An extreme risk of misunderstanding

Some newspaper articles must be read very carefully in order to understand their real message and realise that the title was quite misleading. A good example is the “Risk from extreme weather set to rise” piece recently published in the Science & Environment section of the BBC website:


In the body of the article we read:

“For most hazards, population increase contributes at least as much as climate change – sometimes more.”

So the problem is largely caused by the development of marginal land to house the increasing population. In other words people end up exposed to the extreme weather because we are running out of safe places to settle.

They warn that the effects of extremes will be exacerbated by the increase in elderly people, who are least able to cope with hot weather.

So some of the problem is caused by the fact people live longer. This is similar to the issue of cancer being “on the rise” – people get cancer at 85 because they did not die of TB at 55. Increased life expectancy in saner times used to be celebrated as a triumph of medicine but these days we manage to present everything as a problem.

Urbanisation will make the issue worse by creating “heat islands” where roads and buildings absorb heat from the sun.

Similar to the above – a technological advancement which saves land and reduces commuting time and transport emissions is presented as a problem. I guess if we all lived in mud huts on one acre plots of savanna the scientists would be more positive about the future?

The authors say cutting greenhouse gas emissions is essential. But they argue that governments will also need to adapt to future climatic shifts driven by climate change.

The message is beginning to filter through to the eco-nuts – adaptation is the way to go.

They suggest threats could be tackled through a dual approach. The simplest and cheapest way of tempering heatwaves, they say, is to maintain existing green space.

So (part of) the answer is sensible urban design, with parks and green spaces. This is something urban designers have known for decades.

The authors say air conditioners are the most effective way of keeping cool – but they are costly, they dump heat into city streets and their use exacerbates climate change.

So the air-conditioners work but are expensive to run and only pump heat from area to another. This is something mechanical engineers have known for decades.

It finds that large-scale engineering solutions like sea walls offer the most effective protection to coastal flooding – but they are expensive, and when they fail the results can be disastrous.

So building dikes is better than putting all houses on stilts but when dikes fail there is trouble. This is something civil engineers have known for decades.

It puts a figure on those at greatest overall risk: populations in poor countries make up only 11% of those exposed to hazards but account for 53% of the disaster deaths.

So wealth buys resilience. This is something most people blessed with common sense have known for decades.

Some economists argue this shows that poor nations should increase their economies by burning cheap fossil fuels because that will allow them to spend more later on disaster protection.



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