Category Archives: Adaptation

Resilience to Earthquakes

In response to the high number of school children killed in school collapses in the recent Sichuan earthquake, Andrew Revkin writes in the New York Times about the challenges of enhancing resilience – even when the problem and solution are well understood – in his article A Move to Turn Schools From Earthquake Death Traps Into Havens:

… The main challenge in bolstering resilience to such geophysical shocks, Ms. Wang, Mr. Tucker and many other experts said, is not the structural engineering. There is no mystery to adding and securing iron rods in concrete, securing floors to beams, boosting the resilience of columns, monitoring the size of gravel mixed with cement.

It is not cost, either. In California, Dr. Tucker notes, the premium for building earthquake resistance into new schools is less than 4 percent. The payoff, beyond saved lives, is significantly lower repair costs after a temblor — 10 to 100 times less than in unimproved buildings. (In poorer countries, the differential in cost could be substantially higher, other experts note, but the payoff, they say, is priceless.)

Rich or poor, the big challenge lies in overcoming social and political hurdles that still give priority to pressing daily problems over foreseeable disasters that may not occur for decades, scores of years, or longer. In some developing countries there is a tendency to ascribe earthquakes and their consequences to fate, but Dr. Tucker and other experts say that lets the authorities off the hook.

“I can’t hold a government responsible for protecting its citizens against a meteorite falling out of the sky,” Dr. Tucker said. “But I can and do hold a government in a country with known seismic risk responsible for protecting its children, who are compelled to attend school, from the school collapsing during an earthquake.”

Dr. Tucker has written or co-written a lengthening string of reports pointing to the building risks worldwide as more populations shift to urban areas, often into shoddy, hastily built structures, with children sent to schools in similar, and often worse, condition.

Arthur Lerner-Lam, who maps disaster risks at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, agrees that urbanization in earthquake zones is setting the world up for its first true megadisaster — a million-casualty earthquake that many seismologists say is only a matter of time. The greatest risk, he said, lies in a belt from Italy and Turkey through central Asia and the Himalayas into central China.

In such regions, Dr. Tucker said, the best blueprints and materials are no guarantee of safety without adequate building codes, laws, training, inspections and enforcement.

The biggest challenge of all may simply be redefining security, and building societies that demand that government investments match risks, said Fouad Bendimerad, an engineering and risk-management consultant in California and chairman of the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative.

“The typical government spends around 15 percent of its G.D.P. to defend against exterior military threats that may never occur during the lifetime of generation,” Dr. Bendimerad said. “Why do we want to exonerate governments from dedicating a small portion of that 15 percent to protect against the threats of natural hazards that we know will happen?”

Brian Walker’s Research Areas for Resilience Science

Brian Walker, the former director of the Resilience Alliance reflected on the future of resilience science in his introductory talk at Resilience 2008. In his talk Probing the boundaries of resilience science and practice, he identified seven important research areas for resilience science:

