Tuesday, December 24, 2013

On vulnerability, ice storms, and Christmas dinner

I’ve been thinking about vulnerability the last few days, for a couple reasons. The first is that over the holidays I am writing an entry about ‘vulnerability’ for an encyclopedia, the second is that we had a nasty ice storm this past weekend, that brought down a lot of trees (including my neighbour's - see above), knocked out the power to many peoples’ homes, and made many roads impassable. My relatives, who had planned to host our extended family’s Christmas dinner, are still without power at noon on Christmas Eve. When events like this occur, many people feel a sense of vulnerability, for reasons often more significant than missing out on turkey and all the fixings.

The term ‘vulnerability’ is widely used in many scholarly fields, with the specific usage and context varying across them. A psychologist might consider vulnerability to refer to a cognitive predisposition, one that makes an individual potential more susceptible to an ailment or disorder. A computer scientist might look at a computer network of software for vulnerabilities, or flaws, that might allow an intruder to hack or tamper with it. In geography and the environmental sciences, vulnerability is most often used to refer to the potential to experience loss or harm, and in that way is the antonym of opportunity. It has become a very common term when scientists discuss the potential impacts of anthropogenic climate change, and has explicit legal meaning within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (and countries deemed to be most vulnerable to climate change have access to financial assistance).

The term as used in climate change research has long been used in natural hazards scholarship in a relational context; that is, the vulnerability of something to something: the vulnerability of a mountain settlement to landslides, the vulnerability of housing in a river valley to flooding, the vulnerability of people living in coastal areas to tropical cyclones and extreme storms. A state of vulnerability exists until the day when the event one fears actually occurs, at which point the vulnerability is realized and the consequences become manifest. Once the dust settles (literally or figuratively), a new state of vulnerability begins to develop, the nature of which may be different from what it had been previously. It is analogous to playing poker: as the cards are dealt and swapped, each player’s potential to win or lose is developed. Once all the hands are revealed, the pot is won (i.e. the losers’ vulnerability and the winner’s opportunity are realized), and cards are gathered, shuffled and dealt once again (except unlike poker games, vulnerability to natural hazards in real life may not have a definite end).

Although it is common to talk of natural hazards like the ice storm Waterloo experienced as being ‘acts of God’ or ‘natural disasters’, the reality is that our potential to experience loss or harm is determined not simply by natural processes (nor by God, so far as can be told) but also by an accumulation of decisions and actions taken by each of us as individuals, by our neighbours, our governments, our economic systems, our cultural norms, our social relations with one another… in other words, vulnerability to natural hazards results from interactions between humans and the environment.

Consider the ice storm that just struck southwestern Ontario (and much of eastern North America). My family was fortunate. Our home was not damaged, the trees in our yard held up, our power never went out, and we had no obligations that compelled us to leave the house until well after the storm had come and gone. People living in Cambridge, at the south end of our county, were not so fortunate; they were without electricity for several hours, and many homes and businesses were damaged by falling trees. Many people in Toronto are worse off still; they are without electricity still, and some homes may be without it through Christmas.

Based on this information, does this mean that people in Waterloo were less vulnerable to an ice storm than people in Cambridge, and that Torontonians were the most vulnerable of all? Not quite; that’s not how vulnerability works. Vulnerability can be seen as having three functional components: exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. In environmental science, researchers may use a shorthand V=f(E,S,A) to represent it. Exposure (E) refers to the nature of the physical phenomenon in question, in this case, an ice storm. Ice storms are pretty common in southwestern Ontario; it’s something we’re routinely exposed to each winter. This weekend’s storm had different physical characteristics depending on where you were. Here in Waterloo, we received less precipitation than did Toronto. The storm came in from the southwest, allowing it to add ‘lake-effect’ precipitation to the heavy load of rain, snow and sleet it was already carrying. ‘Lake-effect’ precipitation is common in Ontario; it occurs when moving air picks up additional moisture as it passes over large bodies of open water (in our case, the Great Lakes), which then gets deposited as the air blows across the cooler land. Toronto is right on Lake Ontario; Waterloo is over an hour’s drive from Lake Erie, the Great Lake to the southwest of us. On a different day, a different storm from a different direction might have affected Waterloo might have fared more poorly than Toronto. The point being, our cities are pretty equally exposed to ice storms in general, but small differences in our physical settings can be important in any single event. Drive a few hours north of Toronto and all this rain becomes snow, which is much easier to deal with.

Sensitivity (S) refers to the ways and degree to which components of human systems might conceivably be harmed by the physical phenomenon in question. For example, farms and farm communities are inherently sensitive to droughts, companies that ship goods by land are inherently sensitive to events that close roads, and prefab homes and trailers are inherently more predisposed to being damaged by windstorms and tornadoes. The ski industry is inherently sensitive to variations in winter precipitation, but is less concerned about summer heat waves; the waterfront infrastructure in coastal communities is inherently sensitive to erosion or changes in water levels. I keep using the word ‘inherently’, to emphasize that certain types of human activity by their very nature put people or their property into situations where they are exposed to particular physical risks. For this reason, some scholars deliberately consider exposure and sensitivity jointly, as a single functional variable, a dialectic where the existence of one side of the coin determines the presence of the other. Other scholars argue for their treating them separately, acknowledging that exposure and sensitivity do not necessarily operate as independent variables, but if we are to measure vulnerability and identify ways of reducing it, then exposure and sensitivity should be decoupled for analytic and methodological purposes.

