Science

A minute to midnight

| Michaela Nesvarova , Rense Kuipers

Scorching heat drying out our lakes and ponds. Heavy storms flooding our streets, gardens and houses. The changing climate is coming closer and closer to home. It is no longer ‘only’ about melting ice caps thousands of kilometers away. And the disasters that climate change is fueling are beginning to hit us all. What can we do to prevent these (un)natural disasters? Is it even possible to at least reduce the risks? Or are we all utterly and completely screwed?

‘Five, four, three, two, one, we have lift off…!’ The crowd cheers as the rocket thunders towards the sky. With less than a minute to midnight on the ‘global disaster clock’, the rocket and its contents are meant to save us all. It will release sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, blocking the sunlight. If this fails, there is always the option of deflecting sunlight away from Earth using space-based mirrors or other technologies to artificially cool the planet.

Sounds like a solid plan, right? ‘It is not a sustainable solution but if we are near the edge of the runaway climate effect, it could be a desperate last-minute resort. But that is just what it is: a desperate solution,’ warns Maarten van Aalst, professor of Spatial Resilience for Disasters Risk Reduction at the ITC faculty. Is there another way? Is there a better way to protect ourselves against the risks that we are creating and consequently facing?   

'No disaster is natural'

Climate change is happening. And disasters are happening. But: Are natural disasters fueled by climate change and are they becoming more common and severe? And do they have the power to end us all? ‘Climate change certainly adds to the level of risk,’ says Van Aalst. ‘Weather is getting more volatile and more extreme. It is becoming harder to predict, and so are climate related disasters: heat, draughts, storms and consequent flooding.’

Hazard ≠ disaster

While we can hopefully stop or limit climate change, it’s hard to imagine how we could prevent or limit natural disasters. ‘The expression “natural” disasters is becoming disliked,’ says Van Aalst. ‘We only talk of a disaster if it occurs in a place of significance, such as cities. If it happens at a place where nobody lives, we don’t consider it a disaster. It is therefore a matter of exposure and vulnerability. Yet, if you say “natural disaster” it is interpreted as an act of God, as an outside thing that we can’t influence. But it is our vulnerability and exposure that determine the disaster. In other words, no disaster is natural. Sometimes the word “natural” is used as an excuse for things that we are not managing well. There are always risks, but we are actively constructing some risks, especially by the way we build cities and treat landscapes. Disasters will always happen, but we could prevent economic damages and casualties.’

'We are preparing the perfect recipe for disasters'

Tatiana Filatova, Professor in Computational Resilience Economics (BMS faculty), agrees: ‘There are natural hazards, but they become disasters when assets are damaged at large scale and human lives are impacted. A disaster is the socioeconomic part of a hazard event. For centuries societies have been adapting to live with hazards, for example by building dikes against floods or irrigation systems to maintain agriculture through dry periods. At the same time, climate change adds to the probability of hazardous events, especially floods, and most of the world population lives in cities, which are – for usually historic reasons – built near waterways and therefore are prone to adverse events. With accelerating urbanization in flood-prone area we are preparing the perfect recipe for disasters. Because not only is the probability of disasters increasing, there is more at stake if a disaster hits.’

Storms and floods are the most widespread disasters, which also affect the most people and often bring the largest economic damage. In terms of deaths, however, ‘heat is the biggest unrecognized killer’, points out Van Aalst. ‘There are naturally limits to what we can physically cope with, but largely we can also adapt. We need heatwave plans – which we didn’t have until rather recently. In the 2003 heatwave we had 65.000 excess deaths across Europe, 1000 of them in the Netherlands. In 2006 we had 1000 excess deaths in the Netherlands. After that we got a heatwave plan. If it were floods or airplane crashes that killed those people, there would be a huge public outcry, but this is less visible. It is still a lot of deaths and – in principle – preventable deaths.’

What can we do?

‘There is not a uniform recipe book for solutions,’ says Richard Sliuzas, professor of Urban Planning for Disaster Risk Reduction (ITC faculty). ‘When we’re talking about disaster risk reduction, everything is context dependent. For instance, to prevent droughts, cities often consider water storage, but that is simply not possible in certain areas. Johannesburg, for instance, is standing on a lot of limestone. With a case like that, you can actually create a lot of hazards if you have too much water in one place. It all depends on where you are, what is expected to happen and what is actually going to happen. There are a lot of factors in play: poverty, preparedness and location. If you compare the hurricanes of India and Mozambique, the cyclones were comparable but the number of deaths in Mozambique was far greater. Years ago, about 10.000 people died in India because of a cyclone. Then they installed warning systems and created emergency shelters. The number of deaths caused by cyclones decreased tremendously.’