  1. Test, criticize and revise the propositions about resilience made in Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems and Ecology and Society special issue – Exploring Resilience In Social-Ecological Systems.
  2. Develop models of social-ecological systems that can produce the key aspects of the rich behaviour of the world. In particular these models should be able to produce:
    i) dynamics in which systems cross multiple thresholds,
    ii) produce “backloop” dynamics, and
    iii) incorporate models of adaptive governance that incorporate leadership, trust, ‘shadow’ networks, sleeper links, and poly-centric governance arrangements.
  3. Extend resilience theory from local or regional scales to the global to address questions such as:
    i) Do we need new propositions for global resilience issues?
    ii) Over what ranges of scale can we apply existing theory?, and
    iii) How important are scale-dependent processes?
  4. Resilience theory needs to better understand the consquences of multiple simultaneous shocks, because transformative change seems to be often triggered by two (or more) simultaneous shocks. For example an environmental shock and an economic (or political) shock occurring at the same time.
    Resilience theory needs to understand what coupled or sequential shocks are likely, and how could we go about assessing resilience to them. An example of this is the current food crisis that developed from the coupling of agriculture, energy, and climate issues.
  5. What are the differences between transformational change, adaptability and resilience? Transformability is the capacity to create a fundamentally new system when conditions make the existing system untenable. In much of the world the need is to transform, not to make the existing system regime more resilient. What are the design principles of transformations?
  6. How can we assess the costs and values of resilience? What is the difference between general (broad spectrum resilience to many things) vs. specified resilience (to a few specific things)? How can we conceptualize the danger in ‘optimizing’ for specified resilience? How much should we spend (or forego) to increase resilience?
  7. How can the value of different regimes be assessed? The desirablity of a regime usually depends upon the perspective it is viewed from, and different people have different perspectives. Coping with these perspectives is a challenge. But more fundamentally, this requires not just assessing the value of different ecosystem services, but also understanding the identity of a system, and its ability to maintain itself.
  8. Non-mathematical approaches to resilience. While mathematics is beautiful to some, it is difficult to communicate and in some situations is insufficient. We need to increase our ability to represent resilience in a variety of forms. This presents a challenge to the humanities and arts community. At Resilience 2008 we saw contributions towards this understanding, but there is much more to develop. Can science and the humanities work together to provide the impetus towards a richer, more resilient world?

Scenarios and Resilience

People or organizations can focus their effort on a narrow goal, or they can diversify the uses of resources to explore and innovate. It is hard to do both at the same time. This pattern arises in politics as well as in corporations, agencies or academic institutions. When politics of democracies begin to lock into a stationary state, party positions are caricatures, messages are simplistic, campaigns are tightly scripted, media events are rigidly coordinated, and big donors demand loyal candidates. These conditions do not encourage broad, creative, inventive discussions of the most important problems of the day. Such a political environment seems hopelessly incapable of addressing the multiple shocks of the present – the credit crisis, sharply rising prices of energy and food, shortage of arable land, declining capacity of ecosystems to produce the goods that people need, and the complex challenges of climate change, among others. These shocks are unprecedented, so the solutions are novel – the kinds of solutions that cannot emerge from gridlock politics.

Nonetheless, people need answers to complex questions. In a recent global survey, respondents were asked to identify the questions that were most important to them. Questions were then ranked in order of the number of respondents who identified them as important. All of the top-ranking questions were deeply complex. What does sustainability look like? How must humans adapt to survive the changes of this century? What economic structures best support a shift to sustainability? How can we re-invent politics so people feel that they have a voice? What kind of leadership does the world need now?

Complex questions can be addressed by scenarios – sets of stories about the future, derived from collaborative processes and models, designed to integrate diverse perspectives. The scenarios of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment are a recent example.

Scenarios are a way of building resilience – the capacity to maintain useful features of nature and society, while inventing and implementing transformations to new ways of living. In a recent talk at Resilience 2008 I discussed some of the connections between scenarios and resilience. To break out of traps, people need positive stories of what the future could be, and blunt warnings of dangerous paths. Scenarios provide such motivating visions. Moreover, the process of scenario-building itself may create connections that enable transformation. Scenario projects form networks of people in settings that promote playful, inventive thinking at the margin of formal politics. The scenarios, the insights, the people, or the networks themselves are capable of infiltrating wider thinking, and thereby contributing to change when the conditions are right.

What could expand the use of scenarios to build resilience? We need more people trained in relevant skills such as collaboration, rapid prototyping, flexible fast modeling, synthesis, and use of art, music, science and stories together. Courses exist and a sizeable literature is available. Yet the best way to learn scenarios is by doing. Why not try scenario thinking the next time you face a complex problem with long-term consequences?

The sustainability of improving living standards

Australian economist John Quiggin writes on The sustainability of improving living standards in a world of climate change. He discusses responses to the Stern Review on the economics of climate change. In particular, its conclusion that stabilizing at the atmosphere at 500 ppm CO2 equivalent in 2050 would result have same size economy as would otherwise have been reached in 2048.

Stern’s optimistic view that CO2 emissions could be greatly reduced without a corresponding reduction in living standards is rejected by critics beginning from two diametrically opposed positions. Although deeply hostile to each other, the two groups find some surprising common ground.

