Climate Change and Are You Really Ready

When was the last time your agency updated their hazard vulnerability analysis (HVA)? Is it still based upon a twentieth-century model? According to a recent article published in The Atlantic, you might be in for the worst kind of surprise.

The title is foreboding enough:

Cities and Resilience – The Year Climate Started Hurting Politicians

But then you see the first five paragraphs littered with the names of politicians who are struggling, have struggled, and even some who subsequently lost elected office due, in part, to their response to natural disasters and emergencies.

So, what’s the deal behind all of this doom and gloom? Sure, some politicians just don’t prioritize emergency response, but not these guys. I say something else is up. The article proposes that climate change (y’know, global warming) might be the cause. Here’s the rationale, courtesy of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

Q: Are Extreme Events, Like Heat Waves, Droughts or Floods, Expected to Change as the Earth’s Climate Changes?

A: Yes; the type, frequency and intensity of extreme events are expected to change as Earth’s climate changes, and these changes could occur even with relatively small mean climate changes. Changes in some types of extreme events have already been observed, for example, increases in the frequency and intensity of heat waves and heavy precipitation events.

Like the Atlantic article notes, this is kind of technical. What it means is that the chances of an out-of-range weather event happening is increasing. What that means is that your HVA might be hamstrung by, well, twentieth-century thinking. Thinking that says a flood like that should only happen every hundred years, but you’ve had four of them in the last five years, is what this is getting at.

Four 12+ inch snowstorms in less than a year (like we’ve had in Philly) sound unusual? It might just be the new usual. Tornadoes, tropical cyclones, ice storms, snowstorms, wildfires, flooding, heat waves, drought, all of them may be understated as threats in your HVA.

So, what does that mean for us communicators? Well, besides brushing up on your disaster terminology, it might be helpful to review your template fact sheets. Is your boil water advisory ready to go (and easily activated)? Do you even have any FAQs delivered for wildfires, or smog? What are your three key messages surrounding tornado preparedness? (And I use that as an example because I have no idea—get in a ditch?)

As I look back on the last few years, it seems like there have been more weather-related disasters than usual. The cynical side of me says that’s just because the world is smaller, so we hear about more disasters than ever before. But the unprecedented nature of some of these disasters makes me believe something else is going on. From record heat and smoke in Moscow, to snow in the UK, to literally feet of water raining down in southern California, to nor’easter after nor’easter in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, something’s up. And you can only say “unprecedented” so many times before your citizens realize that it’s just the new normal and you’re not doing anything about it.