Category Archives: Vulnerability

Resilience and Euro – diversity

On MacroEconomic Resilience ex-banker Ashwin Parameswaran draws upon Holling’s pathology of natural resource management and the work of Hyman Minsky (a connection I’ve mentioned previously and Ashwin has explored extensively – see here and here) to write about The Resilience Stability Tradeoff: Drawing Analogies between River Flood Management and Macroeconomic Management.

Ashwin Parameswaran insightfully writes:

In complex adaptive systems, stability does not equate to resilience. In fact, stability tends to breed loss of resilience and fragility or as Minsky put it, “stability is destabilising”. Although Minsky’s work has been somewhat neglected in economics, the principle of the resilience-stability tradeoff is common knowledge in ecology, especially since Buzz Holling’s pioneering work on the subject. If stability leads to fragility, then it follows that stabilisation too leads to increased system fragility. As Holling and Meffe put it in another landmark paper on the subject titled ‘Command and Control and the Pathology of Natural Resource Management’, “when the range of natural variation in a system is reduced, the system loses resilience.” Often, the goal of increased stability is synonymous with a goal of increased efficiency but “the goal of producing a maximum sustained yield may result in a more stable system of reduced resilience”.

The entire long arc of post-WW2 macroeconomic policy in the developed world can be described as a flawed exercise in macroeconomic stabilisation. But there is no better example of this principle than the Euro currency project as the below graph (from Pictet via FT Alphaville) illustrates.

Instead of a moderately volatile mix of different currencies and interest rates, we now have a mostly stable currency union prone to the occasional risk of systemic collapse. If this was all there is to it, then it is not clear that the Euro is such a bad idea. After all, simply shifting the volatility out to the tails is not by itself a bad outcome. But the resilience-stability tradeoff is more than just a simple transformation in distribution. Economic agents adapt to a prolonged period of stability in such a manner that the system cannot “withstand even modest adverse shocks”. “Normal” disturbances that were easily absorbed prior to the period of stabilisation are now sufficient to cause a catastrophic transition. Izabella Kaminska laments the fact that sovereign spreads for many Eurozone countries (vs 10Y Bunds) now exceed pre-Euro levels. But the real problem isn’t so much that spreads have blown out but that they have blown out after a prolonged period of stability.

Links: Melting glaciers, floods, and species responses to climate change

1) BBC News – Rivers of ice: Vanishing glaciers.- David Breashears retraced the steps of early photographic pioneers such as Major E O Wheeler, George Mallory and Vittorio Sella – to try to re-take their views of breathtaking glacial vistas.

2) Thai water management experts are blaming human activity.for turning an unusually heavy monsoon season into a disaster. NYTimes writes:

The main factors, they say, are deforestation, overbuilding in catchment areas, the damming and diversion of natural waterways, urban sprawl, and the filling-in of canals, combined with bad planning. Warnings to the authorities, they say, have been in vain

3) Chen et al’s conducted a metanalysis of published species response to ongoing climate change and found 2-3X faster movement than previous studies.  Their paper in Science – Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming (DOI: 10.1126/science.1206432) estimated median rates of species movement were 11m gain in elevation/ decade and poleward movement of 17 km/ decade. They conclude:

average rates of latitudinal distribution change match those expected on the basis of average temperature change, but that variation is so great within taxonomic groups that more detailed physiological, ecological and environmental data are required to provide specific prognoses for individual species.

Disaster and disaster – Junot Diaz on Haiti

Junot Diaz, author of the fantastic novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, writes about Haiti’s earthquake in Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal.  The experience of Port au Prince was quite difference from Lyttleton, New Zealand response to their own earthquake.

Diaz writes:

The figures vary, but an estimated 220,000 people were killed in the aftermath of the quake, with hundreds of thousands injured and at least a million—one-tenth of Haiti’s population—rendered homeless. According to the Red Cross, three million Haitians were affected. It was the single greatest catastrophe in Haiti’s modern history. It was for all intents and purposes an apocalypse.  …

So the earthquake that devastated Haiti: what did it reveal?

Well I think it’s safe to say that first and foremost it revealed Haiti.