The first group are ‘Deep Green’ pessimists who see the end of consumer capitalism as both inevitable and desirable. At least since the reports of the Club of Rome in the 1970s, members of this group have argued that continued economic growth is inherently unsustainable. …

The mirror image of Deep Green pessimism is that of the ‘Dark Brown’ pessimists who say that we should do nothing to stabilise the climate because to do so will wreck our standards of living. Dark Brown commentators from thinktanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute warn of ruinous economic consequences even from modest first steps such as the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. …

Both groups engage in a fair bit of wishful thinking about their position, the Greens arguing that we’ll all be happier in the long run and the Browns claiming that the environmental problems will solve themselves if we ignore them. But these opposing claims are secondary to the shared presumption that economic growth depends on increasing exploitation of the natural environment and, in particular, on the burning of fossil fuels.

Underlying both Deep Green and Dark Brown positions is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of economic progress and of economic activity in a modern society. The concept of economic growth is so firmly embedded in our thinking that we forget it is just a metaphor. The idea of growth implies physical expansion, and any process of physical expansion has limits. …

The public-good nature of information explains how economic progress can continue without additional resources. Most obviously, improvements in information technology allow more and faster communication which in turn allows for yet more technological improvements. There is no apparent indication of diminishing marginal returns in this field; if anything the opposite. …

Despite the claims of Dark Browns and Deep Greens, we can, if we choose, have both a stable climate and steadily improving standards of living throughout the world. But the fact that we can achieve these things does not mean we will. At this stage, failure seems all too possible, as does a half-hearted response that will imply the need for much more costly action in the future.

While I am relatively optimistic about the ability of human society to successfully adapt and mitigate climate change I am worried that:

  1. Economic growth is not being decoupled from its use of global ecosystems, and
  2. Estimates of the costs of climate change fails to consider that we are substantially reducing the ability of the biosphere to adapt to climate change, which will have unknown but likely substantial negative impacts on human wellbeing.

Social Implications of Arctic Melting

An article Arctic Meltdown in Foreign Affairs by Scott G. Borgerson discusses the political and economics consequences on a ice-free summer Arctic:

The shipping shortcuts of the Northern Sea Route (over Eurasia) and the Northwest Passage (over North America) would cut existing oceanic transit times by days, saving shipping companies — not to mention navies and smugglers — thousands of miles in travel. … Taking into account canal fees, fuel costs, and other variables that determine freight rates, these shortcuts could cut the cost of a single voyage by a large container ship by as much as 20 percent — from approximately $17.5 million to $14 million — saving the shipping industry billions of dollars a year. The savings would be even greater for the megaships that are unable to fit through the Panama and Suez Canals and so currently sail around the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. Moreover, these Arctic routes would also allow commercial and military vessels to avoid sailing through politically unstable Middle Eastern waters and the pirate-infested South China Sea. An Iranian provocation in the Strait of Hormuz, such as the one that occurred in January, would be considered far less of a threat in an age of trans-Arctic shipping.

Arctic shipping could also dramatically affect global trade patterns. … As soon as marine insurers recalculate the risks involved in these voyages, trans-Arctic shipping will become commercially viable and begin on a large scale. In an age of just-in-time delivery, and with increasing fuel costs eating into the profits of shipping companies, reducing long-haul sailing distances by as much as 40 percent could usher in a new phase of globalization. Arctic routes would force further competition between the Panama and Suez Canals, thereby reducing current canal tolls; shipping chokepoints such as the Strait of Malacca would no longer dictate global shipping patterns; and Arctic seaways would allow for greater international economic integration. When the ice recedes enough, likely within this decade, a marine highway directly over the North Pole will materialize. Such a route, which would most likely run between Iceland and Alaska’s Dutch Harbor, would connect shipping megaports in the North Atlantic with those in the North Pacific and radiate outward to other ports in a hub-and-spoke system. A fast lane is now under development between the Arctic port of Murmansk, in Russia, and the Hudson Bay port of Churchill, in Canada, which is connected to the North American rail network.

