What Have We Learned? (An Environmental Series)
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED? | April 9, 2020
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Hosts: Thaddeus Howze and Carol Bluestein
Disasters are all around us. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, there were the fires in Australia, Congo, the Amazon Rain Forest and the coast of California. Before those fires, were the floods in the central United States, the monsoons and heatwaves in India and the flooding and locusts in Africa. What does this have to do with climate change? Everything. Natural disasters have always been one of the most terrible events in the Human experience. Usually an environmental force, a powerful storm, tornado or fire occurs and exceeds our ability to manage or prepare for it, leaving devastation in its wake. Some of these events can be mitigated such as seasonal fire but often at great cost. Other threats are known and ignored for the sake of profit such as building in flood plains.
Disaster convergence is when more than one disaster strikes, often before recovery from the first disaster has even been recovered from. An example of such a phenomenon occurred in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico which was hammered by Hurricane Maria in 2017. The Puerto Rico Planning Board determined that total damage estimates from Hurricane Maria exceed $100 billion. Yet even after federal aid and insurance payouts, it was previously calculated that there was still a $42 billion deficit from damages to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. Before aid had been effectively administered, the island was rocked by earthquake swarms from the end of December 2019 into January 2020 with quakes of 5.0 or greater. Having barely recovered power and water to a tiny percentage of the island meant almost all the work done to date was lost and 800 more buildings were destroyed. The damage from the earthquake was estimated at $3.1 billion.
Here is one of the most recent examples of disaster convergence but it isn’t the only one. Most of us are living in some degree of disaster convergence, you just have to be part of the right social groups. If you are poor, in poor health, live in regions of the country under-served by hospitals or medical services, you are already living in a disaster convergent zone. Economically disadvantaged, without access to affordable quality medical care, lack of affordable housing and systemic processes of racism or classism creates a standing system of cultural and social disaster which are only recognized when a greater disaster is overlaid upon them, case in point, the current coronavirus crisis.
Climate disaster affects us all, but not equally. If you live somewhere which oil technology is dominant such as southern Texas, you are already living in a disaster zone, one where oil industry pollution is a constant in your life, reducing your longevity, affecting your overall health and reducing opportunities for your children due to early, lifelong exposure to toxins present in the air, water and more than likely food grown in the surrounding areas. If we are looking at converging disasters, we already have to consider them collectively and separately. Environmental disasters, manufacturing and farming externalities make up the bulk of effects which can harm people passively, just by being in the area and directly by consuming food affected by pathogens from factory farming.
Some of the United States greatest challenges come from a lack of willingness to regulate and control manufacturing processes which affect the environment such as power-plant pollution especially coal ash, runoff from industrial processes such as fabric manufacturing, and the environmental devastation of mining for minerals particularly for the computer industry. The electronics industry has over 66 minerals mined for the creation of the motherboards, cases, screens and other components as well as the plastics used for their other accessories, including cameras, keyboards and mice. Minerals including silicon, copper, gold, silver, tin, aluminum are used in printed circuit boards and computer chips. These common materials have vast mines covering hundreds of square acres, leaving behind areas which are blasted and effectively unrecoverable. Even more rare are the so-called conflict minerals. “Conflict minerals,” as defined by the US legislation, currently include the metals tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold, which are the derivatives of the minerals cassiterite, columbite-tantalite and wolframite, respectively. Downstream companies often refer to the derivatives of these minerals as 3TG. They are called conflict minerals due to the social unrest caused at the sites where these minerals are mined. Conflict minerals can be extracted at many different locations around the world including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Climate disasters of every type continue to be an existential threat to Human civilization both natural and man-made, and with the advent of the natural onslaught of the most recent pandemic coronavirus, society has had to engage in what we called “industrial quiet” – the temporary shuttering of business and industrial processes around the world to prevent the spread of the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which currently has no vaccine. This shuttering has placed almost the entire planet’s economic system into a coma, and revealing, perhaps unintentionally, how much damage such industry has done to the planet. Every city around the world is currently photographing the transformation of the environment, the clearing of the air as hundreds of millions of automobiles perhaps for the first time since cars were created, to not be in motion, twenty four hours a day.
Convergence is real. As the coronavirus sweeps through societies, we can tell those societies which deal with providing quality healthcare, promote reasonable labor practices, and have greater economic equality in their societies are experience far fewer fatalities due to the COVID-19 pulmonary disorders caused by the virus. In societies where social and economic inequalities are greater, we are again seeing the convergence of health challenges and the vulnerability of populations due to economic, social and systemic racism create challenges to maintaining high quality health outcomes.
The greatest threat to future governments is their inability to recognize, prepare and compensate for the potential threat of converging disasters. Most governments spend far less on disaster mitigation in terms of time, effort and preparation, preferring to spend money after the event rather than trying to prevent it, deeming such expenditures as “too expensive” and “unnecessary” which is what happen to the Pandemic Response Team established under Barack Obama and removed by Donald Trump’s administration. Had the CDC been able to maintain the funds for those nationalized CDC services, the recent coronavirus might have been discovered before it became an international threat.
As it stands now, the convergence of the poor quality health outcomes and the pandemic nature of the coronavirus means tens of thousands of lives will be lost as holes in the system are revealed. This is not the first time for such a convergence to be noticed. Relationships to the poor living in or near toxic environments, exposure to pollution, reduced quality healthcare, and systemic poverty have remained a challenge for many nations and the environmental disasters which will continue to remain a threat to humanity, will only make such disasters far worse than they should be until such inequalities become too expensive to allow to exist or until they bankrupt those broken systems and are replaced by more forward thinking governments.
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