By Marcela Sanchez
Record breaking is great for Olympic athletes or holiday sales, but not so much for weather. Mother Nature’s recent forays into extreme territory haven’t exactly been reason for commendation.
December was the coldest month in England since 1890 and the coldest in Florida on record. It was also the snowiest month of all time in Minneapolis -- no small feat for a city that has more months a year with snow than without.
Mother Nature is also making weather history in other latitudes. Colombia, for instance, has seen the heaviest rains in history while Australia’s floods now cover an area as large as Germany and France combined. Argentina, meanwhile, copes with severe drought and a heat wave that led to a “historic record” in electricity use, triggering widespread power outages.
These events wrapped up a year with the second highest number of natural disasters in three decades. According to an analysis by the reinsurance company Munich Re, weather-related disasters have more than doubled in the past 30 years, from 317 in 1980 to 828 last year.
To some weather experts the writing is on the wall: extreme weather patterns are becoming the norm. “We believe that not only America but the Americas have to prepare for more devastating disasters to come in the next 5 to 10 years,” said Erwann Michel-Kerjan, extreme events expert at Wharton School and coauthor of the book “At War with the Weather”.
Combined with the realities of climate change, current socio-economic conditions make the potential for more costly damage far greater. More and more people live along the world’s coasts and they are accumulating more material possessions, greatly increasing losses when natural disaster strikes.
As Ernst Rauch, a leading geophysicist with Munich Re, put it, “we need to adapt or to adjust the way we are living, the way we are building our homes, the way we protect ourselves from forces of Mother Nature.” It’s no longer just a matter of climate change prevention.
Both Michel-Kerjan and Rauch noted some examples where work of mitigation is underway. The Netherlands, for instance, plans to raise its levees and dikes, the world’s highest, higher yet in the next decade. In Southern Florida, buildings like Miami’s Children Hospital have been retrofitted to withstand a Category 4 hurricane.
But efforts like these are very few and far between. It’s much easier to find government policies that make matters worse.
Highly subsidized hurricane insurance in Florida, for instance, keeps homeowners from an honest assessment of the risks of living along hurricane alley. Government bailouts, including the latest of major banks and big industry, also promote a general sense that we are insulated from life’s perils more so than is rational.
With government coffers strained by a historic recession, however, it is not clear how many resources federal, state and local governments will have to address the effects of the next disaster. Moreover, as Hurricane Katrina made clear, even when funds are present the government is not always up to the task.
Individuals, to be sure, need to take more responsibility for their actions and proactively protect themselves, their family and their assets in the likely event of an extreme weather disaster. As Michel-Kerjan said in an interview, that’s “the real question for the future; where is the notion of personal responsibility going?”
This often requires encouragement from the government. In California, private and public sectors are working together on something called “critical peak pricing”, made possible as the state has eased regulations and granted utility companies greater flexibility in how they bill customers. Through this system, the utilities will be able to reward customers with lower rates if they consume less power during peak hours.
In turn, this type of “smart regulations” makes it easier for utility companies to better respond to extreme hot or cold conditions, according to Luke Clemente, general manager of metering and sensing systems for GE. A 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Energy found that homeowners in the state of Washington cut usage by 15% when provided with time-of-use pricing information.
This cooperative approach is unfortunately the exception. It’s still more common to find governments that put the onus directly on the private sector. In Argentina, for instance, authorities have promised to impose a $17.6 million fine on the three power companies providing electricity to the capital after the city suffered a series of blackouts during the heat wave.
If the companies have profited without making the necessary investments to provide service, the fines may prove warranted. But the government hasn’t exactly helped matters -- it kept rates artificially low, which discouraged investment and encouraged irresponsible use by consumers in the first place. Marcela Sanchez is one of the most respected journalists writing about Latin America, as evidenced by her work for the most important papers in the United States -- including both the New York Times and The Washington Post -- as well as the two most important newspapers in Colombia -- El Espectador and El Tiempo -- Colombia's En Vivo and QAP TV channels, and Venezuela's Daily Journal. We welcome her back to the Latin American Herald Tribune, where her hemispheric wisdom appears every Friday.