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Carbon Neutral Universities

Metropolis Magazine writes about the maturing and deepening of the university campus sustainability in Carbon Neutral U:

Higher education has emerged as a thrilling proving ground for a sustainable society. Schools of all statures and sizes—from the Ivies to red-state community colleges—are making the most of their fiefdoms, leveraging their educated and politically engaged populations, long-term outlooks, and self-managed (the often significant) physical footprints to make substantial changes. But with those changes comes a surprising reversal in academe’s typical stance: the mechanics of the campus are occupying the brightest spotlight. Students, administrators, and faculty are obsessing over the cleaning products the janitors use, how dining-hall potatoes are grown, and which dorms consume the least energy. Infrastructure is hot—hotter arguably than research or teaching about sustainability. It is as if the ivory tower has looked out to the world and seen a choking planet, and its first response is to look inward again at its own activities—building designs, power plants, and transportation systems. …

Schools are also looking to one another for help, increasingly collaborating in realms where they have traditionally competed. “There’s long been an incredible amount of peer benchmarking across higher education, but that’s not the same as collaboration,” says Mark Orlowski, executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, the publisher of the College Sustainability Report Card 2008, which evaluated 200 schools on their environmental activities. “Collaboration, while quite widespread in the academic side of the university, has been less prevalent in operations,” he adds.

The range of projects is staggering. After a decade of bring-your-own-coffee-mug student environmentalism, the opening salvo of a new, more glamorous era in campus sustainability came in 2001, when the daughter of famed Berkeley, California, chef Alice Waters enrolled as a freshman at Yale. Waters’s initial disgust at the cafeteria steam tables evolved into the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which today manages an organic campus farm, directs a sustainable dining program, and serves as the base for a series of academic classes. It’s also been a lightning rod for PR—“A Dining Hall Where Students Sneak In,” crowed the New York Times—and dozens of schools have launched similar programs. More recently, as campuses have turned their attention to carbon reduction, no detail is too small: dorms are providing laundry racks for no-energy clothes drying, offering free bike maintenance as well as shared bikes, encouraging students to disconnect their dorm appliances over vacations, and recycling their organic potato French fry grease into biodiesel fuel for campus buses.

… For the cadre of campus sustainability coordinators, “creating a culture of sustainability” is one of the measures of success. The administrative structures for sustainability offices vary school by school, with some coordinators reporting through facilities, some through the provost or president’s offices, and some through both. But they all have the mandate to bridge the university’s operational initiatives to its teaching and research—to make the nuts and bolts count toward the big teachable ideas. With the wave of interest sweeping the students and faculty, new projects are coming from everywhere. The sustainability coordinator plays traffic cop, diplomat, and “facilitator.” As Yale’s Newman puts it, “What’s so fascinating about these positions is that we don’t directly oversee any of these functions. We have no power to do any of it. Our role is to be a sustainability generalist and then to develop questions and frameworks to understand how these systems work independently and together—so that, in the aggregate, does it lead to a sustainable Yale?”

Self-organized traffic safety

The UK County Surveyor’s Society Transport Futures group has just published a report Travel is Good that considers how to deal with problems likely to be encountered in transport over the next 20 years. They recommend increasing uncertainty and allowing the self-organization of multiple forms of traffic to increase safety, along with congestion pricing cars, and preparing for climate change.

This report is part of a trend of European traffic planners moving away from signs and regulations to increase traffic safety. Rather than legislating space for cars they are requiring drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to think about what they are doing rather than obeying signs. This approach appears to fit many resilience principles by encouraging many small disturbances makes the overall system more resilient (see: Traffic Safety: Regulation vs. Self-Organization).

The UK’s Times Online describes the report in their article How stripping the streets of traffic lights and signs may be a life saver:

Redesigning roads to leave drivers and pedestrians uncertain about who has priority will save lives, according to a report by Britain’s most senior transport officials. The move would automatically cut traffic speed without the need for cameras, they say.