'People are more than willing to help improve their direct environment'

Maarten van Aalst also mentions recent cyclones in Mozambique as an example of ‘preventable suffering’. ‘There were two cyclones in one season – this has never happened before and it brought on immense suffering, but it was preventable to some extent. So the question is: are we working on the right solutions? People tend to focus on quick and visible solutions, such as sea walls, but that is not necessarily a solution to protect the most vulnerable. We need to work with the local communities, engage them in the issue. But this approach is much more complicated and less visible.’

Locals to the rescue

His ITC colleague Professor Sliuzas agrees, stressing the importance of community engagement. ‘I think we need community-based planning which is inclusive and doesn’t ignore the poor. Because the general rule of thumb with climate related issues is that the poorest are the most vulnerable,’ says Sliuzas. ‘Very often a community can do a lot for itself, people are more than willing to help improve their direct environment.’

People also seem to be more trusting of information coming from their direct environment, from within their community. Although, in many areas, there are early warning systems in place, locals don’t always listen to them. ‘Which is why we work with communities,’ repeats Van Aalst. ‘Just one example from Ghana: local fishermen received an early warning from the government to not go on the water. But they also needed to catch fish to feed their families and just didn’t trust the warning. We had a volunteer in that community and warned him about the danger. He decided to stay on shore himself and nobody else went either. There was a big flood but nobody died that year thanks to this. Science and scientists play a critical role in better understanding why and where risks appear, but it is not just the information that determines the decisions.’

‘A lot can be gained by asking the question where the most probability of hazardous events is,’ adds Sliuzas. ‘Furthermore, there needs to be a discussion about what is an acceptable level of risk now and in the future. And we need to make people aware. For which information is key. Sharing information is key. Part of that is negotiating and understanding what motivates people to live somewhere.’

Fear rules us all

Understanding why people live in hazardous areas, how and when individuals perceive risks and are prepared to act on them – that is the knowledge Tatiana Filatova is after. With her research group, she designs spatial simulation models with artificial societies to study socioeconomic impacts of disasters and climate change. What is the main trigger that makes people act in face of risks? ‘If it comes to risk perception, we’ve observed that people don’t process probabilities very well,’ answers the professor. ‘We don’t understand the risks in remote future. Our perceptions are very biased and subjective. People don’t treat gains the same as losses, they unrealistically overestimate losses. People are ruled by fear that cannot be rationally explained.’

'We are rather rational until we have a personal experience with a disaster’

‘We have conducted two surveys. One among farmers in the Netherlands and one among households in the US,’ continues Filatova. ‘What we found is that in both cases it is deep psychological factors that trigger you to make decisions in face of risks. Even farmers, who are basically running a business and should be making rational business-oriented decisions, are more prone to make decisions based on subjective factors such as fear. Fear seems to be the strongest motivator.’

This fear guides our behavior even more fiercely in case we have a first-hand experience with a risk which has turned into a reality, with a hazard that became a disaster. ‘What we saw in the US is that the reaction depends on personal experience. In general, flood risk is not the first factor people think of when choosing where to live. Yet, if a person has experienced floods, the fear pops up and changes the course of thinking. They would avoid the hazard prone areas at all costs based on pure fear and not even consider living there anymore. We are rather rational until we have a personal experience with a disaster.’

Natural born optimists

On the other hand, there is also a phenomenon called the optimism bias, explains Margôt Kuttschreuter, an expert on risk perception and risk communication from the BMS faculty. ‘The first question people ask themselves about risks is: is it relevant for me? After all, we prefer not to deal with risks and danger and pretend bad things happen to other people, not to us. We prefer to live our lives, do something nice for someone else occasionally. This optimism bias is our way of dealing with the unpleasant thoughts about being harmed. A simple example of this is that one out of three people develops cancer, but you do not easily relate those figures to your personal situation. We usually have a too positive image of our own vulnerability, especially if no major negative events have happened to you. The moment you experience them, you realize how feeble your situation is.’

'The real problem is inequality'

Yes, we tend to be afraid, especially during disasters. Kuttschreuter notes that it is important to know that people don’t just behave like cattle. ‘People act on the basis of very fast brain processes. I think a lot of people do indeed flee, which is a very sensible response. It is sometimes said that this is done out of sheer panic, but people in the risk research field say: it is a wise move. Besides, people don’t only flee, but are also inclined to put themselves at risk to help others.’

Honeymoon phase

After a disaster, a different kind of process arises, says Kuttschreuter. ‘While people are in a kind of shock during a disaster, this is followed by a phase in which people mainly want to talk about the terrible stuff that happened to them. This is also referred to as the honeymoon phase. After, the rest of the world continues, they are done listening and are already focusing on the next disaster. While the people who have experienced it take longer to process the suffering and being able to rebuild. Replacing property takes half a year to sometimes years, but the environment does not wait that long. By then, disaster victims tend to become disillusioned and take on a negative attitude. While the world keeps on turning, they stand still in between the rubble.’

