Veronica Rooney: Hi, we're here with Dr. Michael Hamburger.
Dr. Hamburger: Hi, how are you, good morning. I'm great and nice to see you guys.
Brooklynn Shively: It's nice to see you too. We're going to be talking today about natural disasters and resilience, combined with mitigation for these natural disasters. So how would you define natural disasters and what impact has climate change had on these disasters?
Dr. Hamburger: Well, there are of course a variety of definitions that we're kind of working definition I use for my research and for my teaching for a natural disaster is a sudden onset naturally occurring phenomenon that produces devastating human impacts and the words are chosen kind of specifically to include some things and exclude others. I think an important operational word is naturally occurring, so that, you know, excludes things like chemical spills or wars. The sudden initiation, kind of, excludes slow developing things perhaps like pandemics or climate change from the definition, and focuses on things like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and so on, that come with a sudden shock. And of course the devastating human impact really encompasses our focus on ourselves so when a big volcanic eruption happens in some remote area of Siberia, we may not consider that a natural disaster because it doesn't affect us so much.
Brooklynn Shively: So you would say that, um, climate change doesn't really have an impact on disasters or wouldn't make them more severe?
Dr. Hamburger: No, I know I didn't say that at all.
So, climate change is implicated in almost all of the natural disasters. What I mean is the definition of natural disasters, themselves, does not generally encompass the slow developing stress of climate change. However, climate change clearly is having an impact both on the frequency of natural disasters particularly certain types of weather related disasters, and it also changes the impact so just as a simple example, one of the indirect impacts of climate change is the rise of sea level. So, the melting of glaciers and the Arctic and mountainous regions is leading to more water in the world's oceans; the level of the world's oceans has risen, risen by something like eight to ten inches over the past century and although that may seem like a minor amount, every time a tsunami occurs or hurricane storm surge occurs it inundates significantly more area because of that sea level rise.
In addition, climate change is implicated in both the occurrence of and the severity of for example tropical cyclones so the number of hurricanes, their intensity and their impacts are expected to increase as a result of climate change. And then finally, there are these, I would say, kind of ambiguous natural disasters like wildfires, that are kind of right on the boundary of naturally occurring events and human-caused events. These are almost certainly occurring, with more frequency and more severity as a result of climate change so there's a very intimate connection between climate change and these natural disasters.
Veronica Rooney: So, I read that you started working on natural disasters years ago, and one of your first jobs was when you went into the Soviet Union and you were doing research there and I'm just curious, bviously in the recent mainstream news climate change is more like openly discussed and I'm wondering if at the time, was it as imminent of an issue within the field? Was it something that was like being discussed actively, or has the focus of your research on natural disasters changed as climate change is kind of coming to the forefront?
Dr. Hamburger: Well I should clarify that the actual class of disasters that I mostly study are earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis—solid Earth disasters that are kind of on the end of the spectrum that is less directly affected by climate change. However, my interests have broadened to include many different types of natural disasters and their impacts and so I've gotten more interested in the impacts of climate change.
It is certainly fair to say that when I started my work in geosciences in the late 1970s climate change was just not perceived as a global issue of paramount human importance, certainly the research was developing at that stage in the understanding of the way our influence on the Earth's atmosphere could affect climate, but it really wasn't until a couple decades later, when it really rose to the level of interest that it has now. In addition, my own personal interests have broadened from the more specific technical aspects of solid Earth natural disasters, to more of the societal impacts and what we can do about them.
Veronica Rooney: So, kind of going along with that because I'm really interested in that just like how your work is shifted to focus more on like the populations affected by these crises. What kind of sparked that change in your interests?
Dr. Hamburger: I would say it's a combination of things. Probably about 25 years ago, I started becoming more involved in environmental issues, environmental advocacy, I'm of course, of the generation that kind of grew up with Earth Day and with interest in environmental issues. I think it was sometime midway through my career that I recognized that there was a connection between the natural disasters that I study, and the human influences on the natural environment.
