We are so vulnerable to so many things. What is the best response?
Adolescence is a difficult period for boys and girls. And perhaps, on a different scale, for nations — and even for a species gifted with sentience (of a sort). We learn that the world is a dangerous place, and that death is a reality — for nations and species as well as individuals.
Perhaps that is the explanation for the almost overwhelming tide of grim reports sweeping through the media. It’s not that I consider these expert reports — like the two cited below — to be wrong. It’s just that there are so many of them, about so many things. Social disintegration, climate change, terrorism, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, pollution, mental health, plagues, peak oil, peak water, peak food, overpopulation, fertility crashing, asteroid and comet impacts, atomic warfare … The list goes on and on.
Each expert report recommends broad and sweeping programs to prevent one particular damage. I have seen none that puts its particular threat in any broader context, relative to the many others. Plus, we cannot ignore the facts of life — one of which is that in our society fame and fortune often reward finding threats to life on earth. Proving the non-existence of a threat means obscurity.
(1) “Homeland Security forecasts 5-year terror threats“, Ellen Sullivan, AP, 26 December 2008 — Senior folks at Homeland Security leak grim holiday tidings to chill our new year celebrations.
(2) “Abrupt Climate Change”, Final Report, Synthesis and Assessment Product 3.4″, U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. Lead Agency: U. S. Geological Survey. Contributing Agencies: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation. December 2008. Home page is here.
My recommendation appears at the end of this post.
(1) “Homeland Security forecasts 5-year terror threats“, Ellen Sullivan, AP, 26 December 2008 – Senior folks at Homeland Security leak grim holiday tidings to chill our new year celebrations. Excerpt:
The terrorism threat to the United States over the next five years will be driven by instability in the Middle East and Africa, persistent challenges to border security and increasing Internet savvy, says a new intelligence assessment obtained by the Associated Press.
Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks are considered the most dangerous threats that could be carried out against the U.S. But those threats also are the most unlikely because it is difficult for al Qaeda and similar groups to acquire the materials needed to carry out such plots, according to the internal Homeland Security Threat Assessment for 2008-2013. The al Qaeda terrorist network continues to focus on U.S. targets vulnerable to massive economic losses, casualties and political “turmoil,” the assessment said.
… Marked “for official use only,” the report does not specify its audience, but the assessments typically go to law enforcement, intelligence officials and the private sector. When determining threats, intelligence officials consider loss of life, economic and psychological consequences.
Intelligence officials also predict that in the next five years, terrorists will try to conduct a destructive biological attack. Officials are concerned about the possibility of infections to thousands of U.S. citizens, overwhelming regional health care systems. There also could be dire economic impacts caused by workers’ illnesses and deaths. Officials are most concerned about biological agents, such as anthrax, stolen from labs or other storage facilities.
These high-consequence threats are not the only kind of challenges that will confront the U.S. over the next five years.
Terrorists will continue to try to evade U.S. border security measures and place operatives inside the mainland to carry out attacks, the 38-page assessment said. It also said they may pose as refugees or asylum seekers or try to exploit foreign travel channels such as the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 34 countries to enter the U.S. without visas.
Long waits for immigration and more restrictive European refugee and asylum programs will cause more foreigners to try to enter the U.S. illegally. Increasing numbers of Iraqis are expected to migrate to the U.S. in the next five years, and refugees from Somalia and Sudan could increase because of conflicts in those countries, the assessment said. Because there is a proposed cap of 12,000 refugees from Africa, officials expect more will try to enter the U.S. illegally as well. Officials predict the same scenario for refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Intelligence officials predict the pool of radical Islamists within the U.S. will increase over the next five years due partly to the ease of online recruiting means. Officials foresee “a wave of young, self-identified Muslim ‘terrorist wannabes’ who aspire to carry out violent acts.”
(2) “Abrupt Climate Change”, Final Report, Synthesis and Assessment Product 3.4″, U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. Lead Agency: U. S. Geological Survey. Contributing Agencies: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation. December 2008. Home page is here. From the report’s synopsis:
For this Synthesis and Assessment Report, abrupt climate change is defined as:
A large-scale change in the climate system that takes place over a few decades or less, persists (or is anticipated to persist) for at least a few decades, and causes substantial disruptions in human and natural systems.
This report considers progress in understanding four types of abrupt change in the paleoclimatic record that stand out as being so rapid and large in their impact that if they were to recur, they would pose clear risks to society in terms of our ability to adapt:
- rapid change in glaciers, ice sheets, and hence sea level;
- widespread and sustained changes to the hydrologic cycle;
- abrupt change in the northward flow of warm, salty water in the upper layers of the Atlantic Ocean associated with the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC); and
- rapid release to the atmosphere of methane trapped in permafrost and on continental margins.
From the press release:
The United States faces the potential for abrupt climate change in the 21st century that could pose clear risks to society in terms of our ability to adapt. … A new report, based on an assessment of published science literature, makes the following conclusions about the potential for abrupt climate changes from global warming during this century.
- Climate model simulations and observations suggest that rapid and sustained September arctic sea ice loss is likely in the 21st century.
- The southwestern United States may be beginning an abrupt period of increased drought.
- It is very likely that the northward flow of warm water in the upper layers of the Atlantic Ocean, which has an important impact on the global climate system, will decrease by approximately 25–30 percent. However, it is very unlikely that this circulation will collapse or that the weakening will occur abruptly during the 21st century and beyond.
- An abrupt change in sea level is possible, but predictions are highly uncertain due to shortcomings in existing climate models.
- There is unlikely to be an abrupt release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere from deposits in the earth. However, it is very likely that the pace of methane emissions will increase.
How to apply the precautionary principle to prepare for shockwaves
The precautionary principle is usually applied in an irrationalmanner to individual threats, such as climate change. There are many high impact – low probability threats, which I call “shockwaves”. Also, the US and world have many vitalif more mundane needs that deserve funding. Since resources are finite, we must access their relative importance — which few of these special interest groups around each shockwave bother to do. I discuss this in greater length at this post; here is my suggestion:
Commission a group to collect as many shockwave scenarios as possible, with a brief analysis of each. Fortunately there are thousands of interest groups willing to pitch in and help! Then apply a common analytical framework to rate them on both dimensions: probability and impact. The results would prove quite interesting, and allow more rational public policy discussion about which to act upon.
Update — similar thoughts in USA Today
“‘The end’ as a weapon“, Tom Krattenmaker, op-ed in USA Today, 15 December 2008 — “Some environmentalists have their own fixation with the apocalypse – just not the biblical one. This involves the wrath of nature and the ecological end times. But fear is an ineffective tool for any cause.”
For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:
- Posts about Science, Nature, and Geopolitics– this lists not only posts on the FM site, but also a wide range of other online sources.
- About Peak Oil and Energy – my articles
- About Peak oil and energy – studies and reports
Posts on the FM site about shockwaves other than energy:
- There is no “peak water” crisis, 19 June 2008
Some of the posts on the FM site about shockwaves:
- Spreading the news: the end is nigh!, 8 May 2008
- The most dangerous form of Peak Oil, 8 April 2008
- The “Oil Shockwave” project: well-funded analysis of the obvious, 10 April 2008
- Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off, 8 May 2008
- What does $120 oil mean for the global economy?, 15 May 2008
- There is no “peak water” crisis, 19 June 2008
- A reply to comments on FM site about Global Warming, 17 November 2008
- Comment: warnings about a reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, 30 December 2008
- High school science facts prove global warming! Skeptical scientists humiliated by this revelation!, 31 December 2008
- More shockwave events to worry about, in addition to peak oil and global warming, 15 January 2009