Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Changing Face of Normal Disaster: Risk, Resilience and Natural Security in a Changing Climate

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Changing Face of Normal Disaster: Risk, Resilience and Natural Security in a Changing Climate

Article excerpt

A natural disaster is by definition remarkable, and thereby often conceived and remembered as singular and unpredictable. Since the mid-1800s, for example, only about six major tropical cyclones per decade have struck the United States, and consequently, as of 1990 just 15 percent of U.S. coastal residents from Texas to Maine had experienced a direct hit by a major hurricane. (1) Despite the perception of disaster as infrequent, a comprehensive accounting that encompasses decadal time scales and continental spatial scales underscores the regularity of disasters and extreme weather events. For example, Figure 1 on the following page depicts hurricanes and tropical storms in the United States over nearly 150 years, from 1851 to 2004, illustrating the extent to which this particular perturbation is a normal feature of the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

While only about one-third of these storms were classified as major hurricanes, the overall lesson--which holds for other disasters and extreme events not depicted--is one of guaranteed hazard over spatial and temporal scales integral to infrastructure investment and effective policy formation. (2) This comprehensive perspective necessarily blurs the arbitrary boundary, derived from regularity relative to human experience, between major events and more frequent and less damaging ones. In other words, disaster preparedness requires looking beyond the probability of a singular acute hazard occurring in a particular location during a particular block of years. Indeed, smaller and less telegenic events account for a majority of human economic damage: Relatively non-dramatic droughts and floods, for example, account for over 60 percent of weather-related global economic losses. (3) Moreover, relatively ordinary events such as temperature extremes or droughts can have a cumulative effect on social and ecological systems. When complicated by both endogenous and exogenous variables having extensive feedback effects and examined over relevant spatial and temporal scales, these events warrant integrating normal disaster into investment and policy decisions.

Such a comprehensive perspective on natural hazards is, notably, the same one that motivates concern about anthropogenic climate change. Climate change presents a wide-ranging and complex hazard to human populations and ecosystems. It subsumes not only trends in long-term averages of temperature or rainfall, but also droughts, the geographic extent of early thaw, the development and recession of El Ninos and more. Changes in these aspects of climate can stress social systems (e.g., traditional livelihoods, civil society, community organization, social welfare) in multiple ways. First, departures from long-term averages raise the level of background stress, thereby increasing vulnerability to acute stresses. Second, the character or frequency of the acute stresses themselves may change, manifesting as extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts or floods. Third, climate change may exacerbate the scope and intensity of chronic hazards and the contributing elements associated with such stresses. For example, the reduction in stabilizing ecosystem services due to environmental degradation--resulting from climate change, or more often from human activities with immediate impact such as logging--exacerbates vulnerability to extreme events.

Disaster management and climate change mitigation therefore both fundamentally seek to reduce the trauma inflicted by natural hazards and to facilitate a smooth recovery from perturbations. This paper examines the interface between these arenas, linking current discussions of hazard preparedness with socioecological resilience and international burden-sharing in a world of changing climate. Drawing on geographically diverse case studies, we argue that long-range climate change mitigation efforts can augment societal resilience to acute and chronic natural hazards in the short-term and furthermore are an important aspect of national security. …

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