Doing more in the Climate Emergency

Schaust du Eden?/ Und ich müßte sagen: Eden brennt ("Are you watching Eden?/ And I would have to say: Eden is burning")                           Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke isn’t saying nature is literally ablaze. In like fashion, I believe the Climate Emergency isn’t quite the one most talked about today. In order there be no doubt about where I stand, I believe the planet needs an explicit, long-term recovery from fossil fuel addiction and the betrayals, lies and lying of Big Polluters.

That said, anyone who studies emergency management in large disasters and catastrophes, at least in the US setting, knows recovery is the second part of emergency management. The first, very formidable phase is immediate response. This matters because: Just what is immediate response in the Climate Emergency?

The article starts with: “The climate crisis calls for a massive and rapid retooling of our economy and society.” Yes, surely that and more; but what do we do immediately?

In answer, I don’t think I’m doing an injustice to those who insist what we should do now, and in a very very big way is: stop using fossil fuels, stop cutting down trees, stop polluting the seas, stop using these befouling planes, vessels and vehicles.

We could respond, “Just how immediate is immediately?” Here though, let’s take these “Stop’s!” as sufficient calls for now-action.

Which means in the US setting, activating a city or county emergency operations center and/or incident management teams at the department level to coordinate immediate response efforts. States also do the same with respect to their own EOCs or equivalent.

This activation is done all the time, when high winds, ice storms, wildfires, heat dome effects, flooding and their combinations take down essential services, particularly backbone infrastructures of water, electricity, roads and telecoms.

Now the thought experiment: Activate the EOCs and IMTs, or at least the ones which know we are the Climate Emergency. And who are the distressed peoples and sites? Well, that’s not something you, the reader, can answer a priori. It’s up to the EOCs and IMTs, who recognize the Climate Emergency is leaving local people hungry, making local spaces uninhabitable, taking away local employment. . .

In thinking these things through, the stakes become clearer for both recovery and for immediate response.

First, much of what outsiders recommend for now-now clearly belongs more under “long-term recovery” than immediate response, e.g., those net-zero emissions promises or those altogether different, more resilient infrastructures. Note what many others have said about this longer-term: It is inevitably political with many stakeholders and in little or no way has the same logic, clarity and urgency that immediate response has, e.g., disaster declarations that trigger immediate release of funds.

That said and second, those aforementioned “stop-this-and-that” immediately hit a major obstacle. In really-existing emergency response, fossil fuel is needed to evacuate people, ship goods and services to distressed areas, keep the generators running when electricity fails, and so on. Cutting down trees, distribution of water in plastic bottles, and wide use of readily available gas-guzzling vehicles, in case it needs sayinig, are also not uncommon.

Rather than focusing concern around the greater reliance on petrol or like, we might instead want to think more productively about two empirically prior issues.

First, where are those EOCs and IMTs activated in response to the Climate Emergency? The aforementioned activation for wildfires, flooding and abrupt seasonal events have been increasing and increasingly responded to by all manner of city, county, state and agency EOCs and IMTs. These are climate emergencies—lower-case speech matters in a polarized US—even for those would never say the phrase, “Climate Change,” out loud.

Second, where EOCs and IMTs have been or will be activated, are they responding in ways that are climate-friendly? Or to put response challenge correctly: Where are the logic, clarity and urgency of the Climate Emergency requiring immediate eco-friendly response even before longer-term environmental recovery?

I ask the latter question, because I don’t think some of us who treat the Climate Emergency seriously have thought the answers through. For example and by way of comparison, it seems to me much more thought has been given by far many more people to the use of eco-friendly stoves, toilet facilities, renewable-energy generators, and like alternatives. Years and years of R&D have gone into studying, prototyping and distributing more sustainable options.

Shouldn’t we then expect and want their increased use in immediate emergency response as well, especially when (not: “even if”) expediting them to the distressed sites and peoples means using petrol and cutting down trees in the way? Do we really need new studies or a benefit-cost analysis to take that decision—right now?

Wrong mailbox

There’s the view that public policy is like a mailbox from which we send important messages and in which we receive a lot of junk mail.