This might strike some of you as jejune but considering the colossal denial energies (the veil) that keep most third-world countries (and their problems) out of global sightlines, this is no mean feat. For most people Haiti has never been more than a blip on a map, a faint disturbance in the force so far removed that what happened there might as well have been happening on another planet. The earthquake for a while changed that, tore the veil from before planet’s eyes and put before us what we all saw firsthand or on the TV: a Haiti desperate beyond imagining.

Truth be told, I’m not very optimistic. I mean, just look at us. No, I’m not optimistic—but that doesn’t mean I don’t have hope. Do I contradict myself? Then I contradict myself. I’m from New Jersey: as a writer from out that way once said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Yes, I have hope. We humans are a fractious lot, flawed and often diabolical. But, for all our deficiencies, we are still capable of great deeds. Consider the legendary, divinely inspired endurance of the Haitian people. Consider how they have managed to survive everything the world has thrown at them—from slavery to Sarah Palin, who visited last December. Consider the Haitian people’s superhuman solidarity in the weeks after the quake. Consider the outpouring of support from Haitians across the planet. Consider the impossible sacrifices the Haitian community has made and continues to make to care for those who were shattered on January 12, 2010.

Consider also my people, the Dominicans. In the modern period, few Caribbean populations have been more hostile to Haitians. We are of course neighbors, but what neighbors! In 1937 the dictator Rafael Trujillo launched a genocidal campaign against Haitians and Haitian Dominicans. Tens of thousands were massacred; tens of thousands more were wounded and driven into Haiti, and in the aftermath of that genocide the relationship between the two countries has never thawed. Contemporary Dominican society in many respects strikes me as profoundly anti-Haitian, and Haitian immigrants to my country experience widespread discrimination, abysmal labor conditions, constant harassment, mob violence, and summary deportation without due process.

No one, and I mean no one, expected anything from Dominicans after the quake; yet look at what happened: Dominican rescue workers were the first to enter Haiti. They arrived within hours of the quake, and in the crucial first days of the crisis, while the international community was getting its act together, Dominicans shifted into Haiti vital resources that were the difference between life and death for thousands of victims.

In a shocking reversal of decades of toxic enmity, it seemed as if the entire Dominican society mobilized for the relief effort. Dominican hospitals were emptied to receive the wounded, and all elective surgeries were canceled for months. (Imagine if the United States canceled all elective surgeries for a single month in order to help Haiti, what a different that would have made.) Schools across the political and economic spectrums organized relief drives, and individual citizens delivered caravans of essential materials and personnel in their own vehicles, even as international organizations were claiming that the roads to Port-au-Prince were impassable. The Dominican government transported generators and mobile kitchens and established a field hospital. The Dominican Red Cross was up and running long before anyone else. Dominican communities in New York City, Boston, Providence, and Miami sent supplies and money. This historic shift must have Trujillo rolling in his grave. Sonia Marmolejos, a humble Dominican woman, left her own infant babies at home in order to breastfeed more than twenty Haitian babies whose mothers had either been seriously injured or killed in the earthquake.

Consider Sonia Marmolejos and understand why, despite everything, I still have hope.

After all, apocalypses like the Haitian earthquake are not only catastrophes; they are also opportunities: chances for us to see ourselves, to take responsibility for what we see, to change. One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen, and for once we won’t look away. We will reject what Jane Anna and Lewis R. Gordon have described in Of Divine Warning as that strange moment following a catastrophe where “in our aversion to addressing disasters as signs” we refuse “to interpret and take responsibility for the kinds of collective responses that may be needed to alleviate human misery.” One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen and for once we will heed the ruins. We will begin collectively to take responsibility for the world we’re creating. Call me foolishly utopian, but I sincerely believe this will happen. I do. I just wonder how many millions of people will perish before it does.

Controversies around the Social Cost of Carbon

What is the social cost of carbon? That is,the monetary value of the long-term damages done by greenhouse gas emissions? Frank Ackerman from the Stockholm Environment Institute U.S. Center, recently gave a fascinating talk at the Stockholm Resilience Centre where he presented the widely used FUND-model, an integrated assessment model of climate change that links climate change science with economics. According to Ackerman, the interesting aspect with this model is not only that it is commonly cited by policy-makers in the US, but also that some of its basic assumptions, lead to quite bizarre results. The policy implications can not be overestimated.

