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Michael Oppenheimer A Physical Science Perspective on Disaster: Through the Prism of Global Warming THE ISSUE OF DISASTER AND THE PROBLEM OF GLOBAL WARMING intersect strongly in four ways. First, lay understanding o f global w arm ing is frequently built from images of disastrous hurricanes, heat waves, floods, and other recent clim ate trends and w eather events. Second, some clim ate trends have been attributed in part to the atm o­ spheric accum ulation ofgreenhouse gases th at is causing global w arm ­ ing. Third, such recent clim atic disasters, w hether or not attributable to GHGs, have provided useful and often surprising (and discouraging) insights into the hum an and societal responses to the sort of events th at are expected to become m ore com m on in the future. Fourth, the increasing frequency or intensity of certain clim ate-related disasters is shedding new light on the question of disaster preparedness and response in general. It is also providing intriguing insights into the perception of disaster: W hat characteristics cause an episode to be viewed by policy makers and the public as a disaster? This paper views disaster through the lens of global w arm ing to elucidate these key questions: W hat is a disaster, W hy do disas­ ters m atter so much, and How can we improve capacity to avoid and respond to disaster? social research Vol 75 : No 3 : Fall 2008 659 In using this particular lens, we shall consider events that have already occurred, and others that are expected to occur in the future. The global w arm ing problem is useful as a model for thinking about disaster because, like the outcomes of global warming, any disaster is im portant beyond the direct individual and societal damage it causes in two ways: 1 ) anticipation of disaster drives far-reaching and costly governm ent policy—good and bad; and 2) the traum atic effects of disaster have consequences th at transcend in both in space and tim e its direct consequences for people and the im m ediate physical envi­ ronm ent (for example, infrastructure th at is im m ediately affected). Furthermore, m uch o f the fram ing of public discourse about the global warm ing problem is in term s of disaster. Examining this framing makes it easier to understand why some events are characterized as disasters and some are not. W hether disaster is a representative description of the way m ost people will experience global warm ing has yet to be seen, but the idea or anticipation o f disaster is certainly shaping public views and influencing public policy on this issue. WHAT MAKES AN EVENT A DISASTER? From a physical science perspective, three factors contribute to disaster: ► the intensity of the event: the damage to structures, or to the natu­ ral environm ent, or the levels of morbidity and m ortality (what happens to people); ► the event’s duration and timing: Does it play out over a long period of tim e or a short period? Did it occur recently or is it expected to occur in the future? If in the future, is it the distant future or soon? In the global warm ing context, an event could have happened already, or it could be expected w ith a certain probability to occur over the next few years, decades, centuries, or millennia; ► its geographic scale. Beyond the physical factors lies the rich context of economic, polit­ ical, and social factors that add to the making of the disaster, in part by 660 social research ameliorating or exacerbating its consequences, and in part by influenc­ ing w hether an event is ultimately viewed as a disaster. Such factors inter­ act with a physical event to determ ine a state of vulnerability, the degree of susceptibility of the systems that are affected by the physical event. Vulnerability is not just a pre-existing state of affairs. For instance, if a settlem ent exists in a low-lying land area unprotected by a barrier beach and having not m uch w etland to absorb shock, a hurricane can cause substantial damage. Or, for example, an island...


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