping open our eyes and look beyond ourselves than spirituality and religion?

Which brings me full circle to the conversation between the talk show host and the priest.  What the Pope said was honest and sincere.  Maybe we all needed his reminder.  It came from his obvious spiritual, altruistic desire to encourage all human society to reconsider our dedication to the well-being of our Earth and the people we share it with.  Rather than dismiss his words through some misplaced sense of pride, we should stop and listen. We might learn something.  And if we then choose to try to help others, we've improved both their lives and our own in the process.


For more about Adapting to the inevitable impacts of climatic events, see an excellent TED talk by Vicki Arroyo (Executive Director of the Georgetown University Climate Center) on the subject, HERE.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Shake, Rattle... but no Roll

The largest earthquake in recorded history (see list HERE) occurred in Valdivia, Chile in 1960.  It measured 9.5 on the Moment Magnitude Scale and lasted an agonizing ten minutes.  It was so powerful that it generated a tsunami that devastated Hilo, Hawaii.  Estimates put the death toll as high as 6,000 and damage estimates (in today’s dollars) in the range of $3-6 Billion.

Columbian novelist Gabriel García Márquez  once wrote: “Chile has an earth tremor on the average of once every two days and a devastating earthquake every presidential term.” (from this article)  So obviously, the Chilean people are used to the ground shaking beneath their feet.
An 8.8 tremor in 2010 rattled the country for 3 minutes.  The quake and the resulting tsunami killed 500 people and wiped some coastal communities out to sea.  An 8.2 event in 2014 caused widespread damage, resulting in 6 deaths.  Chile’s most recent seismic event occurred just last week.  The September 16th event measured 8.3.  Quake and tsunami damage in the region killed 14 and caused the evacuation of a million coastal residents.  Most have now returned to their homes.

But in terms of the devastation and catastrophic loss of life that seems to accompany earthquakes in other parts of the World, the question was asked by a number of news outlets:  Why have these latest Chilean earthquakes had a much smaller death toll than even the 2010 event?  I wondered the same thing. So I set out to find out why.

Pascale Bonnefoy and Patrick Lyons of the New York Times answered this question in a highly informative article published the day following the quake.  (Link HERE)  Their findings comprise an excellent summary of the kinds of preparations organizations, communities, states and nations can take to minimize the impact of otherwise disastrous events.  I’ve organized their text (below) under headers that highlight these findings:


“The latest earthquake was not as powerful.  Though the earthquake on Wednesday was quite strong, at magnitude 8.3, it released only about a third of the energy of the magnitude 8.8 quake in 2010, one of the strongest recorded in modern times. (Magnitude is measured on a logarithmic scale.)”

This is definitely not something we can control, though to be able to predict an event would be extremely beneficial indeed.


“It affected a more focused area.  The 2010 quake struck off the central coast and directly affected large cities and populous areas, including resort areas crowded with vacationers. At least one-third of the country’s coastline suffered significant damage from the tsunami it created, and more minor damage was reported as far away as San Diego and Tokyo. Almost all of Chile lost power. By contrast, the latest quake and its tsunami have mainly affected a single, less densely populated region, Coquimbo.”

This isn’t necessarily a factor we can control, but it does perhaps demonstrate the value of site selection of major facilities, stronger building codes for coastal areas, and zoning that places less-inhabited, less vulnerable (e.g., industrial or agricultural) uses in areas prone to damage.  In some cases governments may have to make tough rebuilding decisions.


“Coastal residents were better prepared.  Since the 2010 quake, there have been many earthquake drills and dry runs, and evacuation routes have been clearly marked up and down the coast. As a result, though the latest quake’s tsunami did extensive physical damage in several coastal cities and ports, very few people were in harm’s way when the waves hit. In 2014, when a magnitude-8.2 quake struck off northern Chile, Coastal areas were evacuated quickly and efficiently.”


“In 2010, no tsunami alert was issued, and national leaders prematurely told the public that they could return to their homes. Residents in coastal areas knew to head for higher ground, but many visitors did not. Since then, the government has issued immediate preventive tsunami warnings and has been much more cautious about sounding the all-clear, as seen in the 2014 quake and again this week.”


“In poorer, developing countries like Haiti or Nepal, major quakes are often devastatingly deadly, with thousands of people killed by collapsing buildings, bridges and dams. It used to be that way in Chile, too, but decades of prosperity have raised construction standards, and the country has learned through hard experience to set and enforce stringent building and safety codes along the lines of those used in California. Because of this, Chile’s modern buildings tend to fare well in quakes, though historical structures and those in rural areas may still be vulnerable.”

Planner Kenneth Topping (link here) talks about an example from the other side of the world that underscores this point. He writes:  "Following the March 11, 2011, Mw 9.0 Great East Japan Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, 14,843 people were reported dead or missing in Miyagi Prefecture as of May 2011. Yet within the prefecture’s largest city of Sendai, population 1,045,903, the number of persons dead or missing was 882—a remarkably low figure for a large city struck by a great earthquake. This attests to the importance of Japan’s strict national building codes in saving lives."


“Since 2010, the National Seismic Center in Chile has been operating around the clock, as have many of the regional offices of the government’s national emergency bureau. More robust sea-level monitoring systems and better procedures to help coordinate the efforts of public and private agencies have also made a difference.”