As Ackerman notes in the TripleCrisis blog:

True or false: Risks of a climate catastrophe can be ignored, even as temperatures rise? The economic impact of climate change is no greater than the increased cost of air conditioning in a warmer future? The ideal temperature for agriculture could be 17oC above historical levels?

All true, according to the increasingly popular FUND model of climate economics. It is one of three models used by the federal government’s Interagency Working Group to estimate the “social cost of carbon” – that is, the monetary value of the long-term damages done by greenhouse gas emissions. According to FUND, as used by the Working Group, the social cost of carbon is a mere $6 per ton of CO2. That translates into $0.06 per gallon of gasoline. Do you believe that a tax of $0.06 per gallon at the gas pump (and equivalent taxes on other fossil fuels) would solve the climate problem and pay for all future climate damages?

I didn’t believe it, either. But the FUND model is growing in acceptance as a standard for evaluation of climate economics. To explain the model’s apparent dismissal of potential harm, I undertook a study of the inner workings of FUND (with the help of an expert in the relevant software language) for E3 Network. Having looked under the hood, I’d say the model needs to be towed back to the shop for a major overhaul.

A working paper that teases the critique in detail can be found here. To summarize the conclusions for non-economists: the social cost of carbon is way higher than $6 per ton of CO2….

Massive cost of Japan’s disaster

The earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster in Japan is likely to be the most expensive disaster since disaster estimates began in 1965.  Over recent decades disasters have generally had a decreasing death toll, but an increasing economic cost.  The Sendai earthquake follows these trends.  The Economist reports:

Provisional estimates released today by the World Bank put the economic damage resulting from the disaster at as much as $235 billion, around 4% of GDP. That figure would make this disaster the costliest since comparable records began in 1965. The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which caused some 250,000 deaths, does not feature on this chart. Economic losses there amounted to only $14 billion in today’s prices, partly because of low property and land values in the affected areas.


Impacts of the 2010 tsunami in Chile

UPDATE: Here is a link to a video to Prof. Castilla’s talk (via @sthlmresilience)

03:34 a.m. February 27th 2010. Suddenly, a devastating earthquake and a series of tsunamis hits the central–south coast of Chile. An earthquake so powerful (8.8 on the moment magnitude scale), that not only is the fifth largest recorded on earth, but also moves the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina, 10 feet (!) to the west.

Juan Carlos Castilla from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, recently visited Stockholm, and gave an update about the tsunamis’ impact on coastal communities. The effects of the tsunami were devastating, and the death toll from the 2-3 tsunamis alone was between 170-200 in the coastal areas of regions VI, VII and VIII. The most noticeable biophysical impact in the region is the elevation of the whole coastal area, ranging from 1.5 to 3 meters. This obviously has had big impacts on the composition of species and vegetation on the coast. The impacts on coastal ecosystems and fisheries is however still unclear.

Based on extensive field studies two months after the disaster, Castilla and his research team noted that only 8-12 (about 6%) of the 200 deceased where from fisherman families. According to Castilla, this low figure can be explained by the existence of strong social networks, and local knowledge passed on from generation to generation. As an artisan fisherman in the study, summarized one shared local saying:

“if an earthquake is so strong you can not stand up: run to the hills”

Luckily, February 27th was a night of full moon. This allowed people to more easily run for protection in the hills. According to Castilla, the combination of full moon, local knowledge, and strong bonds between neighbors, made it possible for members of fishermen communities to rapidly act on the first warning signal: the earthquake. The fact that locals also were taught not to leave the hills after at least a couple of hours after an earthquake, also helped them avoid the following devastating tsunamis. Unfortunately, visitors and tourists in the tsunami affected coastal areas, were not.

Read more:

Marín, A et al. (2010) ”The 2010 tsunami in Chile: Devastation and survival of coastal small-scale fishing communities”, Marine Policy, 2010, 34:1381-1384.

Gelchich, S et al. “Nagivating transformations in governance of Chilean marine coastal resources”, PNAS, 107(39): 16794-16799.

See Henrik’s post just the days after the Chilean earthquake here.