I think many of us used to think of those as kind of separate issues where the work we do is kind of protection from the environment and the work the environmentalists do is protection of the environment. In fact, they're both intertwined in that there's a kind of growing recognition that the ways we have influenced the earth system are so pervasive that they affect virtually every aspect of every natural system and of course affect the way they interact with human society. I'll just mention a really pivotal moment in my own career was a year I took off about five years ago to participate in a special program run by the National Academy of Sciences called the Jefferson Science Fellowship, where I spent a year in Washington, working in the State Department as a science advisor to the State Department, and it was the year of the Paris Climate accord, so I became more directly involved in kind of global issues of diplomacy related to climate studies and climate mitigation.
Veronica Rooney: That's so exciting.
Brooklynn Shively: So, would you say that conservation and environmentalism in general is a form of mitigation now for natural disasters? Would you classify it as that?
Dr. Hamburger: I would say they're all intertwined in very complex ways and one of the challenges for us as scientists and as citizens, is to really understand the causes of different kinds of environmental issues so that the solutions to some issues may actually conflict with the solutions to other issues. What we're increasingly tasked to do, is to find comprehensive solutions that address both vulnerability to natural disasters, conservation recycling transportation systems and so on. It really, you know, at the broader scale, it means rethinking how we live as humans and what kinds of communities we want to build and how we want to produce and use our energy. In fact, some of the solutions to some of these challenges may involve using more energy or using special resources to strengthen our society. So, it involves very complicated decisions.
One of the things I find intriguing about the discussion going on now about the infrastructure legislation, for example, is our federal government now is really time to take a big look at the whole structure of our society and how we can use the levers of federal funding and legislation, maybe to influence the way our cities are built in our transportation systems are built and hopefully we will make some smart decisions that will both improve the efficiency of our use of energy and reduce our vulnerability to natural disasters, but it's a really complicated, some call it a wicked problem, that involves a lot of trade-offs and a lot of critical thinking about a lot of different issues, which by the way is why students from all different disciplines, not just the sciences and engineering but Humanities, Arts, History, and Political Science professional training are needed to solve these wicked problems.
Brooklynn Shively: Since you kind of have that unique experience of bridging the gap between scientists and the State Department, would you say that relations between these two fields are improving over the past few years with working together and compromising or do you have any suggestions on how to improve that bridge?
Dr. Hamburger: Oh well, let's see, it depends on which bridges you're talking about, of course. We're facing very severe political divisions within our country and other countries around the world, and also divisions between countries. You know, this is where communication, diplomacy compromises come in. Things have become very, in some ways intractable in our own country, in terms of finding common solutions. It's interesting that the term resilience is a term that seems to bridge the kind of political differences that everybody wants to live in a society that is prepared to withstand the shocks of the future and is willing to put some resources towards that and of course when we get to specific discussions about what is involved in creating that resilience I think that's where some of the difficult discussions have to happen.
I do think there is a moment here, where, at least in our country, we are starting to grapple with some of those really big issues, and there's a sense that a momentum is changing as, for example, auto manufacturers say that they are transforming the kind of vehicles that they're producing in the next few years. That in turn will transform our use of fossil fuels. Building designers are coming up with incredible new ways to increase efficiency and energy use and buildings, new energy supplies are developing at lower and lower costs that are changing the way we produce energy. So, there's some very interesting, exciting developments. I think the question is, can they happen at a pace that's rapid enough for us to protect ourselves from the most severe consequences of climate change.
Brooklynn Shively: Would you say that the environmentalism agenda is motivating these like large corporations to make this shift because they don't necessarily have any business reason per se. Would you say that environmental advocacy is playing a role in the shift?
Dr. Hamburger: That's a really interesting question as to why and how all of these changes take place. And, of course, there are people who study corporate decision making, and the processes that move them in certain directions, certainly large corporations are very sensitive to their public image. And, so, as public perceptions about environmental issues in general, and climate change in particular, change the corporations have to change their, their public facing policies, and I think they may not do it in the pace or in the manner that some of us would like but the fact is that they are being pushed, not only by the public but by their own investors to make, make some of those big changes. In addition, there are corporations that realize that there are ways of making money off of these new initiatives so obviously developments in solar and wind energy are driving technological innovation and investments in those technologies, and as more and more investment is going into them, the price is going down and it's a positive feedback system that helps make that happen.