These are very valuable lessons indeed.  The points made by Bonnefoy and Lyons comprise a useful check list of the primary components of a resilience plan.  Best of all, they illustrate how one country’s populace benefited from attention to key, critical preparations. 


Photo Credit:  SBSTV (Australia)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Bending, but not Breaking

Earlier this week, millions of people were displaced, entire villages were destroyed, and dozens of people died or are still missing as a result of “unprecedented” rain and flooding fueled by a tropical storm in northern Japan.  The floods ravaged many of the same areas destroyed by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, including the Fukushima nuclear plant. Hundreds of bags of radioactive debris stored in the area were washed away.  (Story and photo credit, here)

In a 2011 blog entry (link here) I described what I called “The Forgotten Stepchild” in the race to address Climate Change. I said:

“In all this discussion of high profile climate mitigation efforts, there’s a parallel initiative (a sibling, if you will) that sits quietly in the shadow of Mitigation, waiting for recognition. There’s an old adage about ducks. They seem calm and unruffled on the surface, but underneath the water, they’re paddling like crazy.

“It’s like that with climate-change initiatives. Celebrities and former US vice presidents ask you to change light bulbs and purchase energy from renewable sources. Climate scientists probe glaciers for clues to what has been and what may be. But at the same time, these same people understand that even if we are able to reverse the current trends, it will take time. We should be preparing for the inevitable. We need to adapt. We need to modify our buildings, our lifestyles and our expectations to better meet the physical demands of living on a changing Earth.

“Adaptation, to be effective, must address all forms of possible impact on human life. Still, it isn’t always what humans do that causes concern. War, the spread of chemical or nuclear contamination, crime and terrorism are the obvious result of humanity’s loss of humanity. Some of the “blame” for severe storms, floods, heat events, fires and the pandemic spread of disease can directly or indirectly be placed at our feet. Other life-altering events, like recent earthquakes and devastating tsunami, should be considered inevitable and unpreventable.

“All of these possibilities must be planned for, though activities we undertake will vary depending on where we live, how we live, and what we hope to save in the event of a disaster.

New Focus on Resilience

The American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC, link here) "is a high-visibility effort to address global climate disruption by creating a network of colleges and universities that have committed to neutralize their greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate the research and educational efforts of higher education to equip society to re-stabilize the earth’s climate."  Since 2007, all of the institutions within the University System of Maryland have been participating signatories of the ACUPCC.  All have made great strides and progress through the program.

The ACUPCC recently amended its program to include a commitment on “resilience,” asking college campuses to also consider pursuing adaptations to their built environment to withstand the inevitable natural and climate-related phenomenon.  As noted above, this is a very timely and extremely important aspect of each university’s sustainability effort.  

If we’re well prepared when faced with a climate event, the hope is that our diligent preparation will allow our organizations to bend (and return to form), but not break.

The new, comprehensive Climate Commitment will include both a Carbon Component and/or an Adaptation/Resilience Component.  Institutions are invited to : (1) implement a resilience-based component (shared organization, programs, activities, etc.) that augments their existing carbon-focused sustainability program; or (2) create a new, comprehensive sustainability program that includes both components that replaces their current sustainability program; or (3) establish a stand-alone plan and organization (programs, activities, etc.) that work separately, but parallel to their existing carbon-focused sustainability efforts.   The language of the expanded commitment components is available here (link).

(Image credit HERE)

Implementation of the resilience component (regardless of the approach taken by the campus) will follow a path much like the one taken with the carbon-focused plan.  There are some key differences between the two, however; and, in my opinion, all of them improve and enhance ongoing campus sustainability efforts without adding a great deal of additional work or expense.  This is particularly true if campuses fold this added facet into their current sustainability and community relations programs and utilize many of the same personnel, policies and practices. 

I’m pleased to see that this resilience-focused component seems to be less prescriptive and require somewhat less in the way of quantifiable reports (e.g., the greenhouse gas inventories you all currently submit).  Identification of adaptation issues and the solutions to those issues seems to be the outgrowth of a process of relationship building and public discussion, rather than a quantitative model.  This is encouraging.

As we have found with efforts to reduce carbon emissions, success is less about spending more money and more about the choices we make as we develop and operate buildings—particularly if we assume a long-term perspective.  Furthermore, many of the activities we undertake to reduce carbon emissions and improve sustainability (reduced energy use, effective water and waste management, etc.) likewise improve our ability to withstand and recover from a climatic event.

(Image credit HERE)

Finally, one more thing I really like about the expanded program is its strong emphasis on community involvement.  Improving resilience is truly a community and regional process, one in which the university can play a key role in providing expertise, resources, and support.  This ties very nicely into the Board of Regents goals for community involvement in long-term planning.  Working with our host cities and counties toward these goals will continue to build and strengthen “town/gown” bridges of trust and communication.
It also brings the two blogs I author together in a very real way, this one focused on resilience and the other (link here) focused on community participation, among other things.


Info about Maryland's State Climate Adaptation Plan can be found at this link

Note: Useful references related to Resilience Planning--particularly for colleges and universities--can be found at this link