Have you noticed, though, just how mismatched curb-side, free-standing mailboxes can be compared to the houses that stand behind them? Where I live, the mailbox may be weathered, flaked or chipped, even rusting, while the house behind is cared for, grand-looking sometimes. But inside the house, anything goes! Indoors, they’re way more interesting.

So, we have misleading mailboxes in front of misleading facades to insides whose good and bad messes no one can really see from outside-in. Contrary to the illusion of policies as mailboxes, the policies we send and receive scarcely reflect all the busy, domestic life of the palimpsests they really are.

It’s actually Global Climate Sprawl

You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet. . .It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

I want to suggest that Global Climate Change isn’t just a bad mess; it’s a spectacularly, can’t-keep-our-eyes-off-it, awful mess of getting it wrong, again and again. To my mind, GCC is a hot mess–both senses of the term–now sprawled all over place and time. It is inextricably, remorselessly part and parcel of “living way too expansively, generously.”

GCC’s the demonstration of a stunningly profligate human nature. You see the sheer sprawl of it all in the epigraph, Philip Roth’s rant from American Pastoral. So too the elder statesman in T.S. Eliot’s eponymous play admits,

The many many mistakes I have made
My whole life through, mistake upon mistake,
The mistaken attempts to correct mistakes
By methods which proved to be equally mistaken.

That missing comma between “many many” demonstrates the excess: After a point, we no longer can pause, with words and thoughts rushing ahead. (That the wildly different Philip Roth and T.S. Eliot are together on this point indicates the very real mess it is.)

That earlier word, sprawl, takes us to a more magnanimous view of what is going on, as in Les Murray’s “The Quality of Sprawl”:

Sprawl is the quality
of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce
into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.
Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly,
or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home…

This extravagance and profligacy–the waste–are not ornery contrarianism. For poet, Robert Frost, “waste is another name for generosity of not always being intent on our own advantage”. If I had my druthers, rename it, “GCS:” Global Climate Sprawl.

Seeing a case in its own right

–I attended a presentation on an ecosystem restoration project in Montana. One of the project leaders described what was for him the key contribution of ecosystem management there: The approach gave him a way to integrate the small and large scale.

Not only could the project leader stand in his woodlot and see how it fit in with the larger scale of the ecosystem and landscape, he was able to plan at the smaller scale for the longer term. He was able to expect a future for his forested lot.

–So too for the ecosystem manager standing at the ridge overlooking the valley. She looked down and was able to plan at the larger scale for the shorter term. She could now see what the next steps ahead were when it came to managing the larger ecosystem.

“Think globally, act locally” had become for this group “Think long term from the small scale and in real time for the large scale.”

“What are the challenges, practices and strategies of governing reliability and safety in organizational networks?”

–Start with a question recently asked of workshop invitees:

• What are the challenges, practices and strategies of governing [infrastructure] reliability and safety in organizational networks?

As the question mark invites an answer, let me run through my first thoughts as I read it.

–I could start by insisting we clarify terms, like reliability, safety and networks. “Governing” too is a tricky word. All I need do is ask of each: with respect to what? My problem here, though, is what’s the closure rule to these and follow-on terminological and conceptual clarifications?

I could instead veer off to that nostrum, it’s really the questions we ask that are important, not the answers we give. True enough, but far enough? I don’t think so. Doesn’t my asking a question entail I would know what qualifies as answer, if offered? And those criteria for the above question are. . .?

–In truth, little of that bothers. I already know something about infrastructure reliability and safety. To me, it read as a straight-forward question I’d ask on other occasions. So, I should be able to give an initial answer without hiving off to the macro or micro. Not that I wouldn’t benefit eventually from doing the latter, but first, here’s my own answer. . .

–. . .and then comes the problem. The question bothers me when I move from reading to answering it. What I realize is that, actually, this is not the question I’d ask, if I had given it a lot more thought and knowing what I know about infrastructure reliability, safety and networks.

–How so? Return to the original question:

• What are the challenges, practices and strategies of governing [infrastructure] reliability and safety in organizational networks?

