Despite Donald Trumps desire to treat climate change as a belief, the trend for increasing global temperature and a greater frequency of extreme weather events suggests we are likely to see more climatic disasters. Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and the flooding in South Asia are likely to be representative of the increasing frequency and scale of natural disasters that we face. And how will we prepare for them in the future, will we improve how we adapt and respond to such disasters?
When we try to deal with the aftermath of disasters, it's worth thinking about how and who responds. Mostly, those that respond are those that are immediately affected by the disaster and are organised by local governance systems. Non-government organisations (NGOs) at both the local and international level also play a crucial role, but the most likely source of authority and organisation in most situations is from the local government. This can have a bearing on how we prepare for future disasters. Have a look at this great post by Gemma Sou that outlines how people respond to disasters and who is most likely to be affected in the long term.
If we think about how governments respond to disasters - is it worth reflecting on the perception that governments tend to be reactive, rather than proactively manage potential crisis. For example, when asked what is most likely to blow governments off course, the former UK Prime Minister Harold McMillan famously said ‘Event’s dear boy, events’. And this is how it was and how it seems to be for many states. Disasters continue to happen yet governments everywhere are still caught out and accused of not doing enough by the press and the people they serve.
Why is this so? It pays to reflect on how governments and international organisations form policies. Are the policies a state develops what are best for the country they are designed for? In spirit yes, that is why governments form policies. However in reality, they are often a reflection of what a government believes the prevailing opinion of the country is. And where does a government get its opinion from - generally aside from the immediate aftermath of an election, its from the media.
So, at its most minimal - the state is a structure that exists to provide stability and security for its citizens. At times, events (disasters especially) can prevent the state from achieving this. Paradoxically, in the eye of the storm, while the disaster is occurring and the immediate reparation, the role of the state is pretty clear - help people survive and then help people rebuild their lives. However a government respond to fulfil these roles, will come under scrutiny from this media. This can create a situation from which the state is only likely to lose, forcing governments to develop defensive postures to justify the management of disaster responses. For a current example of this, look at some of the press speculation regarding the UK government responses to Hurricane Irma.
The Media as the arbiter of truth.
As an event occurs, so does the reporting on the event. ‘Traditional’ media documents events as they occur in real time - with agencies delivering stories and facts on particular issues. Non-traditional (social) media does a similar thing but accounts for events at the individual level and documents first hand how the events/disaster transpires, far more quickly and with a greater range than traditional media can acheive. So effectively, we now have two variables - we have the specific event and then the belief of what the event is and its impact. Think of it like this:
The speed in which both traditional and non-traditional media report on disasters is probably a good thing. Such rapid information sharing helps emergency services find people and increases local intelligence to what is happening as it happens. However, after the event, what does it mean for building resilience? This is more challenging, after the disaster the state is still required to provide security and stability for its citizens. However, at present, the means with which it prioritises against such future disasters could well be skewed by its experience of previous events and also the biases of the local media that hold the state to account.
Does present day opinion drive long term planning?
When it comes to preparing for the long term, could implicit bias formed from short term events have an undue impact on government planning? Are local or short-term, high-impact events always going to be more significant for the policy maker? Is policy formation doomed to be reactive? Is it inevitable that governments will always put their resources into preparing for the same kind of disasters that they have experienced in the past? There is a real philosophical point here - are the disasters of the past likely to happen again in the future, or is that they would have greater political cost if they happen again? How does this reflect on preparation for other disasters? Does it lead to us preparing for the last disaster?
Image from http://www.hacienda.org/ho-network/ho-nw-2010-09-fire-department-makes-plans-disaster
Perhaps this isn’t so bad, one truth that we could all do with accepting is that climate change will continue to increase global temperatures and the frequency of extreme weather events. But how does this help drive a policy response? Should governments work on more generalised forms of disaster response, forming larger more complex strategies for global reforms, or should they stay with their traditional, reactive approaches.
Additionally, what role does the media have in how we prepare and respond to these increased natural disasters? Should it become more aware, more able to communicate its own biases? For example, at the global level are natural disasters more significant in Western countries - purely because the weight of reporting in the media? This is an ethical point, and a challenging one. Truly, does the news carry greater currency when it immediately applies to you? For further research on global media reporting patterns, have a look at this analysis that breaks down the reporting on the recent US Hurricanes and the flooding in South Asia.
Image from - http://www.irinnews.org/maps-and-graphics/2017/08/31/hurricane-versus-monsoon
Context is key.
In disasters an awareness of what’s happening is obviously important. Such awareness is invaluable in the eye of the storm and traditional and non-traditional media are both incredible in terms of their efficiency and scope for transmission of information, which can and will continue to save lives.
However, post the event, how well does the media form a narrative around future planning? How well does the government prepare for different issues, rather than trying to block and prevent issues of the past?
In the future could we be able to form better plans by having a better awareness of the prevailing narratives of the day, or will these continue to settle and drive policy for the next 5 years after the event (5 years is typically the length of elected office for most democracies). Could thinking about how we research and model data allow us to start to understand our biases a little better and try to intervene before a narrative is set that will drive only one kind of response? After a disaster or a crisis can we unpick the assumptions we make around the future? Having had one disaster do we need to build bigger defences in the same place or change how we think about building them in the first place?
With the technology at our disposal and an increased awareness of threats and opportunities for the future can we help governments to be less reactive? Can we review the mechanics of policy formation, is it necessary for the press to be the constant adversary of the state and the constant nature of governments to defend their decisions?
Trying to address these questions could change how we think and act in the future? It’s not easy to change, but by at least being aware of our own assumptions and biases around the future, we may have a good starting point. To do that, projects like GDELT - can help us keep track and monitor how and where differences in reporting occur and hopefully help us better understand how we prioritise our future responses. At the same time, accepting that the future challenges presented by climate change will be complex and far ranging and will require significant changes in our approaches if we're to address them in the future, would probably be a good thing. But sadly, a step too far for some people.