Entering the Metro convention center in Toronto Canada for the World Conference on Disaster Management last month I was struck by two incongruous sights. First of all the entrance was all but blocked with a crowd of smokers. As I made my way through the gauntlet of second hand smoke I could not help but think how counter intuitive it was that a global gathering of scientists and government agencies concerned about mitigating oncoming natural disasters would themselves be risking their personal health in such a banal and unnecessary way.
Secondly, the keynote speaker was Lester Brown, a highly respected expert on the global environment and climate change. What does climate change have to do with preparing for upcoming disasters?
A whole lot, it turns out.
I had a chance to speak with Lester Brown following his speech:
CS: So, initially, when I saw that you were addressing this conference, I didn't quite see the relationship between the environmental research you do and disaster management. What is the connection?
LB: Well, this is the World Conference on Disaster Management. And, thank God that there are people who are getting together to share ideas on how to deal with the many disasters that we're facing in the world.
But, I wanted to point out that there's a really BIG disaster coming down the road [which will] actually threaten civilization itself. And, there's no way that we're going to be able to manage that one.
But, what we have to do is to begin reversing the trends that are undermining global warming, whether that's rising CO2 levels, shrinking forests or inefficient population growth. How many failures and mistakes before we have a failing global civilization? We don't know the answer to that. We haven't been here before. There's a tendency [to think], "Oh, it couldn't happen to us." We're a very progressive, hi- tech civilization and so forth. But, the ancient Samarians were a pretty special civilization of their time too. The wheel, the first planned cities, well engineered irrigation systems, etc, etc. But, they had a flaw in design of their irrigation system. For them, it was rising salt levels in the soil that eventually brought them down.
For us, it's probably rising temperatures that are going to be the key.
CS: Talk to me about what we call "natural disasters." For instance, last summer's wildfires in Russia. You say we should not see extreme weather simply as inevitable acts Acts of God and I think that's very interesting in terms of disaster preparation.
LB: It's always called a "natural disaster." But, to the extent that we are now changing the earth's climate system, as indeed we are, at what point does a natural disaster become a human disaster in terms of its origins?
Human disasters are going to become more and more frequent.
Now, if someone had said to me at the beginning of June last year, that there was going to be a heat wave in Moscow where during the month of July, the average temperature will be 14 degrees above normal for the month, I would have said, "Well, I'm not a climate denier but that's beyond."
And we saw extraordinary disasters. It started in late June, went through the month of July, and by early August, there were [about] 400 new fires started every day. The situation was entirely out of control. And that's when President Medvedev, sweating in a press conference, said, "We used to be climate deniers. Not anymore." He said, "We've got to get together, we've got do something about this." And, I mean, it was almost like a deathbed conversion of his finally seeing the light.
But the damage there was extraordinary. Millions of acres burned [including] crops, and forests and grasslands and they lost most of their hay crop. It takes a lot of hay to keep the dairy herds going and they didn't have the hay.
CS: So what's the line between an otherwise natural event and a human disaster brought on specifically by climate change?
LB : It's hard to say, but, what we do know in looking around the world now is that extreme weather events are becoming almost daily news. I mean, [with] floods, droughts, and tornadoes, I've noticed in the United States, during the last several months, the news channels have become weather channels.
We've had more wild fires burning already this year than we've ever had in any other year in history -- 600,000 acres in Arizona alone.
And we lost count already of tornadoes. There were so many. There were four in Massachusetts. Whoever heard of tornadoes in Massachusetts?
CS: Is this the new normal?
LB: Each year now, the agriculture system, is more and more out of sync with the climate system which is continually changing.
Because, we don't know which way things are going to grow. You can't make the investments. So it used to be, we'd have a bad year or some failure -- be it a drought in the former Soviet Union or heat wave in the US Corn Belt -- but then things would go back to normal.
But there's no normal to go back to.
CS: The baseline is shifting?
LB: We're in a state of constant change and that's what makes it so risky. And, that's why I think food prices are going to be the first major economic indicator that climate change is for real. It has to be taken seriously. And, I think people will understand that.
CS: How will food prices be a tipping point?
LB: [Look at] cigarette smoking. Up until the early 90s the tobacco company CEOs, under sworn testimony before Congress, said there's no proof linking smoking to health. And, we've reached the point where everyone knew there was. They lost their credibility and then everything began to go. I think we're headed for something like that on the climate front.
CS: You say no previous civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural support systems.
LB: What happened with the Mayans, for example, was that as their civilization expanded, there [was demand for] more and more land and more fuel [from trees]. And then two things began to happen there. One was with the deforestation came more and more soil erosion. The second thing that happened was that so much land was cleared that it changed the local climate of the entire region of Central America, reducing the rainfall.
A human disaster -- drought -- as a result of their extensive deforestation was what brought [their civilization] down.
Soil erosion is not new. [But] we are running out of underground water resources [and this is] not something we have experience with. And, the disturbing thing about it is that aquifer depletion is invisible. We can't see it.
And looking around the world, we have not found a single country where someone said, "Hey, our water tables are falling," and [put] into action a plan to stabilize the situation by recycling water or reducing wastage or what have you.
CS: Not even in the US?
LB: Not the United States. Not China, nor the countries in the Middle East.
Someone needs to do something about that. [Then we've got] higher temperatures, rising sea levels, deforestation, soil erosion, the acidification of the oceans, and grasslands turning into desert. We haven't turned a single one of them around.
CS: You told the conference that disaster management is only going to become more and more important looking forward into the future. So, what would you like to see done? In other words, thanks for the scare -- now what do we do about it?
LB: One of the only good examples is South Korea. After the Korean War in the early 50s, Korea was a basket case: trees had [all] been burned for fuel and the mountains were totally deforested. And then, under President Park, a reforestation program was launched in which he brought together villages to plant trees in their area. And you go to South Korea today and all the mountains are covered with trees. It is amazing.
Year after year, North Korea has floods, it has droughts, and it has chronic food shortages. And it's [simply] because the trees have gone, and much of the soil has gone and it's just difficult for them to produce. South Korea is very healthy by comparison.
CS: Clearly, then, it is doable. So how do you feel about the future?
LB: Well, I'm feeling fine, it's the world I'm concerned about.
Lester Brown's latest book is World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse
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