The 2008 World Conference on Disaster Management, Part 2
By Scott Baltic
Part 2 of Homeland1's report on the WCDM focuses on the coverage of climate change issues, with a commentary by the editor.
Climate change and what the emergency management and response community should be doing about it was one of the themes at the 18th World Conference on Disaster Management, held in Toronto June 15–18.
In her plenary session, "Climate Change: What Should Disaster Management Professionals Be Planning For?" emergency manager and consultant Regina Phelps began by pointing out that according to Munich Re, one of the world's largest reinsurance providers, more natural disasters occurred worldwide in 2007 than had ever been recorded in history.
The effects of climate change on business, she said, will be global, long-term and possibly irreversible, as companies struggle to survive and thrive in a "carbon-restrained world." Companies that generate significant carbon emissions will over time be likely to face litigation, Phelps predicted, similar to the recent litigation over tobacco and asbestos.
An outbreak of blue-green algae, attributed to climate change, is seen on the coastline of Qingdao, in eastern China's Shandong province, June 24. (AP Photo/EyePress)
It's no wonder, then, that more corporations are responding to the issue; more than 40 Fortune 500 companies now favor regulation of greenhouse gases. Phelps also pointed to The Carbon Principles issued this past February by three of the world's largest financial institutions: Citi, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley. These guidelines for advisors and lenders to U.S. power companies resulted from a nine-month effort to create an approach for evaluating and addressing carbon risks in the financing of electric power projects.
The principles themselves are energy efficiency, limiting CO2 emissions by encouraging clients to invest in cost-effective demand reduction; renewable and low-carbon distributed energy technologies; and conventional and advanced generation, where the signatories agreed to "encourage regulatory and legislative changes that facilitate carbon capture and storage to further reduce CO2 emissions from the electric sector."
Phelps also recommended the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative as a resource for savvy businesses.
With global food shortages and other other disruptions likely as a result, climate change was perceived as a threat to national security, according to an April 2007 study by the U.S. military, she added.
The coal-fired Plant Schereris in operation at Juliette, Ga. is the nation's single largest source of carbon dioxide. (AP Photo/Gene Blythe, File)
Finally, Phelps said, each of us needs to make a personal response to climate change: "Every single thing you do makes a difference for this planet."
Moreover, emergency managers, business continuity professionals and risk managers have a unique opportunity to be forward-thinking about climate change, she said. "Stick your neck out."
Near the beginning of the later panel discussion "Climate Change and Emergency Management," Richard Kinchlea, emergency management coordinator for the city of Hamilton, Ontario, struck a similar note when he said, "It's getting harder and harder to talk nice about this."
The very definition of "emergency," he predicted, will change over the next couple of decades as emergencies lose their rarity.
Moderator David Etkin, graduate program director of disaster and emergency management at York University, Toronto, commented that "Our way of life is absolutely unsustainable over the long term" and that efforts "far more dramatic" than the Kyoto Protocols are needed.
"The argument that mitigation is too expensive," he concluded, "commits you to a path of self-destruction."
As a member of the panel, Regina Phelps described "a perfect storm" of factors that are making it relatively easy for government and business to let their response to global climate change slide:
- Economic recession/depression,
- Energy costs and peak oil,
- An aging population and infrastructure, and
- Terrorism and the war in Iraq.
Dr. Carl A. Gibson, director of the Risk Management Unit at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, noted that climate change is not a separate risk, but instead will amplify current risks.
"We don't know where the tipping points are" that could end human civilization, he said, but we do know that we're dealing with "increasingly fragile systems."
At the public-private interface, he said, "policy certainty beyond the electoral cycle" is needed for the consistency that will encourage businesses to invest in green technologies and make other adjustments.
Some personal comments from the editor
Phelps' "a perfect storm" caught my ear because of how I've used that same phrase to describe some other attributes of global climate change. One of the reasons I'm very skeptical about our species' ability to prevent the worst outcomes is that climate change is in many ways exactly the kind of problem human beings and human institutions are terrible at preparing for.
In my view, global climate change is a "perfect storm" for creating personal, organizational and governmental inertia.
- It's a long-term problem that has now been under way for probably several decades and whose direst consequences are decades in the future.
- For many of us in the developed world — the people who are disproportionately causing the problem and have the greatest ability to mitigate it — global climate change is going to most quickly and most profoundly affect other people, people who aren't like us and are far away.
- Even scientists who agree that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is indeed happening now (the majority of climatologists) can't predict with any certainty exactly what further changes will occur, how severely and when.
- Given that uncertainty, many people with personal and/or ideological reasons to doubt anthropogenic climate change have seized on the notion that the underlying phenomenon is therefore outlandish, or at least "controversial."
- Finally, the likely long-term consequences of climate change are so severe that they are, frankly, terrifying.
After David Etkin's panel, I spoke with Regina Phelps and one of the other panelists, both of whom surprised me by saying that, at some points in the past, the sheer vastness of the fallout envisioned from climate change (sea level rise, spread of tropical diseases, spread of invasive plant and insect species, crop failures, etc., etc.) had forced them to temporarily step away from the topic professionally, simply because it was so overwhelming to deal with.
I know what they meant.
Around the time of the conference, I encountered my own "perfect storm" of books. Last Christmas, as a joke, my best friend's three kids gave me Field Guide to the Apocalypse by Meghan Marco. It's a tongue-in-cheek manual to surviving every type of global catastrophe we've ever seen in movies or read in sci-fi novels: the frozen planet, the drowning planet, the technocratic dystopia (think "Blade Runner"), the robot (or zombie) rebellion, and so forth. I finally got around to reading it shortly before the conference.
One of the books I took with me to Toronto was Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind by David Quammen. It explores the relationships (economic, ecological, even spiritual) between humans and four alpha predators: the saltwater crocodile of northern Australia, the Indian lion, the brown bear of the Carpathian Mountains and the Siberian tiger. All, of course, are at least somewhat endangered, and Quammen is plain-spoken about his pessimism as to whether they'll still be around in the wild at the end of this century.
Another book I had on the trip, and in retrospect it was a poor choice, was a novel, The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, which my Other Half had read, recommended and lent to me. It describes a transitional afterlife, a world populated by those who've died, but are still remembered among the living. The story of what happens there as worldwide biological warfare breaks out alternates chapter by chapter with the story of a woman who's stranded, alone and running out of supplies at an Antarctic research station.
I got two chapters in before I gave up.
A guy I went to college with used to call certain sad songs "music to slit your wrists by" (he's still with us, I'm happy to say), and that's how I felt about my third end-of-the-world book in a row. I know how bad things are going to get (they're getting worse already), and I fear how bad they might get, and after a certain point it's just masochism to keep reading about it.
What is useful is doing something.
Although my Other Half had offered to pick me up at O'Hare on my return from Toronto, I decided to take the el most of the way and have her meet me at a stop about 10 minutes from our house. It went smoothly, and we saved probably a gallon of gas.
Since the conference, I'm more careful about turning lights out when no one's in the room. We're going to pull the trigger and finally replace some upstairs windows with newer ones that will save energy year-round.
And there's more, but you get the idea.
The point is that the storm clouds from what will likely be the biggest disaster this planet has seen in human history are in sight and getting closer all the time.
What are you doing about it?Go back to Part 1