How government policy exacerbates hurricanes like Harvey

Natural disasters

How government policy exacerbates hurricanes like Harvey

As if global warming were not enough of a threat, poor planning and unwise subsidies make floods worse

THE extent of the devastation will become clear only when the floodwater recedes, leaving ruined cars, filthy mud-choked houses and the bloated corpses of the drowned. But as we went to press, with the rain pounding South Texas for the sixth day, Hurricane Harvey had already set records as America’s most severe deluge (see Briefing). In Houston it drenched Harris County in over 4.5trn litres of water in just 100 hours—enough rainfall to cover an eight-year-old child.

The fate of America’s fourth-largest city holds the world’s attention, but it is hardly alone. In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, at least 1,200 people have died and millions have been left homeless by this year’s monsoon floods. Last month torrential rains caused a mudslide in Sierra Leone that killed over 1,000—though the exact toll will never be known. Around the world, governments are grappling with the threat from floods. This will ultimately be about dealing with climate change. Just as important, is correcting short-sighted government policy and the perverse incentives that make flooding worse.

Judgment day

The overwhelming good news is that storms and flooding have caused far fewer deaths in recent decades, thanks to better warning systems and the construction of levees, ditches and shelters. The cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1970 killed 300,000-500,000 people; the most recent severe one, in 2007, killed 4,234. The bad news is that storms and floods still account for almost three-quarters of weather-related disasters, and they are becoming more common. According to the Munich Re, a reinsurer, their number around the world has increased from about 200 in 1980 to over 600 last year. Harvey was the third “500-year” storm to strike Houston since 1979.

At the same time, floods and storms are also becoming more costly. By one estimate, three times as many people were living in houses threatened by hurricanes in 2010 as in 1970, and the number is expected to grow as still more people move to coastal cities. The UN reckons that, in the 20 years to 2015, storms and floods caused $1.7trn of destruction; the World Health Organisation estimates that, in real terms, the global cost of hurricane damage is rising by 6% a year. Flood losses in Europe are predicted to increase fivefold by 2050.

One cause is global warming. The frequency and severity of hurricanes vary naturally—America has seen unusually few in the past decade. Yet the underlying global trend is what you would expect from climate change. Warmer seas evaporate faster and warmer air can hold more water vapour, which releases energy when it condenses inside a weather system, feeding the violence of storms and the intensity of deluges. Rising sea levels, predicted to be especially marked in the Gulf of Mexico, exacerbate storm surges, adding to the flooding. Harvey was unusually devastating because it suddenly gained strength before it made landfall on Friday; it then stayed put, dumping its rain on Houston before returning to the Gulf. Again, that is consistent with models of a warmer world.

Poor planning bears even more blame. Houston, which has almost no restrictions on land-use, is an extreme example of what can go wrong. Although a light touch has enabled developers to cater to the city’s rapid growth—1.8m extra inhabitants since 2000—it has also led to concrete being laid over vast areas of coastal prairie that used to absorb the rain. According to the Texas Tribune and ProPublica, a charity that finances investigative journalism, since 2010 Harris County has allowed more than 8,600 buildings to be put up inside 100-year floodplains, where floods have a 1% chance of occurring in any year. Developers are supposed to build ponds to hold run-off water that would have soaked into undeveloped land, but the rules are poorly enforced. Because the maps are not kept up to date, properties supposedly outside the 100-year floodplain are being flooded repeatedly.

Government failure adds to the harm. Developing countries are underinsured against natural disasters. Swiss Re, a reinsurer, says that of the $50bn or so of losses to floods, cyclones and other disasters in Asia in 2014, only 8% were covered. The Bank of International Settlements calculates that the worst natural catastrophes typically permanently lower the afflicted country’s GDP by almost 2%. America has the opposite problem—the federal government subsidises the insurance premiums of vulnerable houses. The National Flood Insurance Programme (NFIP) has been forced to borrow because it fails to charge enough to cover its risk of losses. Underpricing encourages the building of new houses and discourages existing owners from renovating or moving out. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, houses that repeatedly flood account for 1% of NFIP’s properties but 25-30% of its claims. Five states, Texas among them, have more than 10,000 such households and, nationwide, their number has been going up by around 5,000 each year. Insurance is meant to provide a signal about risk; in this case, it stifles it.

Mend the roof while the sun shines.

What to do? Flooding strengthens the case for minimising climate change, which threatens to make wet places wetter and storms stormier. Even those who doubt the science would do well to see action as an insurance policy that pays out if the case is proven. However, that will not happen fast, even if all countries, including America, sign up to international agreements. More immediately, therefore, politicians can learn from Houston. Cities need to protect flood defences and catchment areas, such as the wetlands around Kolkata and the lakes in and around Pokhara in Nepal, whose value is becoming clear. Flood maps need to be up to date. Civil engineers, often starved of funds and strangled by bureaucracy, should be building and reinforcing levees and reservoirs now, before it is too late. The NFIP should start to charge market premiums and developing countries should sell catastrophe bonds. All this is a test of government, of foresight and the ability to withstand the lobbying of homeowners and developers. But politicians and officials who fail the test need to realise that, sooner or later, they will wake up to a Hurricane Harvey of their own. 

