Governments should not only be reacting to weather disasters, but more importantly to the climate disaster.
Wolfgang Knorr is a climate scientist, consultant for the European Space Agency and guest researcher at the Department of Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University
This is the third part of a four part series of articles by Wolfgang after his return to his home in Greece. The other articles are “Climate scientist hit by major climate event” , “The intuitive sense of impending doom” , and “The Dawn of a New Phase of Climate Policy” (Just click on the title to read the article).
We humans are emergency animals. We may today talk about a climate emergency, but the truth is that for the vast majority of our biological history, we have been living in a state where we were constantly exposed to all sorts of mortal dangers. So we have evolved to use all the information coming from our senses all the time. The result is our ability to think intuitively, and to “feel” a situation, even if we have not lived through it ourselves but it is being told to us in stories.
Here is the continuation of my own climate impact story: after our region in Greece was struck by an extreme rain event and I eventually reached home, witnessing on the way the devastation of the ensuing floods, things started to get back to normal. Electricity was back early, then the water pipes to the village had been fixed temporarily, then internet services came back as well. The sea was still polluted, and roads everywhere had to be fixed, some friends needing to drive long detours to get to their homes. School was going to start with a two week delay.
Then, just one day before schools re-opening, the National Observatory of Athens issued a warning that a “cold lake” in the upper atmosphere of the central Mediterranean would again bring epic amounts of rain to the exact same regions, Pelion and other parts of the province of Thessaly.
Panic stricken, the authorities issued warnings and kept the schools in most of Thessaly closed for another three days. This was on Sunday. On Monday, we had a sunny hot day without school, managed to wash and dry some last clothes, stocked up on water expecting the water pipes to disconnect again, and waited for the rain. It turned out to be a light drizzle by nightfall. By 9pm, it was clear again. Next morning, more drizzle and some sun. But school had to happen through Webex.
It turned out later that the highest rainfall that Monday had fallen in a remote mountain village in the southwestern most corner of the province. The city of Trikala still had 80mm of rain, but that was only 10% of the amount of the catastrophic event earlier this month. In a face saving exercise, the same institute is now showing a map of Thessaly with the rain expected for the next wave tomorrow, and mentions Pelion among the top spots, but it is a rather modest amount. As usual, most rain fell along the peak mountain range, and we were in the rain shadow. Nothing unusual happened in the end.
It is now Wednesday (27 September) evening. Rain had been predicted for Tuesday afternoon, but it failed to materialise. The warning had been of heavy thunderstorms with hail. We were advised to restrict all unnecessary movement outside from Monday afternoon onwards. But mostly it has been windy without hardly any rain. It finally started raining this morning around 8am. It rained most of the time today, alternating between light and strong downpours. The thunderstorm finally arrived in the early evening. None of this even remotely comparable to when the flooding happened. My daughter’s climbing lesson has been cancelled because of some flooding in the surrounding area in the city of Volos. The main impact so far for me was that the electricity kept going on and off and I resorted to working mostly on mobile devices in order to protect my desktop computer.
Around 9pm, I received an email from my son’s school administration, all in bold letters in a single paragraph, whose dramatising and at the same time grotesquely bureaucratic style is difficult to describe. So I leave an almost literal translation here (emphasis my own):
“DUE TO THE VIOLENT STORM, THE DIRECTORS, TEACHING AND ADMINISTRATIVE STAFF OF THE DIRECTORATE OF SECONDARY EDUCATION OF MAGNESIA PROVINCE ARE CALLED TO AVOID ANY MOVEMENT TOWARDS THEIR SCHOOL UNITS OR PLACES OF SERVICE UNTIL NORMALISATION OF THE WEATHER CONDITIONS FOR REASONS OF AVOIDING EXTREMELY DANGEROUS SITUATIONS FOR THEM. TOMORROW’S TELE-EDUCATION COURSES ARE PROPOSED TO BE AVOIDED HORIZONTALLY (FOR ALL STUDENTS) AS THE STATE OF THE ELECTRICITY AND INTERNET NETWORKS DOES NOT ALLOW THIS FOR THE MAJORITY OF STUDENTS AND TEACHERS. THE PLANNED LESSONS SHOULD MATERIALISE THROUGH METHODS OF DISTANCE LEARNING OR TO BE POSTPONED FOR THE COMING DAYS. THE DIRECTORS ARE CALLED, WITH THEIR DIGITAL SYSTEMS AT THEIR DISPOSAL (AND FUNCTIONING), TO INFORM THE COMMUNITIES OF THEIR SCHOOLS (TEACHERS, STUDENTS, PARENTS) ABOUT POSSIBLE DELAYS AND CHIEFLY ABOUT AVOIDING MOVEMENT DUE TO DANGER. PARENTS ARE CALLED, IN THEIR OWN INTEREST, TO ENTER THE SCHOOLS AFTER NORMALISATION OF THE WEATHER CONDITIONS AND THE REINSTATEMENT OF NORMAL WORKING CONDITIONS OF THE SCHOOLS. THE STUDENTS OF THE PROVINCE OF MAGNESIA ARE ASKED TO REMAIN IN THEIR HOUSES SAFELY AND TO ENGAGE IN PREPARATION OF THEIR LESSONS. DIGITAL BOOKS CAN BE ACCESSED AT THE URL http://ebooks.edu.gr/ebooks/ THE DIRECTOR OF SECONDARY EDUCATION OF MAGNESIA Dr SOKRATES SAVELIDIS”
