A common question I’m hearing these days is, “Why are we having so many disasters?” While one can make an argument that we are just more aware of disasters these days, that really doesn’t answer the question. Neither does a single answer such as blaming it on climate change. Disasters are complex and are the result of the conjunction of many factors.
To begin with, all disasters are not equal, nor do they affect all segments of a community the same way. Disasters are a function of vulnerability, something that can be considered from any number of levels. In his classic study 1995 heat wave in Chicago, sociologist Eric Klinenberg identified social isolation as the vulnerability factor that led to disparate mortality rates in two similar neighborhoods. San Francisco’s Marina District was heavily damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake because it was constructed on landfill. The rest of the city suffered only minimal damage.
Infrastructure also plays its part in creating the conditions for disaster, sometimes unwittingly. Some of these vulnerabilities are obvious, such as our predilection for building in flood zones or in the wildland-urban interface. As our infrastructure ages, it is becoming increasingly brittle, as evidenced by the recent bridge collapse in Genoa, Italy and last year’s road bridge collapse in Atlanta. We have increased our dependence on technology to the point where we cannot do without it.
But the obvious vulnerabilities of our infrastructure don’t tell the whole story; disasters are more subtle. In his book, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, historian Kyle Harper demonstrates how the interconnectivity of the Roman Empire (e.g. roads, established trade networks) allowed for the rapid spread of the bubonic plague in the sixth century and how Roman cities served as incubators and reservoirs for numerous other diseases.
We tend to think of climate change in the same manner by focusing on the obvious, such as winter storms, tsunamis, and so forth. But climate change can affect food production and even produce social disruption. The end of the Roman Warm Period in the fifth century saw the Rhine River freeze solid and the beginning of the migrations that would eventually cause the end of Rome. It also caused severe drought that disrupted the Silk Road trade and the flow of Egyptian grain to Rome. Climate change may also have induced migration among the host reservoirs, resulting in the spread of bubonic plague among populations already weakened by famine.
This conjunction of factors of such as climate, infrastructure, disease, and social networks may not create a disaster in themselves but they each have a bearing on vulnerability and can contribute to the creation of conditions for the disaster. What we are experiencing now are changes in the mix of conditions that are combining to increase our vulnerability to disasters