Over the span of just weeks, two of the nation’s most population-dense regions began a long and difficult road to recovery. Houstonians have already launched their extensive process of rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey, and Floridians are just starting to return home to assess the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma. In the same period, wildfires continued to scorch the Western United States, Mexico’s most powerful earthquake in a century struck just off its southern coast, and monsoons persisted in their deadly deluge of parts of northern India. As we seek the best way to offer assistance, we’re also considering how we can prevent suffering and loss from natural disasters like these in the future.
To get at an answer, we need to be honest about the problem. Environmental activists typically argue that events like Harvey and Irma should frighten us into redoubling our climate mitigation efforts—taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as rapidly transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy, for example—to reduce the risk of future catastrophic storms. Conservatives tend to deny any connection between weather disasters and climate change, and instead often focus on making sure any government emergency relief is offset by budget cuts (although that appears not to be the case for Texas).
But both of these entrenched positions, stoked by an increasingly polarized political environment, are mostly unhelpful when it comes to significantly reducing the harm the next natural disasters will bring. Instead, we should recognize that societies will always be exposed to natural disasters and that the economic cost of these disasters will continue to increase, even without the very real and worrisome influence that climate change has on many of them. This reality needs to shape how we prepare for the next Harvey or Irma.
First, it’s useful to more closely examine the forces that cause this scale of destruction. Harvey and Irma are both likely to rank among the costliest storms in U.S. history. But as assessments by Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies, have shown, economic losses from natural disasters have been rising for decades.
Damages caused by disasters are the result of three factors: hazard, exposure, and vulnerability. To take the Houston example, Harvey, obviously, was the hazard. Houston and its inhabitants were exposed to Harvey, and are generally exposed to the hazards of natural forces like hurricanes. The vulnerability of Houstonians and their infrastructure was related to how durable, resilient, or flexible to extreme weather the region was—or wasn’t.
Of these factors, it’s the latter two that are key to understanding the higher economic tolls we’ve been seeing and will continue to see from modern natural disasters. Yes, with more than four feet of rainfall totals, Harvey was an unprecedented, record-breaking storm. Irma, which meteorologists described as one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded, was, too.
And both were likely worsened by climate change. But, as with other major recent storms, the staggering amount of damage Hurricane Harvey caused was less a factor of the strength of the storm and more a factor of the scale of the human development it hit.
It’s part of a larger American story. We’re building more—and building more expensive things—in the path of natural disasters. We’re living in more concentrated areas that, when struck, cause economic losses to add up fast. We love to reside near coasts, in flood plains, or on fault lines and, in doing so, expose more of our wealth and citizens to the hazards associated with them. And, once we’re there, inadequate or unenforced land-use laws, imperfect evacuation procedures, and other lax planning often exacerbate the magnitude of Mother Nature’s destruction.
As an overarching trend, research has shown that the rising costs of these disasters over the decades have thus far overwhelmingly been a product of this increased exposure—not changes in the strength or frequency of these hazards, nor the influence humans may be having on them. This isn’t some climate change deniers’ conclusion, either. In the words of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “Most studies of long-term disaster loss records attribute these increases in losses to increasing exposure of people and assets in at-risk areas, and to underlying societal trends—demographic, economic, political, and social—that shape vulnerability to impacts.”
To recognize this doesn’t imply that we should stop developing or stop living in cities, or that economic development somehow isn’t worth pursuing. Economic losses from disasters have risen, but GDP has risen faster. And, as Max Roser’s team at Our World in Data has shown, though the costs from property damages may have gone up over the decades, the number of human lives lost—that much more valuable metric—dramatically dropped. This is true even though the number of people affected by natural disasters has skyrocketed.
Unsurprisingly, the wealth that’s putting more people and property at risk has a lot to do with this trend. How rich and poor countries experience disasters illustrates this vividly. A case in point comes from comparing the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan earlier this decade. The 2010 Haitian earthquake marked 7 on the Richter scale and likely killed somewhere between 46,000 and 316,000 people (disputes about the estimates account for the wide range). One year later, the Tohoku earthquake in Japan measured 9.1 and killed 16,000 people. The economic losses in Japan were far greater because there was more valuable infrastructure to destroy. But there was also far more protection in Japan, so an earthquake 100 times as strong as Haiti’s (the Richter scale is logarithmic) hit a population more than 10 times the size yet killed vastly fewer people.