So, I think it's important to note that there are people who argue that relying on the corporate profit motive to solve these problems is a false hope that our system is really designed towards maximizing profits independent of whether that helps the long term, good of civilization, and certainly in the areas where I work. For example, in mitigation of earthquake or tsunami hazards, it's not an easy way for corporations to make money, and in fact this is a place where government regulation, say in the form of building codes or urban land use decisions is really what's going to govern our resilience and we can't rely on market forces by themselves to do that.
Veronica Rooney: One of the biggest blocks to progress is that there's no good way to make money off of it or how are we going to make money off of it? And how is this going to benefit the corporations? And, so how do you make people that are in the top 1% the people that are going to be paying for these changes, how do you convince people that are so high up to care about the people that are being affected, so intensely, by these natural disasters?
Dr. Hamburger: Well, of course, that's a fundamental societal question about inequity and impacts not just of natural disasters, but of disease, of environmental challenges, of, you know, public safety. All affect the poorest and most vulnerable much more than the wealthiest and the most comfortable. There's a lot of productive discussion about inequity and about what we can do about it. And we find, you know, natural disasters kind of amplify those differences in society as it came out most dramatically in this country in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was very clear that it was not just the poorest percent of the population but entire neighborhoods where the poorest live were inundated, and in fact, it was a combination of the natural disaster and the failure of our engineered systems that directed the impact so pointedly at the poorest people, and then in the aftermath, the insurance system, which helps you know with the rebuilding and reconstruction benefits the wealthiest again and we see this over and over again and natural disasters that the people with the greatest means are the ones who are most able to rebuild their lives afterwards. So, we have to be thinking on the large scale about social systems and economic systems that provide a true safety net for the poorest and most vulnerable, and that's a pretty challenging thing to do.
Brooklynn Shively: I remember when I was in your class first semester you also mentioned, and this is a group of people I never thought about, the elderly or people in hospitals. They're also majorly affected by this, and medical employees that have to stay in the hospitals during these disasters. It was kind of shocking to me since they are so ingrained in a system that is very profitable. Are there any projects working towards focusing on mitigation in specifically hospitals and nursing homes?
Dr. Hamburger: Certainly the pandemic this past year and a half really demonstrated that, where the impacts of the pandemic were felt so strongly on those people. So, there have been efforts, again, in the case of natural disasters, to try to make a special focus on those most vulnerable communities. And, organizations like hospitals and nursing homes, in principle, are required to have the extensive disaster preparedness policies in place. As we learned in Hurricane Katrina, for example, though most of those preparedness plans were not well enough thought out, and many people died and suffered as a result of that, you know, failure to think through the impacts of the worst kinds of natural disasters, but then there's the whole question of the people who work for and participate in these organizations.
Again, in the case of COVID-19, we saw that the medical workers were the ones who were forced to figuratively run towards the fire and kind of expose themselves to the greatest of hazards often without, you know, appropriate protective gear and so on. And of course, many people in the medical support community were among those who died and suffered the devastating consequences of the COVID pandemic. All of this comes back to the same kind of philosophy, and that is using our unique human ability to imagine future events that are beyond what we're normally used to.
So here in Indiana, we haven't experienced a devastating earthquake in our lifetime, but in fact the science that I study of seismology points to the possibility that sometime in our future, we could have a significant earthquake in and around the state of Indiana, which leads us to think constructively about things we can do to mitigate the impact and that we can be quite good at that.
For a similar kind of earthquake that happens here compared to someplace in South Asia and Pakistan or Iran or Afghanistan, there may be a factor of 100, or 1000, times the number of fatalities due to the earthquake, shaking, than there is here in the United States and that comes back to resilience, finding ways of engineering that protect our buildings in our infrastructure, finding public policies like building codes and insurance that you know require that those innovations are implemented, and as we learned tragically in this collapse in Miami this past week, we have to be super vigilant about making sure that our knowledge is applied across the board and protects all people. So it's a big challenge, but it's not an impossible challenge.