Michael Glantz (August 2001)
"Climate-Related Flashpoints: A Useful Notion for Early Warning?"
Editorial by Michael Glantz in The ENSO Signal, Issue 18, August 2001 (reproduced with permission)
Search on the Internet for the word "flashpoints" and you will come up with scores of websites that use the term somewhere in their description. Many use it in their title, however, mainly in reference to military and political issues.
Flashpoints can be viewed as a catalyst to change, often an abrupt change that can lead to military or political conflict. Identifying potential flashpoints between or within countries in advance can be used to defuse if not avert an unstable situation. What might be sources of instability? Poverty, religious fundamentalism, ethnic rivalries, border disputes, socioeconomic inequities, aggression, greed, a fight over scarce natural resources? In reality, there are many such sources that could lead to instability in the political or economic systems of countries or regions within them. To the possible sources of instability must be added "climate and climate-related factors". This includes climate variability on seasonal and interannual timeframes, as well as climate fluctuations across decades, climate change, and extreme climate and climate-related events. What was the role, for example, of a multiyear drought situation in North Korea in its rapprochement with South Korea?
Flashpoints fall under the umbrella of "early warnings". Governments everywhere like--no, love--early warning systems. Such systems give the government a warning about impending crises that might be avoided with advance notice. The longer the lead time, the more time governments have to develop a response strategy and tactics. Close scrutiny of almost any government will likely expose early warning (or fail-safe) systems. Government ministries seem to rely only on their own list of early warning indicators. In the Sudan, for example, one can find a dozen or so early warning systems related to food insecurity and famine.
El Niño and La Niña events are known to spawn climate and climate-related hazards in some locations around the globe. El Niño-related forest fires and the resulting smoke and haze in Southeast Asia added to existing political pressures on the Indonesian government and indirectly to cultural instability throughout the country. Might an El Niño-related drought at the end of 2001 serve to destabilise the present-day government of Zimbabwe, a government that has already shown signs of increasing political instability as its president seeks yet another term in office? To what extent might drought-induced migration from Afghanistan to Pakistan become a political flashpoint to the relationship between these countries or to the Indo-Pakistani conflict in Kashmir?
The question here is whether any of the numerous aspects of climate might be used to identify in advance potential instability to a government, economy, or culture. I myself am not yet sure, but it is worth considering.
Flashpoints Informal Planning Meeting
Columbia University, New York City, 4-5 April 2002
Convened by Michael Glantz and Kelly Sponberg.
Download the annotated agenda with discussion results (1,211 kb in PDF).
Comment on this topic.
International Panel on Natural Disasters
Some history is provided by Lewis, J. 1991. "International Hazards Panel". Disasters, vol. 15, no. 3, p. 296.
By Ian Burton (29 January 2001)
From Radix--Standards for Preparedness and Response
No such panel exists. But it could and it should. The model is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This panel established jointly by the World Meteorological
Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been extremely successful.
A brief review of the reasons for its success provides some grounds for the proposal to
establish an Intergovernmental Panel on Natural Disasters, and some suggestions about how
it might work. Account is also taken of the contrary views that will certainly be
When the climate change issue emerged onto the international agenda in the late 1980s,
some insightful persons foresaw that the potentially catastrophic consequences of
unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases would eventually require far reaching
international agreements. It was also realised that reaching any sort of agreement would
be impossible in the absence of a common understanding of the knowledge base; that is the
science, the technology, the economics and other "facts" of the case. The
Working Group on Greenhouse Gases (WGGG) was established through the cooperation of WMO,
UNEP, and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). Before long, negotiations
were begun to create an international agreement which would eventually be signed at the
Rio de Janeiro "Earth Summit" in 1992. As the process of negotiations got
underway the diplomatic community, not least those in Foggy Bottom, realised just how
fractious the climate change issue could prove to be, and they became wary of letting
loose on the problem an independent group of scientists such as those associated with
ICSU. Consequently the WGGG was replaced by the IPCC.
