Facing up to disaster: the threat of extreme weather

 

Facing up to disaster: the threat of extreme weather

The collapse of Texas’s power grid late last month did more than just expose one state’s lack of preparedness for a bad winter storm, said Christopher Flavelle in The New York Times. It also provided a warning for America as a whole about the risks posed by increasingly extreme weather to the country’s “ageing infrastructure”. Prolonged heatwaves, droughts, flooding and Arctic cold snaps – all more likely because of climate change – are putting growing stress on drinking-water systems, electrical grids, sewers and transport systems. In the past few months alone, flash flooding has caused part of California’s Highway 1 to collapse into the Pacific Ocean, and raw sewage to pour into hundreds of homes in Washington DC from overwhelmed pipe systems. The past is “no longer a safe guide” for what lies ahead, says Alice Hill, a former risk assessor for the National Security Council. “We are colliding with a future of extremes.”

Climate change is generating many more of these disasters, said Lucy Jones in the Los Angeles Times. The US needs to start better preparing for them, but you only have to look at California’s approach to earthquakes to see how poor leaders are at investing in sensible precautions. The spending is always reactive, rather than proactive. California only got serious about dam safety after the near-collapse of the Lower Van Norman Dam in the 1971 Sylmar quake. It only strengthened its bridges after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake caused bridge collapses in the San Francisco Bay Area. We still haven’t sufficiently invested in earthquake- resistant water pipes, despite the fact that southern California relies on imported water that has to cross the San Andreas Fault to get to us. That’s a disaster waiting to happen.

America should appoint a “Rare Disaster Czar” to help the country develop its resilience, said Megan McArdle in The Washington Post. You can’t prepare for everything, but “the richest generation in history” could afford to divert a little of its wealth into ensuring the security of critical infrastructure. It would be sensible. Alas, it’s unlikely to happen, human nature and political incentives being what they are. “If global policy on climate change is any reflection of people’s desires – and it is – then the human race is unwilling to spend much of anything to prevent even a near-certain threat to its well-being.”

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