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Why China is sick of foreign garbage

The government is cracking down on imports of waste

CHINA is the world’s biggest consumer of raw materials. Each year it buys billions of tonnes of crude oil, coal and iron ore. But there is one commodity market in which the country may soon play a less dominant role: waste. Last month China told the World Trade Organisation that by the end of the year, it will no longer accept imports of 24 categories of solid waste, as part of a government campaign against “foreign garbage”. Government officials say restricting such imports will protect the environment and improve public health. But the proposed ban will threaten billions of dollars in trade and put many Chinese recyclers out of business. Why is Beijing so eager to trash its trade in rubbish?

For decades China has been a major processing centre for the world’s recycled waste. In 2016 the country imported 45m tonnes of scrap metal, waste paper and plastic, together worth over $18bn. Paying foreign firms for trash may seem like an unfair deal, but the trade benefits both sides. Exporters earn a return on their leftover waste, much of which might otherwise end up in a landfill. Chinese firms, meanwhile, gain access to a steady supply of recycled materials, which are often cheaper and less energy-intensive than domestically sourced raw materials—recycled steel, for example, requires 60% less energy than steel produced from iron ore.

Such economic benefits come with costs, however. Imports of recyclable waste are often dirty, poorly sorted or contaminated with hazardous substances. Even when such waste is safely imported, it is not always recycled properly. In 2002 Chinese authorities faced widespread criticism after a documentary showed workers in Guangdong province crudely dismantling discarded electronic devices and dumping the toxic remains into a river. A more recent film, “Plastic China”, examines the environmental damage caused by the country’s plastic-recycling industry, which is dominated by thousands of small-scale outfits that often lack proper pollution controls. Facing growing public pressure, Chinese authorities have begun cracking down. In 2013 the government launched “Operation Green Fence”, a campaign to block imports of illegal and low-quality waste through improved inspections of container ships. In February Chinese customs officials announced “National Sword”, an initiative aimed at reducing illegal shipments of industrial and electronic waste. Last month’s announcement was only the latest of such efforts to clean up the industry.

The government says its proposed ban will protect the environment. But analysts point out that most of the waste consumed by China’s recycling industry comes from domestic sources, not imports. As for the millions of tonnes of waste that will soon be blocked at China’s border, some of the high-quality waste will find buyers in other countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam or Indonesia. The rest will probably end up in a landfill.

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A psychologist explains the limits of human compassion

A psychologist explains the limits of human compassion

Why do we ignore mass atrocities? It has to do with something called “psychic numbing.”

A Syrian Kurdish woman wait with her daughter near the Syria border at the southeastern town of Suruc in the Sanliurfa province after crossing the border between Syria and Turkey after several mortars hit both sides on October 2, 2014.
 BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

There are now 65.3 million people displaced from their homes worldwide, the United Nations reports. It’s an all-time high: likely the largest population of refugees and asylum seekers in human history.

Think about that number: 65.3 million. Can you even imagine it? Like, really imagine it. When we see one life, we can imagine their hopes and pain. But 65 million? You can’t. That’s just an abstraction. There’s a hard limit to human compassion, and it’s one of the most powerful psychological forces shaping human events.

I often report on political psychology. And in my conversations with scientists, I’ll often ask: “What research helps you understand what’s going on in the world?” The answer — whether it’s pegged to the refugee crisis abroad or the health care debate at home — very often involves Paul Slovic.

Slovic is a psychologist at the University of Oregon, and for decades he’s been asking the question: Why does the world often ignore mass atrocities, mass suffering?

Slovic’s work has shown that the human mind is not very good at thinking about, and empathizing with, millions or billions of individuals.

That’s why it’s not surprising six out of 10 Americans support a travel ban that, in part, bars refugees from entering America. That many lawmakers aren’t horrified by the possibility of booting tens of millions from health insurance. That the world looked on as millions died in war and genocide in Darfur. That we haven’t really grappled as a nation with the opioid epidemic, which killed 33,000 in 2015.

When numbers simply can’t convey the costs, there’s an infuriating paradox at play. Slovic calls it “psychic numbing.” As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two.

Slovic’s research explains why the world often fails to respond to large-scale human suffering, but it also can inform how journalists or advocates communicate problems. Recently, I spoke to Slovic by phone. We talked about why it’s so easy for politicians to neglect the masses, the power of a single image to inspire change, and whether we can build machines more moral than we are.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

“There is no constant value for a human life”

A Syrian refugee girl stands in a building on June 27, 2015, in Syrian Kurdish city of Amuda, after running away from clashes between regime forces and the Islamic State.
 UYGAR ONDER SIMSEK/AFP/Getty Images

Brian Resnick

Where did this research begin?

Paul Slovic

I’ve been doing research on risk for close to 60 years now. [In the 1970s] I was struck withDaniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s work on prospect theory. It had something called a value function in it, which indicated how people value things as the amounts increased. Changes at small levels had a big impact, and then as the magnitudes got larger, it took more and more of a difference to be noticeable.