OECD global shock reports

The OECD’s Risk Management project has commissioned a number of reports to examine possible future global shocks and how society can become resilient to them.  They write:

The Project … recognises that shocks can provide opportunities for progress, not just negative consequences. Amongst the inputs from which the final report will draw are six background papers and case studies on the following themes: Systemic Financial Risk ; Pandemics ; Cyber Risks ; Geomagnetic Storms ; Social Unrest and Anticipating Extreme Events.

I haven’t read these reports (which are available through the links above), but they look interesting.  For example, prolific complexity scientist John Casti wrote the report on Anticipating Extreme Events.

thanks to Victor Galaz for the tip.

Floods in Brisbane and Brazil

The near simultaneous floods in Brazil and Brisbane provide a contrast in terms of their impact (and media coverage).  Brisbane is experiencing huge property damage, but relatively little loss of life – while Brazil is experiencing large loss of life, without as much property damage.

In Brazil experienced much smaller area flooded, but due to the rapidity, terrain and vulnerability of people much more death.  Recent reports state the death toll exceeds 500 people, making it Brazil’s most deadly natural disaster (see also BBC). The Christian Science Monitor writes:

Less than a year ago, just a few miles from where this week’s devastation occurred, 160 people died when houses built on top a hillside garbage dump gave way. Another 250 were killed by mudslides in other parts of the state.

In São Paulo, the two rivers that ring the city routinely burst their banks causing traffic chaos and some neighborhoods spent several weeks under water last year.

Government officials vowed they would review the current procedures that ensure much more money is spent on cleaning up disasters rather than stopping them from happening, with leading Civil Defense official Humberto Vianna telling the government news agency: “[Our] logic needs to be inverted. We are going to prioritize prevention.”

Meanwhile, in Brisbane Dan Hill from architecture and urbanism blog city of sound writes about a long reflection filled post about details and feeling of the flood:

Part of all this is just Queensland. It comes with the territory, as they say. Comes with the terrain might be a better way of putting it, as Brisbane is basically built in a flood plain. You can’t help but consider the folly of building Australia’s third largest city in a flood plain, but then Melbourne is built on a big old swamp too, so that’s two of them. And Sydney will hardly be immune to rising sea levels.Brisbane is characterised, like perhaps no other city on earth, by a particular kind of domestic architecture: the Queenslander. This is typically a wooden house with a pitched tin roof overhanging a wrap-around veranda, a cruciform internal layout to enable air flow, and elevated high on stilts to catch the breeze and avoid the bugs. Designed to create good air flows under and through the building, and originally enable people to sleep outside, you see them everywhere across the city. It’s uniquely identified with the city. Over time, they’ve become both coveted and replaced, with good examples being preserved and becoming expensive, and yet many demolished in favour of new builds done in the cheaper ‘slab on ground’ model of building, which is the easiest way of doing it. But guess which is most appropriate for these conditions? Those wooden houses on stilts are often sitting pretty above the rising water at the moment.

There will be much finger-pointing after this, from insurance companies refusing to pay up due to the releases from dams not technically being floods (what on earth else are they then?); from those who point out that, as memory of the ’74 floods faded, developers were allowed to build in flood plains earmarked for further dams; from those pointing out that the floods are a result of climate change (even if these ones aren’t, future ones will be); from those pointing out that the entire fragile mode of suburban development of Australian cities is particularly unsuited to the resilience required of the near-future; that development should not have been allowed on the riversides and basins of floodplains, and so on.

There will be a time for discussing how to achieve more resilient patterns of settlement in Australia. I’m not at all convinced that Australians have the appetite for genuinely addressing this, even despite the floods. Most people are apparently incapable of thinking about the future on the scale required for investment in things like urban resilience, even accepting we need to get better at communicating all this. I’m not sure people see the connection between devastating flooding and a culture where property developers call the shots, where cost drives aspiration in building and infrastructure, and where a car-based fabric of dispersed tarmac’ed low-density communities is virtually the Australian dream. But if it’s not events like this, I’m not sure what else it would take to make this clear and force the issue.