In my mind, the question-asking and -answering takes place in this way and order: What are the system boundaries, if any, of the operating infrastructure? What are the standards of reliability and safety being managed to, if any, for system-level operations? What are system risks, if any, that follow from managing to that standard for that system?

In the process of trying to answer the three, I would probe for the changing interconnectivity and ambiguities between and among latent and manifest boundaries, standards, and risks.

–I don’t expect this to make clear sense first off, but that is not the point I’m trying to make here.

Which is: Yes, clarification of terms and concepts is needed, but not of the initial ones. In my recasting, it is system, boundaries, standards, risks and interconnections that are gasping for the same air now sucked away by struggles in better defining “reliability, safety and networks.” Those are the weeds I’d rather been stuck in.

–Or to shift the analogy. For centuries, ancient Greek architecture has been praised for its pure forms and perfect proportions. Then came along the guys who did more site research, suggesting that the bare stone we see today could have been covered by all manner of rough stucco and garish paint.

What too then of those forms we—myself included—have abstracted as reliability, safety and networks?

Just who, you say, is not listening?

For reasons that will be obvious, no names are given in what follows. The numbers, however, remain roughly as first identified.

–Researchers estimated the annual probability of a major stretch of island levees failing ranged between 4% to 24% due to a slope failure. (Slope instability in this scenario would be caused by flooding behind the levee as well as high water levels on its water side.)

Our estimates were considerably higher than the official one, in large part because the research project relied on validated methodologies for accommodating uncertainties.

–We presented the findings to the island’s management board. Their first and really only question was whether our estimates would be revealed to the island’s insurers.

–We had a “hotwash” afterwards to figure out their–how to put it?–lukewarm response:

  • Didn’t they understand the upper range, 24% per annum, implied a levee breach nigh inevitable with respect to our scenario? Or to put the question to our side, in what ways did the 24% per annum estimate fall far, far short of being a failure probability of 1.0?
  • But if as high as 24% per annum, why hadn’t there been a levee breach over the many decades since the last major one there?
  • What about the islands nearby? Assuming even a few of these had a similar upper range, why weren’t levee failures happening more often there?
  • The 4% – 24% range was with respect to annual levee failure due to slope instability only. If you add in all the levee failure modes possible (e.g., due to seepage rather than overtopping and flooding), the combined probability of levee failure would have to be higher. (But then again, what are the conditions under which the more ways there are to fail, the more likely failure is?)
  • You could say one reason why levee failure there hadn’t happened–yet–was because it had been long enough. That is: a long enough period to observe levee breaches so as to form the distribution from which the 24% could be established empirically. But these levees, and worse ones nearby, had been in place for decades and decades. The burden of proof, in other words, was on us, the team of levee experts, to explain why this wasn’t “long enough” or what that long-enough might actually look like.
  • The levee stretch in question could be “failing to fail.” It might be that this stretch had not undergone events that loaded it to capacity and worse. (But that again: How much worse would the conditions have to be in our expert view? Just what is a probability of failing to fail?)
  • Or to put all this differently, was this levee stretch on that island more diverse and more resilient (say, in the way biodiverse ecosystems are said to be more resilient) than current methods capture but which islanders better understood and manage?

–But our most significant observation was the one none of us saw need to voice: How could we accuse the management board and islanders of being short-sighted or worse, with so much else going on challenging us, the team, to make sense of such estimates?

for Robert Chambers

Once in, you’re in for life

Proposition 1: The more services demanded from a single resource, the greater the demand for reliability in each service but the messier it is to ensure that reliability (reliability defined as that safe and continuous provision of a vital service).

The more we rely on firefighters, the more services we demand from them. First, crews responded to fires; then they had to respond to other emergency calls. Power lines are expected to carry not just electricity, but broadband internet services. Banks provided accounts and loans; then we required they source other financial instruments. During service expansions, reliability mandates and service provision suffer growing pains and things get messier.

Proposition 2: The messier it is to provide multiple reliable services from a single resource, the more the services are provided reliably, if at all, in real time only, as performance standards are clearest then.

Police now respond immediately only to 911 calls for activity in progress. The bank shifts from waiting lines in front of few tellers to smaller lines at many outside ATMs. Performance criteria are more evident in real time: Is the cash right at hand, did the police come at once, did you get your emergency care now?

