Facing Nature’s Fury

The Pakistan earthquake continues a streak of shocking natural disasters during the past year: the Indian Ocean tsunami, killer droughts in Niger and other countries in Africa, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Central American mudslides, and Portugal’s wildfires.

These events are unrelated, and humankind’s vulnerability to natural hazards is as old as our species. Yet there are also commonalities – and warnings to us all: we are not prepared for these massive shocks, more of which are certain to come.

Massive population growth has exposed vast numbers of people to new kinds of extreme vulnerability. There are now 6.5 billion people on the planet, almost four billion people more than fifty years ago. Current trends, according to the United Nations, will push the world’s population up to around 9.1 billion by 2050.

As population rises, billions of people crowd into Earth’s vulnerable areas – near coastlines battered by storms and rising sea levels, on mountainsides susceptible to landslides and earthquakes, or in water-stressed regions plagued by drought, famine, and disease. Typically, the poorest of the poor are pushed into the riskiest places to live and work – and also to die when natural catastrophes strike.

Many of the key hazards are increasing in frequency and intensity. Climate change is partly responsible. Both the number and strength of hurricanes are most likely increasing as a result of rising sea-surface temperatures caused by man-made global warming. Earth is set to warm further in the decades ahead, bringing more and bigger fires, mudslides, heat waves, droughts, and powerful hurricanes.

Similarly, we are also seeing the emergence and spread of new infectious diseases, such as AIDS, SARS, and avian flu. As human populations crowd new parts of the planet and come into contact with new animal habitats, new infectious diseases spread from animals to humans. Such is the case with AIDS and avian flu. Other infectious diseases are likely to emerge, or to become more severe (as with dengue fever in Asia this year), as a result of changes in climate and interaction between human and animal habitats.

Another common element in all of these disasters is our shocking lack of preparedness, especially to help the poorest members of society. After Hurricane Katrina hit the United States, we discovered that President Bush had appointed a crony rather than a professional as head of America’s emergency relief agency. Equipment and personnel needed to address the crisis were halfway around the world in Iraq.

Likewise, Pakistan was substantially ill equipped to deal with the recent earthquake, in part because, like the US, Pakistan over-spends on its military and under-spends on public health and emergency preparedness. International relief agencies are also starved for cash and resources.

Governments should be taking some basic steps. First, they should be making careful assessments of the specific kinds of risks their countries face, including risks from epidemics, climate change, extreme weather events, and earthquakes. Such assessments require establishing and maintaining a system of high-level and high-quality scientific advising. Bush, for example, would vastly improve US and global security if he started listening to top scientists and paid less attention to political lobbyists regarding the growing risks from man-made climate change.

There is a growing body of expertise to help get the job done. The Earth Institute at Columbia University, which I direct, recently completed a global assessment of several kinds of natural hazards, such as droughts, earthquakes, and floods, in partnership with the World Bank. Using advanced statistical and mapping methods, they identified how these various threats are arrayed around the world. Other colleagues at the Earth Institute, and in similar research institutes, are making careful estimates of how these risks are evolving in view of changes in our planet’s climate, population, and patterns of international travel and human settlement.

But political leaders are not using this kind of scientific information adequately, owing mainly to deep divides that persist between the scientific community, politicians, and the general public. The public is largely unaware of the scientific knowledge we have concerning the threats and risks that we face, and that we can reduce these risks by thinking ahead.

Politicians, in general, are experts at winning votes or building alliances, rather than at understanding the underlying global processes of climate, energy, disease, and food production that affect all of our planet’s inhabitants. Even different groups of scientists – in public health, climate, seismology, and other specialities – do not communicate adequately with one another, despite the fact that today’s threats often cut across different scientific disciplines.

These gaps between politicians and scientists, and among scientists themselves, must be closed if we are to overcome the risks that we face. Nature has reminded us all year of what is at stake.

The bad news is that the threats will almost surely intensify in the coming years, as our planet becomes even more crowded and subject to man-made change. The good news is that we have the science and the technology to address these risks better than we ever have. We can build a safer future, but only if we are prepared to use our scientific knowledge and expertise for the common good.