Beware of Atlas – He Might Shrug

The Rio circus is over. For now. And everyone agree that nothing really came out of it. Apart from hefty hotel bills and an even costlier wish list (more reports on cfact.org).

Media is however doing its best to sell the shaky message from the UN.

One report that made the headlines all over the world was the report from UNISDR, which somehow got interpreted as stating that man made, weather changes were the increasing cause of disasters during the past 20 years.

Says UNISDR head, Margareta Wahlström (my translation): “About 90 percent of all nature catastrophes over the past twenty years have been weather related. The increase can be connected to climate change. Heavy urbanisation and bad preparedness have contributed.”

Underline that last sentence and discuss it in class. When you are done, also try to draw the logic line from a nature catastrophe, over weahter to climate change, and further to anthropogenic climate change. Because that’s what’s implicit in – if not the report – most of the reporting.

What the report shows is that flooding has indeed increased, some of which is naturally attributable to earthquakes. Storms, pointed out as the worst villain, have been going up and down since 1980, with a peak in 1990 and 2004. The past years show a declining curve. Why the report claims to be reporting the past 20 years, while throwing in data from the 80’s here and there, is a bit unclear.

What’s more important however, is that earthquakes remain the unchallenged champion in catastrophes, responsible for close to 800 000 fatalities since 1992. To be compared to, e.g., around 155 799 from flooding (which indeed is a problem). That’s also where that last sentence becomes important. Though we can say with some certainty that northern, mainland Europe is virtually risk free in this aspect, seismology, as has been shown repeatedly over the past years, is still unpredictable. That’s what makes risk awareness so important when constructing buildings in potentially affected areas. California has adapted rather well, to some extent also Italy. The common denominator is that they represent  freer and more prosperous regions than other risk areas. If the UNISDR wants to do something constructive, it would be to spend the budget on a conference on earthquake precaution. And, maybe too much to wish for, the economic mechanisms that drive technological development and consequently increased safety.

And by the way, luckily my predictions from Haiti went wrong. I’ve still not heard anyone blaming earthquakes on global warming (except in some headlines, implicitly).

But remain aware of the temper of Atlas.

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About the Author: Einar Du Rietz

Einar Du Rietz is a journalist and communications consultant based in Europe. He has authored several environmental reports for the Electrolux Group and written many blogs for the Center for the New Europe at CNE Environment.