Proposition 3: More services being reliably provided in real time, however, increases the likelihood that new services will be demanded from that single resource, rendering it more difficult to ensure any of the services is reliably provided, right now.

Back at that ATM: Before, it provided cash and deposit services; then it became a one-stop for other transactions, ranging from recharging your cellphone, through paying your bills and buying stamps, to booking rail tickets. Conditions get even messier when the multi-purpose ATM (and others nearby) are out of order, and none of the now-expanded services are available. It’s the same with your cellphone when reception is unavailable.

Proposition 4: The more the services and the messier the real-time management, the greater the pressure to decouple one or more services from the resource and the more likely a new resource will be found/created to provide the decoupled service reliably.

Smartphones are no longer just mobile versions of fixed-line telephones, but altogether different mechanisms with added services. Banks long ago ceased to source financial services sector on their own; all manner of novel financial transactions are provided outside the official banking sector.

Proposition 5: The more reliably the service is provided from the new resource, the greater the pressure to demand more services from that resource. . . and so the dynamic continues.

Should it need saying, it is not obvious what new or more differentiated resources, if any, will emerge nor is there anything inevitable about the propositional dynamic. What can be said is that you’re in it for life when it comes to managing mess-and-reliability.

Economic consequences of no must-never-happen events in the financial sector

–In electricity, reliability is driven by dread associated with loss of containment at a nuclear generator or islanding of the entire electric transmission grid. Major irreplaceable dams, whether upriver of settlement or not, are not to be overtopped. Nuclear explosions occur, dams are overtopped, and grids do separate and island, but these events are rare–rare because of their management beyond technology and design–and when they do happen they serve to reinforce their must-never-happen dread.

–In contrast, financial services have “should-never-happen events”—bank runs should be avoided and financial crises shouldn’t happen. The standard of operating reliability is not one of precluding financial crises from ever happening, but rather of treating these crises (1) as avoidable though not always, or (2) as inevitable (“busts are part of market capitalism”) or at least (3) compensable after the fact (as in the pre-2008 assurance that it’s better to clean up after a financial bubble bursts than trying to manage it beforehand).

–Not having reliability of financial services based on must-never-happen events has major consequences for economic stability and growth.

At the macro level, there are two different standards of economic reliability: The retrospective standard holds the economy is performing reliably when there have been no major shocks or disruptions from then to now. The prospective standard holds the economy is reliable only until the next major shock.

Why does the difference matter? In practical terms, the economy is prospectively only as reliable as its critical infrastructures are reliable, right now when it matters for economic productivity. In fact, if economy and productivity were equated only with recognizing and capitalizing on retrospective patterns and trends, economic policymakers and managers could never be reliable prospectively.

–For example, a retrospective orientation to where we are today is to examine economic and financial patterns and trends since, say, 2008; if so, a prospective standard would be to ensure that–at a minimum–the 2008 financial recovery could be replicated, if not bettered, for the next global financial crisis.

The problem with the latter–do no worse in the financial services sector than what happened in the 2008 crisis–is that benchmark would have to reflect a must-never-happen event for the sector going forward.

What, though, are the chances it would be the first-ever must-never-happen event among all of that sectors’ should-never-happen ones?

Sink your teeth in

My bête noire is the dentist’s assistant, now hygienist, and what they call teeth-cleaning. “Our gums still don’t look good, do they, Mr. Roe?”

I’ve been doing this leeching for over 50 years and the only thing to change in that time is my having to do more and more. What, they say, surely you brush at least twice a day? You don’t floss? You’re shoving wood and plastic splinters between every one of your teeth, right? Speaking of which, you are using a water pick?

Where—I ask them when able—is that amazing tooth paste with a quantum jump in plaque/tartar reduction? That truly restorative mouthwash and its dramatic improvements? Those easy teeth caps or permanent enamelization or something to stop the need for further blood-letting?

One. Half. Century of zero, nada, zilch. “We’d have to sterilize mouths, Mr. Roe, and we can’t do, can we?” I suppose I’ve not helped matters by calling them Butcher Bob and such.