There’s something more than simply being a developed country at play here, and this is the key tool for protecting against climate extremes: adaptation. If Miami, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, are any indication, we appear more than willing to keep building and living in places with a high risk for natural disasters. That’s fine—so long as our governments and communities take on the responsibility of preparing for these kinds of known vulnerabilities. As we increase our exposure, investing in disaster-resilient infrastructure and prepared citizenries not only makes moral and economic sense, it’s also not dependent on one’s personal views about climate change.
One surprising place to look for models of this, actually, is the city of Houston. Though the Texas metropolis wasn’t built to withstand a storm like Harvey (as Slate’s Henry Grabar explained in a series of pieces), it wasn’t totally unprepared for hurricanes. City planners in the 1990s redesigned Houston’s road infrastructure to “collect” excess rainwater (which the city has now had plenty of) as a means to drain major flooding. Houstonians also benefit from tools like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s flood alert system, which sends real-time information directly to people’s cellphones. Like many Sun Belt cities, Houston struggles with sprawl and maintaining its infrastructure, but its diversified economy, large population, and general prosperity mean that it will likely recover from Harvey relatively efficiently. While there’s certainly more that officials could have done, the adaptations that spared the city from more catastrophic destruction illustrate how we might do things better for the increasing number of people living in disaster-prone areas. Other U.S. cities, too, are considering or have already put in place a host of preparedness strategies, including moving generators several floors up in case of flooding, improving evacuation coordination procedures, and engaging citizens in resilience efforts
There have also been some exemplary smart adaptation efforts in less-developed parts of the world, as we detail in our book, Climate Pragmatism. In the city of Padang, Indonesia, for example, residents—like other inhabitants of archipelagos and small island nations—worry about rising sea levels and powerful storms. To prepare for such risks, the city is considering an innovative approach: creating higher ground in the form of elevated parks. It’s a fascinating twist on traditional evacuation plans. A half-dozen of these raised public spaces could save as many as 100,000 people from the threat of inundation during storms and tsunamis.
Another powerful example comes from the Indian state of Odisha, where a 1999 tropical cyclone killed more than 9,000 people. The people of Odisha, determined to avoid a similar catastrophe in the future, worked with the Indian central government and the World Bank to invest in shelters, evacuation procedures, improved storm tracking, and early warning systems. When a similar storm, Cyclone Phailin, hit the state in 2013, fewer than 50 people died. The beneficial effects of concerted resilience efforts were also on display during the recent Mexican earthquake. After a devastating temblor hit Mexico City in 1985—killing somewhere between 2,000 and 40,000 people—the country invested heavily in early warning systems, earthquake engineering, tightly regulated building codes, and evacuation protocols. Though parts of the country’s south closer to the epicenter of last week’s earthquake weren’t as prepared, damage to the capital, one of the largest metropolitan areas in the Western Hemisphere, were astonishingly minimal. The technological and social innovations of these examples point to the kind of smart development and adaptation efforts that the public can invest in to protect lives and livelihoods of populations.
All loss of life is tragic. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to insure completely against the risk of hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves, earthquakes, and other vagaries of nature. But stories like the ones described here show that appropriate attention to resilience can dramatically limit damages and save lives. They’re also the types of actions that don’t require political agreement on the causes—or even existence—of climate change. A push to invest in infrastructure, planning, and other safety measures to reduce our vulnerability to the obvious threats of natural disasters should be a no-brainer to liberals and conservatives alike.
To be clear, the effect of climate change on future storms is one of many reasons to reduce man-made carbon emissions as quickly as possible. But the fact is that climate change’s impact on natural disasters likely accounts for only a fraction of their destruction compared with the ways we’ve become more exposed to these storms. Failure to focus on this reality means missing the enormous opportunities we have for increasing our resilience to natural disasters, today and in the future. Let’s just hope we can learn the right lessons as we continue to dig out of their most recent wreckage.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.