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Climate Change, Disasters and Time: A Discussion with UCSB Bren School Faculty

Experts gather for discussion around disaster resiliency.


Extreme Weather

Dr. Mark Buntaine of UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, speaks at Direct Relief on Dec. 12, 2018. Buntaine and Drs. Kelsey Jack, Ashley Larsen and Kyle Meng spoke about the effect of climate and disaster response. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

Timing is everything in development assistance and disaster relief. That was the central theme of a collaborative talk held at Direct Relief’s headquarters on Wednesday, when four UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science and Management faculty spoke with Direct Relief staff.

“When it comes to helping families experiencing food insecurity to smooth out their exposure to risk,” recounted Dr. Kelsey Jack. “A dollar spent at the point where households are most vulnerable is simply worth more and can make a bigger impact than a dollar spent at other times of the year.”

Dr. Jack’s work focuses on the challenges faced by rural agricultural communities in the global South, many of whom receive virtually their entire annual income in a single moment following the harvest and need to make that income last all year, depleting it steadily as the next harvest approaches. If an external shock such as a natural disaster impacts these communities when their resources are lowest, they are generally far less prepared than at other times to respond effectively.If one provides assistance, either in the form of development or relief, the timing of that assistance makes an enormous difference in terms of its relative value to the affected communities.

A dollar of aid spent at the right time is not the same as a dollar spent at other times.

This same basic insight about time and aid applies to crisis affected communities in the U.S. as much as to rural farmers in Zambia. Dr. Mark Buntaine, reflecting on the work of his colleague, Dr. Sarah Anderson, who studies wildfire preparedness and response in California, described the tendency of assistance to flow to communities not based on the magnitude of future risks but instead based on experiences with recent events. “When communities have been recently affected by wildfires they tend to receive the most attention,” he said. “Resources for wildfire mitigation tend to follow along with this attention, even though these same communities may face lower risks given the exhaustion of fuel sources which drive the fires.” Once again, timing makes all the difference. If we can invest ahead of the attention curve in effective disaster mitigation, those dollars may be worth more overall to potentially impacted communities.

Dr. Buntaine’s own work focuses on “resilience” to disasters. Time plays a central role in defining the central idea of disaster resilience. According to standard models, a community has a pre-existing level of welfare which is reduced sharply over a short period of time during a crisis event. Infrastructure is destroyed, livelihoods are suspended, and health declines. Over time, and with help, communities invest to rebound at least to pre-existing standards. The level of community resilience is bound up with the time required to accomplish this rebound. If the investment curve is steeper, especially the rate at which that investment is absorbed, the time to recovery is faster. While one needs to spend at peak moments of crisis to minimize the effects of an event, one can also spend over longer durations to minimize potential damages.

The value of dollars spent to reduce damages may actually be greater than the value of dollars spent to minimize effects given price changes and reduction of harm to livelihood. At the same time, and in line with Dr. Jack’s insights, the value of assistance to communities is greatest at the point of immediate harm, when their capacities are lowest. The balance of these relative priorities is therefore a central concern for how we manage the social consequences of increasing vulnerability to disaster.

Dr. Mark Buntaine of UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, speaks at Direct Relief on Dec. 12, 2018. Buntaine and Drs. Kelsey Jack, Ashley Larsen and Kyle Meng spoke about the effect of climate and disaster response. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)
Dr. Mark Buntaine of UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, speaks at Direct Relief on Dec. 12, 2018. Buntaine and Drs. Kelsey Jack, Ashley Larsen and Kyle Meng spoke about the effect of climate and disaster response. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

Given these concerns over relative time, investment and resilience, how can one measure the impact of different events and strategies?

One way Dr. Buntaine and his team are approaching this question is to apply techniques from remotely sensed satellite image analysis to determine relative changes in welfare compared to the impacts of disaster events. Using the illumination of lights at night across the Earth’s surface researchers can detect proxy measures of economic activity which may be affected significantly by disasters.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico the island experienced not only the longest blackout in US history but also one of the most serious adverse events in terms of mortality and morbidity due to crisis. The blackout was directly correlated with the scale of impact. By measuring how the nighttime illumination changes in areas researchers can also measure the differential impact of investments made to promote recovery.

Over the anticipated future time marked out by climate change, events like Hurricane Maria appear to be increasing in terms of frequency and severity. How can we predict what the shape of this future is likely to look like?

Dr. Kyle Meng and Dr. Ashley Larsen approach this question from different points of view based alternately on economics and ecology, yet each contributes to understanding new ways that those of us who respond to crisis may be able to get at least somewhat ahead of the impact curve.Dr. Meng looks at historical trends linking violence and global temperatures and discovers that the temperature oscillations associated with El Nino events, in which the tropics see significant warming, tend to be associated with dramatic spikes in violence. Knowing this, it’s an open question as to whether efforts to counter the effects of violence ought to be associated with projections of temperature patterns.

Dr. Larsen on the other hand looks at the ecology of insect pests and their impact upon food security.As global temperatures change the habitats of insect pests change, which in turn impacts the geography and severity of food security. Projection of these changes is not a simple matter though of noting variance in temperature and moisture. As insect habitats change, they face changing food sources, predators and other factors that impact their survival and reproduction rates. This is true for agricultural pests as much as for insects like mosquitoes and ticks which serve as disease vectors impacting human health. To get ahead of these curves and improve social adaptation to future climate changes requires careful modeling and broad collaboration across many different groups and agencies.

The future of much of Direct Relief’s own work promoting efficient and effective resilience and recovery will be informed by insights being generated by researchers like those at UCSB’s Bren School. In that sense, the timing for better collaboration with our academic colleagues couldn’t be better.

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