Online Extra Issue 5: What can governments do to better prepare their populations for extreme weather events? By John Harte

This article is a companion piece to The New Idealist Issue Five: Doomsday Edition which you can download here.

Please note: This article was originally published in The New Idealist section of The Intelligent Review site in May 2014 before being transferred to this new site in July 2015.

If fossil fuels continue to be the dominant energy source that powers humankind, there is nothing that can be done to significantly reduce the risks to society of destructive weather.  Weather events are the specific realizations of climate at particular times and places.  As global climate disruption increases as a consequence of fossil fuel use, we will face ever worsening and ever less predictable weather extremes.  So the first step in reducing the risk to society of extreme weather is to greatly reduce dependence on fossil fuels.  This will require increasing the efficiency of energy use and replacing fossil fuels with wind- and sun-generated power.  Promoting this energy transition should be the first responsibility of governments.

Having said that, we must still accept that we already have modified the climate, and no matter how aggressively energy policy shifts in the coming decades, people will want to try to prepare for an increase in extreme weather events brought about by our past dependence on fossil fuels.

All women on this planet have access to contraception so they have the freedom to exercise personal responsibility about the size of their families.

To explore ways in which society could become more resilient to worsening weather, imagine for the moment an Earth that is different from our own right now.  All women on this planet have access to contraception so they have the freedom to exercise personal responsibility about the size of their families.  Most of this planet’s forests and wetlands, coastal dunes and prairie have been left intact.  Life’s diverse forms are flourishing.  The land is not worn out, the soils are rich, the water is clean, and the air is breathable even in the cities.

Nevertheless, a sudden natural release of methane from the sea floor to the atmosphere is about to occur and the amount of this released greenhouse gas will result in a 6o F (3.3 o C) globally-averaged warming.  How concerned should the people on this planet be?

A sudden natural release of methane from the sea floor to the atmosphere is about to occur and the amount of this released greenhouse gas will result in a 6o F (3.3 o C) globally-averaged warming.

Because the coastal wetlands and dune habitats are healthy, the danger of coastal erosion, loss of coastal zone wildlife, and salt intrusion into water supplies will be minimal. The warming will raise sea level, but because these people have not built their dwellings too close to the sea there will be no direct threat to their homes.  Because habitat immediately inland of coastal wildlife zones is intact and undisturbed, these zones will generally shift inland slightly as sea level rises, and wildlife populations will generally adapt to the change.

The warming will increase summer temperatures, but with plenty of un-filled and un-drained lake, bay, and wetland habitat surrounding areas of human habitation, natural cooling mechanisms are expected to reduce the impact of “killer heat waves”.

The warming will tend to increase the intensity of extreme droughts and floods, but intact forests and healthy soils will reduce the threat of soil erosion from more intense rainfall, the likelihood of drought, and the effect of drought on crops. The naturally driest areas of this planet will not be used to grow a large portion of the peoples’ food, and so when they dry further, an exodus of agriculture will not be needed.

The warming and increased rain in some areas will promote crop pests and provide disease insect vectors an opportunity to spread to higher latitudes, but with natural insect predators such as birds in abundance, and a diversity of crops planted on farms, minimal effects are anticipated.

The warming will cause many wild species that cannot tolerate the altered climate to seek out habitat either upslope or poleward, where they will find a favorable climate; because of the plentiful protected land, ample corridors exist through which many species can disperse to locations with more suitable climate.

Clearly, these imaginary people have far less reason to be concerned about their impending climate change than we do about climate disruption on our Earth.  Their remaining ecosystems are better protected than are ours and ecosystem services are sufficiently robust to protect their health and economic well being against the assaults of climate disruption.  The ecological integrity of the land is protecting these people.  Because the human population has not grown beyond what the carrying capacity of the land can support, mass starvation and wars over resources will not be necessary.

The lesson is clear: to build resilience against ongoing and inevitable future climate disruption, all women, worldwide, must have access to contraception so that they can exercise reproductive responsibility.

The lesson is clear: to build resilience against ongoing and inevitable future climate disruption, all women, worldwide, must have access to contraception so that they can exercise reproductive responsibility.  Our ecosystems must be protected from mining, deforestation, wetlands destructions, oil spills, and the other activities that currently assault nature.  And we must pull back from unsustainable exploitation of fragile regions of the planet, including coral reefs, deserts, and rainforests.

While building greater resilience will help, it will not be enough.  The future health of humanity will be at serious risk if we do not expeditiously carry out an energy revolution that eliminates our dependence on fossil fuels.

By John Harte, Professor of Ecosystem Sciences, Energy and Resources Group, University of California, Berkeley

Leave a Reply