The latest news from the South is dreadful. Reports of hundreds of twisters is almost impossible to apprehend. It is too simplistic to say that Mother Nature seems angry these days, but it seems an apt metaphor. The devastating earthquakes in Haiti in 2010 and the recent one near Japan that created the massive tsunami are clearly part of the continuing geologic change in the Earth’s structure. Earthquakes occur randomly in time and severity, and although we understand their cause better, we cannot control or avoid them. The tornadoes may also be a random event, but they may not.
They may be due to global climate change. One of the features about global warming is the possibility of a higher frequency of extreme weather events. Yes, it is only a possibility, but that means we should acknowledge that possibility and act accordingly. If we believed they were only random events due to natural fluctuations in the climate system, the only response would be defensive, preparing ourselves for the worst. Prudence would argue for protective building codes, shelters, emergency planning, and so on.
Here, as is the case for many very rare, but dangerous events, like cancers and big floods, we tend to either wish them away or act if they were not so rare. This finding was the result of work by 2002 Nobel prize winning researcher Daniel Kahneman and his by-then deceased collaborator Amos Tversky. They wrote, “Because people are limited in their ability to comprehend and evaluate extreme probabilities, highly unlikely events are either neglected or overweighted, and the difference between high probability and certainty is either neglected or exaggerated.” (Tversky, Amos and Daniel Kahneman. (1992). “Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty,” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 9, p. 283.)
U.S. history shows related responses, for example, allowing people to settle in floodplains even after their homes have been swept away, in some cases more than once. The settlers act as if these events will never happen. This response might be suitable if the bill for repairs came only to the property owners, but a large portion often gets paid by the public because political bleeding hearts can’t say no to requests for recompense. Presidents have a habit of touring the disaster sites, but not of acting to prevent them. Building nuclear power plants in high seismic action zones seems the height of imprudence and willful ignorance. In a country like Japan, there may be little choice, other than not building the plants at all, given that much of the entire country is earthquake prone. Technological hubris, in the case of addressing such probabilities, has caused much misery and raids on the public coffers.
Unlike the earthquakes over which we have no control, we have an additional route for severe weather events to avoid the possibility of widespread damage to life and property. Tornados may be caused in part by our own economic activities. Climate change models show that, along with increases in the average global temperature, extreme weather events are likely to increase in frequency of occurrence. Now, besides taking defensive or adaptive measures, we have an additional option, start to adopt practices to reduce the amount of climate change in the first place. I’m not saying anything new here, certainly not to those who regularly read this blog, but I have seen little or no evidence of others making similar statements in the wake of the current or recent extreme weather events. The news I have read or listened to focuses on the plight of the human victims of these horrific twisters as it should in the immediacy of the disaster, but without any mention of the possibility of its human cause. What a missed opportunity for a wake-up call.
When faced with the possibility of rare events, a common practice is to buy insurance. We pay someone a fee in return for a contract to repay us for damages covered by our contract. There are other ways to reduce the risk: vacating the risky domain: moving to high ground, for example, or changing practices, like stopping smoking. We have not done anything significant, however, for reducing risks connected with climate which is unquestioningly changing, although the extent and timing are uncertain to some degree. The response in the United States has been to ignore the issue either implicitly or explicitly, opting to fix things up after the damage occurs. The bill is likely to be very high, as it is in Japan in terms of lives lost and property damaged.
There are so many actions that could be taken, but I will only mentioned one that was suggested by the word play in the title of this post: eat less beef. Beef is the most environmentally demanding source of animal protein. Estimates of its footprint vary widely, but here are a few numbers I believe are reliable. A pound of beef at the supermarket represents the consumption of 2500-12000 gallons of water and produces 20-40 pounds of carbon equivalents. That’s the same as driving an average car roughly 100-200 miles. The mid-range water use is equivalent to taking a daily 7-minute shower for a year.
Other meats have smaller footprints. Beef consumption has been steady for some years after health scares caused a large decline but we still consume more beef than other nations. Except for France and Brazil, we consume more than twice as much per capita as any other country. By taking action we would not eliminate the risk of weather-induced damages, but this could be one of many small steps to take. I expect that giving up the 6-ounce fast food hamburger at around $2.00 will be much harder than foregoing an occasional filet mignon or tournedos at $42.50 a pound (including shipping) at Costco, but we must begin to make the connection between those twisters in the South and the burgers we eat at the neighborhood BurgerKing, MacDonald or Wendy’s.