Barriers and signs such as railings, kerbs, traffic lights and white lines cause crashes because people assume they will keep them safe and therefore fail to focus on what other road users are doing. Giving drivers less information by removing signs will encourage them to slow down to negotiate a safer course along high streets and across junctions.

The report by the County Surveyors’ Society, which represents local authority directors responsible for most roads in England and Wales, recommends a revolution in road design. It calls for widespread adoption of the concept of “shared space”, pioneered in the Netherlands and better known in Britain as “naked streets”.

It says: “Paradoxically, creating barriers and divisions may worsen safety because drivers and riders feel more confident and speed up, despite the limitations on the speed at which the human mind can take in the amount of information now displayed on our roads. The human response to increased in-car and on-road safety may be to increase risky behaviour.

…Ben Hamilton Baillie, a transport consultant who contributed to the report, said it marked acceptance at the highest levels of shared space principles that five years ago were considered outlandish. Roads in Bath, Ashford in Kent, and Ancoats in Manchester are being converted to shared space. Work will begin next year on removing kerbs and giving pedestrians greater priority on Exhibition Road in West London

Mobile phones and global communication

The spread of mobile phones across the developing world has been extremely rapid in the past few years (e.g. 4X increase between 2001-2005 in Africa).

Teledensity

The BBC reports on the annual Information Economy report from the UN conference on trade and development:

It was now well-established, said the report, that greater use of technology in businesses, schools and at home could raise standards of living and help people prosper.

In many developing nations the mobile phone had become the standard bearer for these changes, it said.

“In Africa, where the increase in terms of the number of mobile phone subscribers and penetration has been greatest, this technology can improve the economic life of the population as a whole,” it said.

In rural communities in Uganda, and the small vendors in South Africa, Senegal and Kenya mobile phones were helping traders get better prices, ensure less went to waste and sell goods faster.

The take up of mobiles was allowing developing nations to “leapfrog” some generations of technology such as fixed line telephones and reap more immediate rewards, said the report.

Greater use of computers in small businesses in countries such as Thailand made staff boost productive, it said. A study of Thai manufacturing firms showed that a 10% increase in computer literate staff produced a 3.5% productivity gain.

The developing world was also catching up in terms of net availability. In 2002, said UNCTAD, net availability was ten times higher in developing nations. In 2006, net availability was only six times higher.

Climate foresight and building resilience

In a WorldChanging article Conservation Easements, Climate Foresight and Resilience Alex Steffen asks if “resilience” is a good way to describe the need for resilience:

If the nature of even non-catastrophic climate change is to make the world much more unpredictable, adaptation is impossible in a meaningful sense.What is possible is planned resilience: we can make our own systems more rugged and distributed, our natural systems protected and managed in ways that best preserve their ability to respond to (and incorporate) disturbance while preserving ecosystem services and biodiversity. We can plan to become good at dealing with chaos. But that is quite different than adapting to a singular change, and it takes dramatically different kinds of priorities.

Now, “Resilience!” is not exactly be the battle-cry we’re looking for. Anyone else got a suggest about how we might compellingly describe the goal here?

Climate change: What to do in Bali? Avoid rearranging the deckchairs

Soon the international climate policy will meet under the UN’s framework convention on climate change in Bali where representative’s of the world’s nations will attempt to forge an effective international strategy to succeed the Kyoto protocol when it expires in 2012. There has been a lot of thinking in recent years on what form this agreement should take, and strong statements from the world’s scientific community that the world requires immediate reductions in CO2 emissions. The head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, said “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

British social scientists Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner recently wrote a commentary in Nature Time to ditch Kyoto (Oct 25 2007)

The Kyoto Protocol is a symbolically important expression of governments’ concern about climate change. But as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions, it has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth. And it pays no more than token attention to the needs of societies to adapt to existing climate change. The impending United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Bali in December — to decide international policy after 2012 — needs to radically rethink climate policy.