The IPCC is an intergovernmental
body charged with reviewing and assessing the science of climate change in its broadest
sense. This includes the atmospheric science and the interactions of the atmosphere with
the oceans and the biosphere. It also includes the assessment of what is known about
actual and potential impacts, and the social and economic dimensions of the possible
adaptation and mitigation responses. Two major assessments have been produced by drawing
on the largely pro bono services of more than 2,000 leading scientists nominated by their
governments , and the Third Assessment is due to appear later this year (2001). Without
the IPCC it is questionable if the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
would ever have come into force, and it is most unlikely that the Kyoto Protocol to the
Convention would have been agreed to in December 1997. The Protocol has not yet come into
force. This will only happen after it has been ratified by at least 55 Parties to the
Convention, including developed countries accounting for at least 55% of the total 1990
carbon dioxide emissions. Throughout the negotiations, (and they are expected to continue
indefinitely) the IPCC has been looked to as an independent and authoritative source of
information. The IPCC assessments are scrupulously careful in avoiding prescriptive
judgements. The reports are confined to assessments of what is known, and the degree of
confidence that can be ascribed to specific conclusions. The reports also identify
knowledge gaps, and thus provide a signpost to the research community. They are widely
regarded and accepted as the authority on climate change.
There are questions about the true independence of the IPCC since it is an
intergovernmental body, and all reports are either adopted (in the case of the Summaries
for Policy Makers) or accepted (in the case of the texts of the underlying reports) at
intergovernmental meetings. The debates are sometimes very contentious, but they centre on
the science, and talk of policies, or actions is excluded. For some schools of post-modern
science and philosophy this neutrality of science is a fiction. If so, then it is a very
useful fiction and one in which the players seem mostly happy to believe, or to suspend
their disbelief. In a very real and positive sense however the idea of neutral science
works because the large majority of the scientists themselves intend to be neutral. This
kind of scepticism has widespread value to scientists. To be sure, sometimes political
positions are cloaked in scientific arguments. Delegates can and sometimes do try to
obstruct proceedings in order to make a political point. Ultimately however in IPCC fora
the appeal is to the science, and the collective scientific judgement carries the day. How
well the process works can be seen by the fact that the judgements of individual and groups
of scientists do not conform automatically to the positions that their national
governments might wish.
Political opinions differ widely about climate change. Some countries (small island
states) are outraged and virtually in a panic about sea level rise caused by climate
change. At the other extreme, the major oil exporting countries tend to deny that the
phenomenon has any reality, or claim that the uncertainties are so great that precipitous
action now could be both economically damaging and quite unnecessary. If left to the
policy process alone, in which the position of each country was backed by its own selected
science, negotiations themselves would scarcely be possible. The existence of the IPCC and
the open and effective way in which it has conducted its business, has served to narrow
considerably the range of scientific disagreement, to reduce the uncertainty and to narrow
the scope of the international negotiations. The claim that the work of the IPCC has been
extremely successful, depends somewhat on expectations about the prospects of arriving at
binding, effective, and enforceable international agreements. Given the complexities of
the climate change issue, the level of uncertainty in the science, and the fact that vital
national interests appear to be at stake , it is remarkable that the negotiations have
proceeded as far as they have, and that nations continue to exhibit a strong determination
to reach agreement sooner or later. All this owes much to the work of the IPCC in
formulating its assessments and communicating them to the Conference of the Parties of the
The proposal by Ben Wisner to develop an international treaty that deals with the
responsibilities of the nations individually and collectively in the face of the soaring
costs of natural disasters is both visionary and practicable. It can be done. It goes
without saying that it will not be easy. The most recent international effort to do
something more constructive about natural disasters, the International Decade for Natural
Disaster Reduction, largely failed. The reasons for the failure have to do with the
weaknesses of the United Nations system, and the lack of commitment by many national
governments, especially those in developed countries. A fundamental misunderstanding of
the problem at the outset of the Decade also contributed to its mediocre performance. It
was believed that advancements in scientific understanding of the geophysical processes
had reached, or were about to reach, a point at which much improved forecasts and warnings
could be issued giving people and governments time to take precautionary action. This
proved, as some predicted, to be an overly optimistic view. The timely and precise
forecasts and warnings were generally not forthcoming, and even when they were the
expectation that precautionary action would significantly reduce losses proved to be a
pious hope. The best results have been obtained in the case of atmosphere-related hazards
such as tropical cyclones and floods where it has proved possible to reduce the number of
lives lost, but not the level of property losses or environmental damage. In the case of
earthquakes there has been no equivalent success in the saving of life despite the fact
that high earthquake zones are for the most part defined, and building technology is
available to prevent collapse in all but the most extreme circumstances.