Continue reading

Haiti a year after the quake

The strong 2010 Haiti earthquake had its epicentre near Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. It killed about 230,000 people, injured another 300,000, and made another 1,000,000 homeless a huge impact on a country of 10 million. The earthquake caused an estimated $10 billion worth of damage, more than Haiti’s annual GDP, a huge impact on a small, poor country.

The Big Picture photoblog has a great collection of photos from a year after the quake:

Soccer players from Haiti's Zaryen team (in blue) and the national amputee team fight for the ball during a friendly match at the national stadium in Port-au-Prince January 10, 2011. Sprinting on their crutches at breakneck speed, the young soccer players who lost legs in Haiti's earthquake last year project a symbol of hope and resilience in a land where so much is broken. (REUTERS/Kena Betancur) #

New York Times has a collection of aerial photos that show Haiti before the quake, immediately after, and now.  They also have the stories of six Haitians in the year after the quake.

NPR has a collection of stories on the post-quake recovery.

Michael K. Lindell writes in Nature Geoscience on the need for earthquake resilient buildings. He writes:

Usually, the poorest suffer the most in disasters that hit developing countries, but this may not have been so in Haiti. The lowest quality housing experienced less damage than many higher quality structures. Specifically, shanty housing made of mixed wood and corrugated metal fared well, as did concrete masonry unit structures made of concrete blocks and corrugated metal roofs. These inexpensive shacks probably had a very low incidence of failure because they are such light structures. At the other extreme, the most expensive seismically designed structures also seem to have performed well, but for quite different reasons. Although they were heavier, they had designs that avoided well-known problems, and the materials used in building were of adequate quality and quantity. It seems to have been the moderately expensive structures, built with concrete columns and slabs, that were reinforced, but concrete block walls that were not. Such structures frequently experienced severe damage or collapse because their builders cut costs with inadequate designs, materials and construction methods.

The relationship between building cost and seismic safety thus seems to be not just non-linear, but non-monotonic. That is, people can spend their way into hazard vulnerability, not just out of it. To avoid this problem, three main requirements must be met. First, earthquake risk maps are needed to identify the areas where seismic-resistant construction is required. Second, building codes must then be adopted, implemented and enforced. Finally, insurance is required to fund rebuilding after an earthquake in which building codes have saved lives but not buildings.

Today, mitigation of earthquake hazards is not held back primarily by a lack of engineering solutions: architects had access to manuals for seismic-resistant design for nearly 20 years at the time of the Haiti earthquake. But substantial further research is needed to examine how people can be convinced to make use of existing options for achieving physical and financial safety — especially in areas, such as the Central United States New Madrid seismic zone, that have earthquake recurrence intervals of hundreds of years. Implementing risk-management strategies for coping with such low-probability, high-consequence events will require innovative public/private partnerships.

Ultimately, even the poorest countries must regard building codes as necessities, not luxuries. Moreover, even relatively wealthy countries need to develop more effective strategies for managing seismic risks. This will require collaboration among earth scientists, social scientists, earthquake engineers and urban planners.

Information and Communication Technologies and Climate Change

Richard Heeks and Angelica Ospina at the University of Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics‘ run the blog Notes on ICTs, Climate Change and Development.  Recently Angelica Ospina wrote about ICTs within a Changing Climate:

According to the latest Information Economy Report prepared by UNCTAD [UN conference on trade and development] over the past few years “the penetration rate of mobile phones in the world’s least developed countries (LDCs) has surged from 2 to 25 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants”, and is expected that by 2010 the total number of mobile subscriptions will reach 5 billion. …

But what about the role of these technologies towards climate change mitigation, monitoring and adaptation?

Evidence on these linkages is starting to emerge, suggesting that the role of ICTs towards poverty reduction and the strengthening of local livelihoods is closely connected to their potential in enabling developing country communities to better withstand, recover from, and adapt to the changing conditions posed by climate change –what can, overall, be termed ‘resilience’.

There is still much to learn about the role and potential of ICTs in the climate change field, including their effects in strengthening -or weakening- local responses and strategies to climate change-related effects. However, these technologies are integral to processes of experimentation, discovery and innovation, which are, in turn, essential components of learning and key to enable more effective mitigation measures, monitoring, and local adaptive capacities within vulnerable environments.