Climate Change: What's What on Natural Disasters

By Lecomte, Eugene | Public Management, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Climate Change: What's What on Natural Disasters


Lecomte, Eugene, Public Management


Planning for natural disasters in a period of "climate change," or what is referred to as global warming, is vexing. It raises issues and questions that demand knowledgeable, understanding, and mentally agile leaders who can act expeditiously. Planning preparations must include both pre- and post-event initiatives and must embrace programs that enhance life safety, mitigate threats to property, and reduce economic loss.

This article touches upon climate change issues, hazards that give rise to natural disasters, estimates of potential losses, and protection of human and physical resources. The paramount purpose of this document is to enhance local government managers' knowledge, so that a comprehensive risk identification and mitigation plan can be developed. The plan envisioned would recognize the changing dynamics of the causes, frequency, and severity of disasters, and it would ensure that a community is prepared to handle them.

Climate Change

It is recognized that weather-related hazards can be attributed to, or exacerbated by, overall climate change. This article will not address the probable cause(s) or duration of climate change; however, it will examine some of its possible effects.

Scientists declare that climate change may result in increases and decreases in the rates of precipitation of snow and rain, rises in sea levels, and extremities of heat or cold or drought, either in places where these events have occurred before or in new locales. These are subjects that decisionmakers should continue to monitor and question. They should, in concert with other stakeholders, support the call for applied research. They should continually inquire about how their responsibilities and planning are being or might be affected by changes in the onset of these hazards.

People who lack scientific knowledge and expertise must not refrain from monitoring the climate change debate; for, whether an ardent believer or a skeptic, the voices of all people are essential to ensuring public safety and sound public policy. This intervention, however, must not delay the development and implementation of needed loss-control and mitigation measures. In these matters, risk and emergency managers excel, and it is in these areas that they can make their greatest contributions. City and county managers also can contribute much.

It is acknowledged that the climate is constantly changing and that temperatures are rising. The National Climate Data Center has concluded that the rate of warming in the past 25 years is clearly greater than the average rate during the 19th and 20th centuries. Regardless of whether this temperature rise is permanent or not, its present status and future effects require ongoing examination, monitoring, and research.

Here are specific subjects that scientists must examine:

* Increases and decreases in rates of precipitation.

* Decreases in snowfall.

* More frequent or severe snowstorms in areas where they currently exist.

* Snow and ice storms where these have not occurred before.

* Risks in severe windstorms and tornadoes.

* Increases in wildfire activity.

* Changes in general weather patterns.

* Growth in the numbers of tropical cyclones (hurricanes).

* Rises in ocean levels.

These subjects should remain on the local government manager's radar screen, too. Why, you ask? Because if the debate over climate change concerns a true phenomenon, then the type, frequency, and severity of weather-related disasters that could affect your community also are changing. You may never have faced the type of disaster that could occur, and you're probably not ready to handle it.

Are you ready to cope with the myriad problems of excessive snowfalls where none were previously experienced? To deal with the flooding caused by extreme amounts of precipitation? To confront wildfires ignited by drought conditions like your community has never faced before? …

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