In the developed countries the rising toll of economic losses, insured and uninsured,
probably does not significantly exceed the rise in national wealth as measured by GDP. In
developing counties the probability is now being recognised that long term recurrent
disaster losses may over time exceed the growth in GDP such that economies are setback
(sometimes by a decade or more in a few minutes) and that de-development occurs. Such
trends are not unknown in the global economy. Trade and currency fluctuations can be a
major setback to development, but these risks are well recognised and are under constant
surveillance by the IMF, the WTO, and national governments in developed and developing
In the view of many informed players and observers, the lessons of the Decade should not
be lost and some follow-up action is needed. So far the only action has been the creation
of a small Secretariat in Geneva, and the establishment of an inter-agency Task Force,
collectively named the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. So far there is not much
sign of a strategy. It promises to be an ineffective palliative "strategy"
designed more to placate than to achieve.
Ben Wisner is right. There is a need to create an
effective international regime to work collectively for the prevention of natural
disasters. This might be addressed through the negotiation of a Framework Convention for
Natural Disaster Prevention. The experience with the Climate Convention shows that such
negotiations would benefit greatly from careful assessments made by an intergovernmental
body such as IPCC. Such an assessment would need to consider not only the geophysical
science of disasters, but the root causes in social and economic systems which expose so
many when the knowledge of how to prevent the worst effects is known and widely available.
Both to create momentum and to ensure that any negotiations towards a convention or treaty
for disaster prevention are well founded upon existing knowledge a useful step would be
the creation of an Intergovernmental Panel on Natural Disasters. Potential parent
organisations include the World Bank, UNDP, and WMO (for atmospheric hazards) and UNESCO
(for oceans and geological and geophysical hazards).
It may be objected that international treaties and conventions are not an effective way of
managing such global problems; that there are too many treaties already; or even that
disasters are a matter for national governments and that the only international response
should be in the realm of immediate emergency relief where a disaster response exceeds
that capacity of a government. In response it is being increasingly recognised that
humanity is now being drawn closer and closer together by the forces of globalisation.
Peoples around the globe have a much more intimate knowledge of each other than ever
before. Humanity shares a common future and a common destiny. Part of that is a common
responsibility to use the knowledge we have to do what can be done.
A good first step would be the establishment of an Intergovernmental Panel on Natural
Disasters charged with the task of making an assessment of the present state of knowledge.
By Rodger Doran (11 March 2001)
From Radix--Standards for Preparedness and Response
While I agree very much with the concept, I think
the proposed name is too readily linked to a response-centred focus,
which in my opinion is not the most pressing need in natural disaster
management. In fact, the lethality of disasters has been reduced markedly in
the last 30 years--probably due to the attention given to improving
emergency preparedness and response capacities around the world. In the
1970s, disasters killed an average of 3.6 people per 100,000
population worldwide. By the year 2000 this had dropped to 1.4. In the
same period, the numbers of people affected jumped from 1,918 per 100,000
population to 3,459. To me, this indicates that, while we still have much to do
in improving response in disasters, we have made progress but we have made
no progress in addressing issues of hazard and in breaking the hazard-disaster
link. This alone justifies setting up an Expert body to look at why this is
so, since hazard, prevention, and mitigation have been part of the disaster
rhetoric for a long time, and presumably there must be some development
programmes operated within a disaster management framework (rather than
geological, meteorological, hydrological etc.) that have tried to address
issues of hazard.