During the coming night, the rain continues and significant damage eventually occurs. The water system of the village has been interrupted at several places and fixing it will certainly take days. A road that has been built on top of a former stream and had been destroyed in the last flooding has again been returned to its former wild state. In the city of Volos, there is also no water and electricity has been cut off at some places.
Certainly there is now a certain risk associated with driving around, as you may hit fallen rocks, but in no way is it or has it been particularly dangerous to get outside of the house or move around as long as you were using common sense. Had the authorities delegated responsibility downstream it would not have seemed like they were crying wolf, and at least two days of school closure would have been avoided. Essentially all the problems created by the storm are man-made, due to the desolate state of the infrastructure, or due to mismanagement. And this is the whole point of all the drama.
The reaction of the authorities is understandable. Given the preceding floods, the soils were still saturated, so more flooding was possible. There was an understandable nervousness given the tragedy that had struck only weeks before. Another factor is that the Greek state is generally not trusted or even taken seriously by its citizens. Untrusted authorities tend to return the favour and not trust their people, and so tend to overreact and overregulate. Hence the absurd decision to shut down schools in the entire province, instead of delegating responsibility locally. Nevertheless, trust in government is falling everywhere, authoritarian tendencies are on the increase, and climate extreme events will only become more frequent. So the events give us a foretaste of the future.
Whenever non-officials or non-experts feel a sense of doom, the reaction has consistently been swift condemnation. But who is really prone to panic when the reality of planetary heating strikes? The schools were closed for two days with no significant rain in sight. Stark warnings about impending danger do not take into account that citizens can use common sense and decide for themselves what is dangerous. Instead there is a rigid top-down command system that does not take into account local conditions. And no admitting that most of the problems are created by mismanagement.
To panic is human, but to try at the same time to uphold an image of superiority isn’t. Witness the inability to accept that scientific information, when it comes to environmental matters, is vastly uncertain and intrinsically unreliable. The officials could have admitted they did not know when and where the rain would strike. They didn’t because officialdom likes to hold up the illusion that we can predict and somehow control the future.
We human beings have a very fine sense of intuiting danger that has been tried and tested over millions of years. In times of crisis as ours it is ever more important to use it. But authorities resolve to top-down commands on the basis of no more than computer model simulations and the opinions of distant experts. They overreact and overregulate because they have no real feeling of the situation, and as a result discourage local agency. In other words, they incite panic in order to keep the upper hand. Exactly the type of panic and sense of helplessness they accuse the “climate doomists” to create with their pessimism.
As climate impacts become more frequent, we will see increasing nervousness on the side of the authorities, and a clinging on to the illusion of control. There will be a tendency to over-dramatize and to centralise control to make sure past failure, like the failure to control greenhouse gas emissions or to invest in better protection and infrastructure, is never discussed or admitted. Denial breeds defensiveness. The drama will be the best protection against uncomfortable questions. The experts, in the meantime, will be glad to have finally found a role for themselves in the real world and will happily chime in with the general tune of pending disaster. It will give them such a huge ego boost.
So the discussion about climate doom is really about who controls the doomist narrative, and decidedly not about whether the feeling of doom is a good or a bad thing.
Screenshots from meteo.gr (links provided above)