Homes, businesses, farms, infrastructure, and other components of the human system in southwestern Ontario are all sensitive to ice storms, though the nature of that sensitivity varies. Homeowners, for example, worry about the loss of electricity which, if it persists, can force them to seek temporary shelter elsewhere and cause damage to the house itself (for example, if the water pipes freeze and break). Businesses worry about damage to buildings and infrastructure as well, but they might also worry about lost sales revenues, the inability of employees to get to the workplace, and similar things. A farmer with orchards or a sugarbush might have all of the above concerns plus the worry that the trees themselves might be damaged by the ice, hurting future harvests. In short, we are all sensitive to ice storms around here, but in different ways.

If exposure and sensitivity combine to create vulnerability, how do we reduce it? Through recognition of the nature of exposure and sensitivity, and adapting accordingly. Adaptation (A) is also a widely used term in the physical and social sciences, and can refer to physical transformations and/or behavioural responses to environmental stimuli. Adaptation to natural hazards can be enacted at any scale, from the individual or household to the nation-state or international institutions. It can be initiated in anticipation of potential risks (which is almost always the most prudent way to go) or at the last minute or after-the-fact (which is what most often happens, most people and institutions being poor judges of risks and their potential costs). Research shows time and time again that unless we are compelled to adapt to environmental risks, we are content to take our chances and wait to see what happens. For example, research in the US has shown that unless families owning houses in floodplains are compelled to purchase flood insurance (by law or by their mortgage lenders), most will not – even in neighbourhoods where the potential for flooding is fairly obvious. (for a review of flood and crop insurance as a potential adaptation to climate change risks, click here). I recall in 2004 watching the mayor of Peterborough claim that severe flooding that struck that city’s downtown core following a severe thunderstorm was ‘an Act of God’. Either God must really dislike Peterborough or, more likely, the mayor was obfuscating for a lack of adaptive action on the part of city government, since the downtown core had been similarly flooded in the summer of 2002.

How does a household adapt to the risk of ice storms? There are lots of simple things that might be done, but often art. Keeping an emergency supply of water, flashlight batteries, etc, just in case the power goes out. By having winter tires on their car if they have a job that requires them to go out in a storm, and having the sense not to go out if it’s not essential (it’s amazing how many people lack both).  Trimming tree limbs that overhang your roof or power lines is a sensible thing; if you have the money, a wood-burning stove or fireplace in the basement as an emergency heat source is a good investment, too. One of the worst previous ice storms to hit Ontario occurred in 1998, and left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity, in some cases for weeks. For urbanites, this was a real disaster. Cities are constructed and function on the assumption that electricity is always available. Urban life quickly becomes chaotic when there’s an extended power outage, and it was a big task for the authorities to get supplies of essential goods moving, and provide emergency shelter and food for many. Toronto’s going through a similar situation this week. We will see whether any lessons were learned from the last big ice storm.

Rural people, especially more remote areas, were among the last to get their electricity back in 1998, and it looks like it will be the same story this time. Yet, in many ways, rural households are less vulnerable to ice storms than urban ones. If you live in the country, you’re used to the power going out from time to time in winter (trees are always getting blown or knocked onto electrical lines). Because natural gas is not available, you likely have more than one source of heat – electricity, propane and/or a wood stove. You probably also have a back-up gas generator, since if the electricity goes out you need a back-up to run the pump for your well. Because you live farm from stores, you probably have a stockpile of food and extra gas that will keep you going for a long time in an emergency. In other words, rural life obliges people to be better adapted to weather emergencies. We urban and suburban people could learn a thing or two from them about preparation and resilience.

The capacity to adapt varies considerably within every community or population. Each night, between fifty and a hundred homeless people sleep on the floors of church basements here in Waterloo region. They are homeless, and there’s not enough hostel space (or better yet, affordable housing) to accommodate them all. Winter is miserable for them at the best of times; an ice storm makes it even worse. They can sleep at the church and get a warm meal, but must move on somewhere else (wherever that might be) for the remainder of the day. They have no transportation, but walking is downright dangerous on icy sidewalks. Few shops or businesses will allow them to come inside for any length of time. Adaptation as it is understood by the urban homeowner (or the geography scholar) is beyond their means. The homeless provide one extreme example of lack of adaptive capacity, but the reality is that there is considerable variability in adaptive capacity between one household and another, that capacity being heavily influenced by the composition of household members (i.e. their number, ages, health, skills, etc) and the wealth of the household.

So, to wrap up this Christmas Eve posting on vulnerability, I just got a call that the power is back on at our relative’s home, and so is Christmas dinner. My family and I are truly fortunate and blessed, and here in Waterloo Region we’ve got it good, in spite of the odd winter storm. This particular ice storm has been a reminder that in 2014 we should be sharing some of our considerable resources with those more vulnerable than us. Happy holidays to all, R.

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