Thursday, March 13, 2014

The World's Most Stupid Bureaucrat

NOTE: I recalled this post when writing "Peanut Butter and Disability". I recalled how I had argued that the imprecise terms and changing perspectives caused a supposed increase in disasters that was blamed on "climate change", and thought it would be a good companion to my newer essay. So, I found a copy in my backup files reproducing my, now defunct, blog "Random Notes" and reproduced it here. I hope my readers enjoy it.

It is a tough competition, but I nominate the faceless UN bureaucrats responsible for the recent report on natural disasters. Here is the reason they manage to shoulder out all the other competitors:
The authors of the report delivered at the UN headquarters in New York at the session of the UN Economic and Social Council did not specify the reason why natural disasters started happening more frequently in the world today. They said, however, that the frequency of catastrophes could be linked with the global climate change. It was also said that the death toll in developing states exceeds the number of casualties in developed states 20-30 times.
Now, I have dealt with the same error in the past when discussing flood damage in the US, but there actually is a fourth error here that is specific to this problem.

First, the monetary damages are meaningless. The world itself is getting richer over time, and monetary inflation also increases the value of property in money terms, so the same damage is going to "cost" more in one year than in the year before. Over time I would expect that disasters would become more costly as inflation devalues money and, more importantly, as countries which were previously destitute start to have things worth destroying, and rich countries increase the value of the things disasters can destroy.

In the US, floods have also become more damaging as more people choose to live in flood plains, mostly along the coast and along rivers. This gives floods and storms more targets to potentially damage or kill. This applies worldwide as well, but even more so. As more of the world is open to travel, foreigners, unfamiliar with long term weather cycles, often build vacation homes or resorts in potentially dangerous areas, creating very expensive and heavily populated targets for storms and floods, as well as earthquakes and fires.

This also helps account, partly for the "increase" in the number of natural disasters. If a storm sweeps over a uninhabited island, it is not a "disaster". if that island suddenly sports a thousand occupant resort, a disaster has been created. This expansion into previously unoccupied, or sparsely occupied areas, turns normal weather and geological events into disasters. It is simply a matter of demographics and terminology to turn a harmless squall into a disaster, or a tremor in a remote location into a catastrophe.

Third, increasing wealth has led to greater population density. Even in the third world, the number of farmers needed to feed the people is declining, and the profit to be made even in primitive manufacturing is rising. This leads to more people packed into smaller areas, which means when a disaster strikes, more people will be killed or injured, as well as a greater loss of property, resulting in higher damage totals.

This also helps turn non-disasters into disasters. A tremor which would be disturbing but mostly harmless for a simple agrarian society can cause fatal collapses in a shoddily built high rise, like some of those which collapsed in Iran a few years ago. The sudden urbanization of many third world nations has led to shabby construction which both increases the risk that a minor tremor will turn into a disaster, and increases the subsequent body count.

So far, those are the three trends which apply to both the world and the US, but there is one more factor when discussing the world.

Much of the world is providing accurate information, or any information, for the first time. First, we have the Soviet Union and her satellites who suppressed information about natural disasters until the Soviet Union collapsed. That definitely adds a large number of fatalities and a huge amount of monetary damages. Second, thanks to advances in communications we now get first hand reports of disasters from even the most underdeveloped and remote locales now, rather than relying on second or third hand reports weeks later. Also, with the ability for observers to report immediately, we no longer have to worry about governments filtering information and minimizing numbers, as the USSR did.

So, looking at all this, I have to say that it is no surprise the monetary damages and fatalities are increasing. We are richer and more compact, we tend to live closer to flood and storm zones. And, since about 1990, we now have a huge chunk of Europe and Asia finally reporting disasters they previously did not. We also get quick, first hand reports of third world disasters we may never have heard about in the past. 

Nor is there really an increase in the number of disasters. Our move into areas previously untouched by man turns storms, earthquakes, floods and fires we would have previously ignored into disasters. It is only the presence of humans which makes it a disaster. In addition, disasters which would have previously gone unreported due to either political blackouts (eg. USSR disasters) or due to remote location, are now brought to our attention and recorded, increasing that number farther.

Of course, the whole problem is that the word "disaster" is poorly defined, and when it is defined it is done in terms of money, loss of lives, or other characteristics that make it possible for humans alone -- and without any global warming! -- to turn otherwise non-disaster events into disasters. For example, if a remote river floods, it is not a disaster. If we build a city along that river, it is a disaster. There has been no change in the event itself, just the number of people it touches. So there need be no "natural" reason disasters are "increasing". It can be explained by construction and population distribution alone.

Now, if an amateur sitting in his den can come up with this the minute after reading the article, how come a number of "experts" at the UN can come up with no better explanation than "global climate change"?

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/07/07.

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