"We have structure-to-structure ignition": When Climate Change Hits Home
Updating now at 10:26pm Pacific Time. There is only so much you can take before you need a break.
This is climate change.
It is 7:26pm Pacific Time on June 26, 2012. I'm watching a live video feed of the Waldo Canyon Fire barelling towards my parent's house in Colorado Springs, CO. It is quite possible that by the time I finish this blog post, their home could be on fire. They had to endure gridlock to make it to a friend's house. I grew up in this neighborhood, and already several landmarks are gone. This will be the largest natural disaster in Colorado history most likley...unless something worse happens before the fire season is over (it is only June).
So what can we learn about climate change from a disaster like this?
The data: I will update this section later, but this is exactly what the climate models have predicted. Colorado has been in a drought, this week has record high temps, there are already fires along the front range, the streams are flowing at something like 10% of average, there is tons of dead wood from the spread of pine bark beetles not to mention a history of fire supression and small diameter tree growth. Neighborhoods have been encroaching on the urban-wildland interface; nothing like having a big piece of firewood outside your window.
Emergency management: There is lots of research right now looking at how public agencies respond to extreme climate events like this. Uncertainty is one of the key issue, both long run, but also short run because the fire behavior is unpredictable. As the fire came over the ridge in places like Blodgett peak (engulfed in smoke and flames as I write this), where I hiked as a kid, apparently the winds were up to 65 mph. The structure of communication networks and how the agencies work together are key issues for incident management. They have a Type I incident management team in place, the highest level of command available. So the communication networks should look very centralized with a command-and-control structure. But how much horizontal communication is going on, to allow more instantaneous reactions to change on the ground? Of course, one of the big ironies regarding uncertainty is how pervasive it is even in the age of instant communication. All night long I've been on Facebook, looking at live video feeds from local television, checking a federal agency incident website, and even now I've downloaded a police scanner app on my iPad, where I can listen to the real-time events unfold. Yet, none of these websites can show where the fire is right now, whether my parent's house is gone. The internet cannot keep up with nature, and nature can be chaotic.
Social capital: I wrote a couple of years about the importance of social capital, which is defined as networks of civic engagement, trust, and norms of reicprocity, in helping people in the context of floods and wildfires in Australia. My parents are lucky to have a lot of social capital they have built over more than 20 years in C. Springs, so they are now staying with some friends in the South of the city. They are much better off than people who must rely on shelters, and these types of social connections will be key to physical and mental recovery. Furthermore, the existence of the the shelters, the Red Cross, all the donations etc, speak to the large reservior of social capital and institutions that are embedded in the social fabric of the United States. We are lucky to have that, because there are plenty of countries that do not.
Climate change attitudes: It is ironic that Colorado Springs is a central focus of religious conservatism in the United States, and the associated climate skepticism. My father is a climate skeptic, although he is not a religious conservative, and really not an extreme climate skeptic. Kind of like a sarcastic climate skeptic. Anyway, I think his attitude will change now--he has directly experienced an extreme climate event, and key people in his social network(specifically, me) have explained the details of climate change science to him. He is a scientist himself, so it is fairly easy for him to process that type of information. In other words, my dad is a case study in how individual citizens responde to environmental and social information in the formation of their attitudes and beliefs. But it will be interesting to see the reaction from the more extreme conservatives, the ones who don't believe in climate change at all, the ones who distrust science as a social institution. Will they change their beliefs? Or will they view the apocalyptical pictures like the one on this blog as some type of sign from God, which reinforces their intitial attitudes? These questions are complicated by the fact that arson is likely involved in this fire, and even if not specifically for Waldo Canyon, some type of nut job has been setting fires in the Front Range. So the "man-made" part of this might make people less likely to recognize the role of climate change in providing the basic ecological context that increases the probability of these types of extreme events.
Resilience: TBD...taking a break...now resuming. The basic idea of resilience is the capacity of a system to return to something close to the status quo after a major shock. Obviously the Waldo fire is a major shock. So how resilient will Colorado Springs be? Insurance plays a large role here, and if you go back to the history of insurance, you will learn that it is really about risk sharing. So you're paying to avoid the costs of risk. The insurance companies will most likely engane in self-interested, greedy behavior in this case, looking at all the small print in every contract in order to pay the minimum amount. So many people will never recover the full financial and material losses from this fire. But the other part is psychological; you can't insure against the psychological trauma. There is some good evidence building about the importance of social relationships for recovering from the psychological trauma of major disasters, so again that will be a crucial resource. But resilience needs to recognize that things will never be the same, from the economic, material, or psychological standpoint. So what is happening here is a reorganization, and the real question is how long will the reorganization take before the community is operating with a similar quality of life as before, albeit on a reshaped system.
Resilience also needs to think about individual elements of the system. For example, what will happen if my parents' house burns down? They have put all kinds of effort into making their house exactly how they like it; they are always working on it. You cannot replace two decades of decision-making and investment with just a check from the insurance company. Will they choose to rebuild the house? Will they purchase another house in a similar neighborhood, which is now completely changed? Will they decide to move to another state, for example Portland, Oregon where my brother lives? Can they be resilient enough to return to enjoying life at the same level as before? I certaintly hope so...although my best hope right now is their house survives.
Adaptive capacity: Adaptive capacity is linked to resilience, because it refers to the capacity of a system to respond to change. So a system with a high level of adaptive capacity is likely to have high resilience too. In the case of Western landscapes and fire, one of the key ways to increase adaptive capacity is local neighborhood organizations working together with emergency management officials to create defensible space around houses in wooded areas. There have been some grants in Colorado Springs to help with this, and my parents (really, my Mom...she does these things...)were involved at some level. So they did a lot of brush clearing to create some defensible space, and hopefully that will pay off. However, there have already been plenty of reports of people calling in at the last minute to complain about their neighbors who have not created defensible space, leaving trees and piles of brush around their homes. So adaptive capacity is another example of how interdependence and cooperation play into human social behavior.