Hazards will always be with us, but they don't have to become disasters. If
we look at data for 4 of the most measurable hazards for which we have good
historical, scientific, and humanitarian data (volcanoes, earthquakes, storms,
and floods), we can see that a higher proportion of these hazards are
becoming disasters than ever before (e.g. prior to 1970, 0.15% of
earthquakes above Richter 4 resulted in a disaster; by 2000 this had risen
to 0.3% even though the average number of Richter 4+ earthquakes per year is
slightly less now than 100 years ago). Hazards events related to climate
change and environmental degradation are occurring in higher numbers per
year and a higher proportion of them are causing disasters (slides--mud,
land, and snow--seem to be rising particularly dramatically). There is also
some evidence that the drip-drip-drip of repeated non-disaster hazard events
(mainly flood) in vulnerable communities can be as bad any single-event
disaster, and a focus on disaster will miss all the many non-disaster hazard
events that cumulatively cause very high levels of economic loss, social
disruption, secondary environmental degradation, and morbidity.
An Intergovernmental Panel which focuses on Hazards and addresses issues by
promoting a risk management approach (combining vulnerability reduction,
hazard mitigation/prevention, and emergency preparedness under one
programmatic umbrella) would be a very important advance in consolidating
scientific, technical, and humanitarian knowledge, and promoting research
into the gaps in our knowledge. A hazard approach should accommodate all
kinds of hazards--not just natural hazards. Technological hazards
contributed to only 18% of events in the 1970s but 41% in the 1990s. I
believe there is a growing realisation now that hazards are either natural
or anthropogenic but disasters are all anthropogenic. We have to start seeing human
behaviour as the cause of disasters and to resolve to change the way we
behave and manage our environment. Additionally, hazards addressed through a
risk management approach gives disaster management practitioners a
comfortable seat at the development table (too often we are seen as
peripheral), as risk management has a natural focus on local government,
community, sustainability, and consultation for consensus building.
A Panel which is seen to focus on cause rather than effect (as the other
panels' titles do) will also present a more positive image to policy makers
and decision makers. The term Natural Disaster Reduction is a good example
of an unfortunate choice of name that did nothing to help the credibility of
organisations that adopted it as a tag.
Comment on this topic.
Risk Agenda 21
Ilan Kelman (26 May 2001)
As noted in Radix, disaster management should be shifting towards becoming a normal part of environmental management and should be encompassed in our struggle for appropriate interaction
amongst, and sustainability of, society, technology, and the environment.
Ben Wisner's "human right to protection from avoidable harm in extreme
natural events" is almost a truism without the final four words.
Many human rights principles centre around protection from avoidable or
deliberately imposed harm from society. In the context of sustainability
and disasters, such harm could also come from environmental processes and
technology; yet, of course, when environmental processes and technology
cause harm, the root cause has usually been society's action. Disasters
are, after all, about people. Thus, the fundamental right to protection
from "disaster" is simply the fundamental right to protection from harm by
society or, perhaps more appropriately, the protection from the imposition
of unwanted risk, whether that risk be social, technological, or
Such analysis is neither innovative nor new nor difficult, but we are looking to
enshrine such principles and various, excellent mechanisms have been
discussed through Radix. Another alternative could be Agenda 21
modified to reflect
both the new language and concepts Radix has developed and including
statements on how to practically achieve the stated principles. The name
could be Risk Agenda 21 with the "human right to sustainable development" or
the "human right to protection from unwanted risk", with appropriate
definitions, as a guiding principle.
Comment on this topic.
Universal Declaration of Disaster Rights
Ilan Kelman (13 March 2001)
inspired by Ian Burton, Ben Wisner, and Maureen Fordham
Should we decide to create a new framework to detail and advocate the proposals of Radix, one possibility following on from the proposal for an international panel would be a declaration of principles such as a Universal Declaration of Disaster Rights (although preferably avoiding the unfortunate acronym which it entails) or an International Disaster Prevention Constitution. Such a new document might be appropriate for inaugurating and defining the International Panel on Natural Disasters and could serve as a focal point for embodying the fundamental principles of human rights with respect to disasters, followed by an outline of the full meaning of this principle and the manner of its implementation.
This model is clearly based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For example, UDHR states in Article 3 "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person". A document on "disaster rights" would incorporate this principle in the context of disaster prevention. Similarly, UDHR's preamble speaks of "freedom from fear". A natural consequence is freedom from fear of disaster. The greatest challenge relates to effectively communicating, formally adopting, and strictly enforcing any document of this nature. We would not wish to lose these principles on just another piece of paper which everyone says "Wonderful!", signs, and then forgets.
Comment on this topic.
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