Influenced by three major policy initiatives of the 1980s, the Kyoto strategy is elegant but misguided. Ozone depletion, acid rain and nuclear arms control are difficult problems, but compared to climate change they are relatively simple. Ozone depletion could be prevented by controlling a small suite of artificial gases, for which technical substitutes could be found. Acid rain was mainly caused by a single activity in a single industrial sector (power generation) and nuclear arms reductions were achieved by governments agreeing to a timetable for mutually verifiable reductions in warheads. None of this applies to global warming.

In practice, Kyoto depends on the top-down creation of a global market in carbon dioxide by allowing countries to buy and sell their agreed allowances of emissions. But there is little sign of a stable global carbon price emerging in the next 5–10 years. Even if such a price were to be established, it is likely to be modest — sufficient only to stimulate efficiency gains. Without a significant increase in publicly funded research and development (R&D) for clean energy technology and changes to innovation policies, there will be considerable delay before innovation catches up with this modest price signal.

Sometimes the best line of attack is not head-on. Indirect measures can deliver much more: these range from informational instruments, such as labelling of consumer products; market instruments, such as emissions trading; and market stimuli, such as procurement programmes for clean technologies; to a few command-and-control mechanisms, such as technology standards. The benefit of this approach is that it focuses on what governments, firms and households actually do to reduce their emissions, in contrast to the directive target setting that has characterized international discussions since the late 1980s.

Because no one can know beforehand the exact consequences of any portfolio of policy measures, with a bottom-up approach, governments would focus on navigation, on maintaining course and momentum towards the goal of fundamental technological change, rather than on compliance with precise targets for emissions reductions. The flexibility of this inelegant approach would allow early mitigation efforts to serve as policy experiments from which lessons could be learned about what works, when and where. Thus cooperation, competition and control could all be brought to bear on the problem.

Does the Kyoto bandwagon have too much political momentum? We hope not. It will take courage for a policy community that has invested much in boosting Kyoto to radically rethink climate policy and adopt a bottom-up ‘social learning’ approach. But finding a face-saving way to do so is imperative. Not least, this is because today there is strong public support for climate action; but continued policy failure ‘spun’ as a story of success could lead to public withdrawal of trust and consent for action, whatever form it takes.

Nature has a follow-up discussion on this commentary on their climate blog ClimateFeedback.

A recent issue of Nature (15 November 2007) includes a letter from German climate scientist and policy advisor John Schellnhuber in which he responds. In Kyoto: no time to rearrange deckchairs on the Titaniche writes:

Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner … manage to be perfectly right and utterly wrong at the same time. Their criticism of the bureaucratic Kyoto Protocol is justified on many crucial points (although they don’t mention that the physical impact of the protocol on the climate system would be negligible even if it worked). The novelty of this summary of well-known deficiencies in the treaty is that the list comes from independent European scientists rather than White House mandarins. Is there anything substantially new beyond that provocation?

Yes, in the sense that Prins and Rayner boldly propagate a “bottom-up ‘social learning’ ” approach to climate policy that aspires to “put public investment in energy R&D on a wartime footing”. I agree with the importance of both elements to twenty-first century climate protection, but doubt whether there is a solid causal chain linking them. Fine-scale measures and movements towards sustainability, as well as technological and institutional innovation strategies, are needed to decarbonize our industrial metabolism and to force policy-makers to face the challenges ahead. …

Time is crucial, however. It is unlikely that a bottom-up, multi-option approach alone will be able to mobilize war-level climate-protection efforts by all the major emitters (including Russia, China and India) within the one or two decades left to avert an unmanageable planetary crisis. Without a ‘global deal’ — designed for effectiveness, efficiency and fairness and providing a framework to accommodate every nation — there will be neither sufficient pressure nor appropriate orientation towards the climate solutions we desperately need. The bottom-up and top-down approaches are complementary and must be pursued interactively.

Kyoto is simply a miserable precursor of the global regime intended to deliver genuine climate stablization — and was never expected to be more. “Ditching” it now would render all the agonies involved completely meaningless after the event, denying the entire process of policy evolution the slightest chance to succeed. So, instead of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic through social learning, let us ditch pusillanimity.