Good editorial in The NewScientist (10th Sept 2005, print ed. online requires subscription), highlighting the dilemma with natural disasters:

…Terrorist attacks may or may not take place, but some natural disasters are inevitable. We don’t know when they will happen, but happen they will… There is a clear mismatch between forecasting natural disasters at some indeterminate time in the future and the short lifetime of local and national governments in modern democracies… The Asian tsunami and the disaster in New Orleans show clearly that the political processes for handling disaster prevention are failing badly.

One option is to measure the success of diaster prevention. How many times has the Netherlands’ system of dykes protected it from disastrous flooding? How many lives have they saved, and how much money? In November 2002, when a 7.9 earthquake struck Alaska close to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, there was no leak and no environmental disaster because the pipeline was built to withstand quakes. What value should we put on such a design?

The article goes on to mention that the Thames flood barrier has been rasied 80 times in 23 years in part thanks to the estimate that a serious flood in London could cost taxpayers £30billion. So it is possible to measure success by what does not happen… but it’s not easy. Look at the Y2K issue – the fact that nothing happened led to people criticising the amount of money spent on it. Maybe too much money was spent, but the whole point of Y2K was to prevent anything from happening. Sometimes, we can be a difficult species to please.

That fear factor is a real challenge though, and one that leads to bad (or manipulative) decisions. Witnessing terrorist acts evokes more fear than being told climate change is estimated to cause the sea-level to rise by 0.8cm per year…

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