13 May 2008

Gaining wisdom through adversity: Lessons of cyclone Nargis

The immediate threat from Cyclone Nargis has passed; the floodwaters have receded. To date 22 000+ 'official' deaths have been acknowledged by the military government; the death toll is likely higher, with 100 000 being a widely quoted figure. The high toll taken as a result interaction of a strong tropical cyclone and several natural and human factors. A low-lying river delta affected by widespread land clearing; the complete unpreparedness of the public, resulting from a lack of warnings to the public and the (relatively) unusual location and timing of the cyclone.

And the situation continues to worsen. To date, the government has refused international aid, allowing disease and malnutrition to take hold. While the military junta enriches itself, it fears a loss of power as anger mounts at the inept response, as has happened in the past.

While a singular event like Nargis cannot be explicitly attributed to climate change, there are lessons to be learned about our future life as the Great CO2 Enhancement Experiment (35% and rising!) continues to evolve. There will be no stopping the experiment. The delayers and doubters have won the socio-political battle, at least for now. Until the Cataclysm little more than token efforts toward climate mitigation will be made (on a global basis...)

What do the impacts of Nargis mean for adaptation to future climate change, since that is to be our path? I think it means we have a long way to go towards that goal. Given this performance, large parts of the world -- like Myanmar – are woefully under-prepared for current weather and climate, much less any more frequent and/or extreme future climate scenarios. The fact that this happened in the Global South under a highly repressive regime is of little consequence; you could make the same argument for New Orleans and Katrina, as well.

Adaptation is going to be more difficult and expensive than currently imagined. While it may seemingly be the only politically feasible thing now, it isn't the best path. The world-at-large is not ready for theses sorts of disastrous events now. Continued warming likely brings ever-worsening storms. The human desire to live by the sea (at high population densities) adds to the cost of these storms -- more people affected, more damage done. These pressures will only increase in the future. Increased amounts of disease, hunger and endemic poverty a possible result.

While some adaptation is required (because we're already committed to some change over the next 50 years or so), mitigation is a far better option. Better to avoid the risks, if at all possible. Both answers require a massive societal change in the end; changing now with a bright green lifestyle now gives us a chance to avoid some of the more drastic effects. Doing nothing almost guarantees a bad result.

The resistance to mitigation come from our leaders –- bankers, lawyers, businessmen – inappropriately insist on absolute certitude when dealing with the future. The future is nothing put a set of ever changing probabilities, nothing is certain until the moment is past. The probabilities are myriad. Instead of waiting for certitude, a risk management based approach of climate change should be taken, where risk is the likelihood of something happening times the consequences of that action. Such an analysis (triple bottom line) would undoubtedly indicate the wisdom a in doing what we can today to try to prevent tragic events like Cyclone Nargis from occurring more frequently.


Image: TRMM satellite estimates of total rainfall and cyclone intensity from Nargis. EO Natural Hazards

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