With an exception of the direct victims, we usually tend to be forgetful creatures. ‘We saw that house prices in the area after floods immediately drop, but within a few years they are back to normal. People just forget,’ says Filatova. To explore how quickly people push unpleasant memories from their memory and ‘go back to normal’, Filatova’s team ran a simulation model in which a flood would strike after a shorter period of time. This showed that, in such a case, people’s reaction depends on their socioeconomic background. ‘We saw that if the flood strikes let’s say after two years again – before people forget – the number of low income households grows in the area, because higher income households move to a safer location. This leads to climate gentrification. The individual behavior of the households is not necessarily different. We all want to be safe and happy. But this is where the institutional aspect comes in. Poor people can’t afford to move or to use the same protective measures as the higher income households and they are therefore forced to live in more dangerous and cheaper areas. People who live in the hazard prone areas often don’t have the opportunity to leave. The real problem is inequality – even people with the same information react differently based on their socioeconomic opportunities. And this is likely to increase as climate change exacerbates.’

‘Be informed and prepared’

Providing everyone with equal possibilities might be too much of a tall order, but is there anything we, regular individuals, can do to lower the risks? ‘Be informed and prepared,’ says Tatiana Filatova. ‘You need to be aware of the objective risks that you are facing. Are you geographically located in a hazard prone area or are you in the age group that is more vulnerable to heat waves? Being aware is the first and most important stage. You need to be aware of the problem in order to find a solution. There are community based solutions that can be put into place then. For example, you can plant trees to provide shadow, you can isolate your houses, you can get green roofs and so on. There are many climate services available nowadays – digital channels with information specific to your area. The information is there if you want to find it.’

'I am concerned about the energy transition not going fast enough'

People don’t always feel the need to find the information, though. ‘At the moment I see a shift in society,’ says Kuttschreuter. ‘There is less acceptance that there are risks, and at the same time people assume that it will be resolved for them. It is one of the issues the Twente Safety Region is facing. How to push people in the right direction? Raise awareness of a threat. You have to tell them what they can do if something is wrong. You need to make people face the facts without frightening them. When that happens, other processes arise: denial. They are going to reason the risks away. Then you get examples such as smoking: "My grandfather smoked like a chimney, but has turned 95". In short: you have to make people aware of the risks and what they can do about it, without exaggerating. That’s what works in the long term.’

Fast and cheap solutions

The ’long term’ is key here – and a concept that humans have trouble grasping, adds Kuttschreuter. ‘By definition, people look at the short term, which is disadvantageous for reacting to climate change. That is something abstract, too obscure. People often choose to act in the short term. In addition, there is also the discussion about how easy or difficult it is to make an intervention in one's own living space. People are easier to persuade if something is simple and cheap.’ Maarten van Aalst agrees: ‘We know that we have limited time to lower emissions. Energy transition will play a major role in combatting climate change. But I also think that it needs to be made easy enough for people. We need the right technology so that people can embrace the change.’

These ‘small’ individual adjustments will be necessary for creating a better and more resilient world. However, Van Aalst believes that large scale changes need to be implemented in order to protect this planet: ‘Disasters will get out of hand if we don’t transition and I am concerned about the energy transition not going fast enough and our ability to manage the consequences. Moreover, if the energy transition doesn’t go fast enough, there are now technologies to artificially cool the planet. This approach is called geo-engineering. There are researchers working on solar radiation management, which means blocking the sunlight from reaching Earth. This is much simpler and more affordable than you might think. It could be achieved, for example, by dropping sulfur in the stratosphere – which is just what happens during volcanic eruptions. And just like with volcanic eruptions, it stays there for a couple of years. The problem is that you become addicted to this solution and it will influence many other things. There will always be side effects. You could expect it to affect rainfall patterns, wind patterns and so on. My second major concern is: what will our response be to the growing risks? Will we all be in it together or will we just take care of our own risks?’

With the metaphorical one minute to midnight left, the four researchers agree that something has to be done. Without uniform recipe books for preventative measures, without cheating our way out of it by dropping sulfur in the stratosphere and without the ability to turn back time. Being resilient will not only come down to prevention and reducing risks, but our ability to get back up after we’ve been knocked down. Perhaps we’ll have to be afraid of that becoming our reality.

Experts who contributed to the article:

  • Maarten van Aalst: Professor of Spatial Resilience for Disasters Risk Reduction, ITC faculty
  • Tatiana Filatova: Professor in Computational Resilience Economics, BMS faculty
  • Richard Sliuzas: Professor of Urban Planning for Disaster Risk Reduction, ITC faculty
  • Margôt Kuttschreuter: Assistant professor at the Department Psychology of Conflict, Risk and Safety, BMS Faculty