The difference between, say, $0 and $100 feels greater than the difference between $100 and $200. If you’re talking about $5,800 or $5,900 — [both] seem the same, even though it’s still $100 difference.

I talked with Tversky about that, and [wondered] if that applied to lives. We both figured it would — and that this is really a pretty scary kind of thing.

It means that there is no constant value for a human life, that the value of a single life diminishes against the backdrop of a larger tragedy.

Brian Resnick

Is this what you call psychic numbing? The larger number of people, the more apathy.

Paul Slovic

Yes. And the opposite side of that is something we call the singularity effect, which is an individual life is very valued. We all go to great lengths to protect a single individual or to rescue someone in distress, but then as the numbers increase, we don’t respond proportionally to that.

People care about individuals. We see it over and over again: There’s a child who needs an operation, his parents can’t afford to pay for this operation, and there’s a story in the newspaper. An outpouring of money donations and support is often tremendous. We do care a lot about individuals. We don’t scale that up, even when we’re capable.

We’re compelled to help individuals. But the world’s problems are too large to be solved one person at a time.

Thousands of Syrians cut through a border fence to cross over into Turkey on June 15, 2015.

Brian Resnick

So there’s a paradox here in the research that bothers me. We’re numb to huge numbers of people. The solution is that we’re receptive to individual stories.

But here’s the thing: Problems on Earth are too large to solve one individual at a time.

Paul Slovic

Individual stories and individual photographs can be effective for a while. They capture our attention — they get us to see the reality, to glimpse the reality at a scale we can understand and connect to emotionally. But then there has to be somewhere to go with it.

We did a study not too long ago; it was in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, about Aylan [Kurdi], the little [drowned Syrian] boy on the beach. We analyzed the reaction to that photograph. Since 2011, the … death toll in Syria was relentlessly climbing to hundreds of thousands. Suddenly we see this little boy washed up on the beach, and it woke people up.

People suddenly started to care about the Syrian war and the refugees, in ways that the statistics of hundreds of thousands of deaths had not led them to pay attention to. Then we were able to track that, and that lasted roughly a month.

PNAS

There were things people could do. In Sweden, where they had taken in 160,000 Syrian refugees, the Swedish Red Cross had created a fund to get money to help take care of this mass influx. The day after that photograph appeared, donations went from $8,000 to $430,000 — because of the photograph. Then we could see over time how … it stayed elevated for about a month or so, and then it went back [down].

These dramatic stories of individuals or photographs give us a window of opportunity where we’re suddenly awake and not numbed, and we want to do something. If there’s something we can do, like donate to the Red Cross, people will do it. But then if there’s nothing else they can do, then over time that gets turned off again.

These [individual] stories are important, and they can be very effective. But [only] if there’s an action that can be taken, then, while you’re engaged.

Psychic numbing begins when the number of victims increases from one to two

Refugees and migrants massed onto an inflatable boat reach Mytilene, northern island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on February 17, 2016.
 RIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Brian Resnick

I’ve read about some of your experiments and they are troubling — and enlightening. Like in this 2014 PLOS Onepaper, you see a decrease in empathy and donations to children when you go from one victim to two. Why does this happen?

A 2014 study in PLOS One shows willingness to donate decreases when the number of children is increased from one to two.

Paul Slovic

One has to do with attention.

We recently did an experiment (it’s not published yet) asking people to think about an amount of money equivalent to $1, and to visualize an amount of American money amounting to $1.

We gave them a list of things: They could be visualizing 100 pennies, 10 dimes, four quarters, a silver dollar, or a dollar bill. We asked them, “What were you thinking? What were you visualizing?”

Overwhelmingly, what they were visualizing was a [single] dollar bill. They weren’t even visualizing a multiple, four quarters, or anything like that; it was the one.

The single object is easier to visualize and to connect to.

You have to attend to the person or the group of people to make an emotional connection with them. And you just can’t attend as closely to two people as to one. It’s harder to think about the many.

Brian Resnick

So we’re confused by large numbers?

Paul Slovic

This is really more of a gut-level reaction. Because if you were thinking carefully, you might say, “Well, a life is a life. It shouldn’t diminish in a bigger problem.”

The feeling system doesn’t really add; it can’t multiply, it doesn’t handle numbers very well. It’s maximized at the number one: “Protect myself. Protect the person in front of me.” People who are like us, near us, near in time, things like that, we get a strong, emotional response when they’re in danger.

Three factors keep people and politicians from intervening in humanitarian crises

Thousands of migrants marched across the border from Croatia into Slovenia as authorities intensify their efforts to attempt to cope with Europe’s largest migration of people since World War II.
 Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Brian Resnick

Is psychic numbing the whole story? Why else do publicized tragedies fail to rally action?

Paul Slovic

We found three psychological obstacles that inhibit response to major crises.

The first is the numbing response — the loss of sensitivity with the large numbers.

The second is a false sense of inefficacy.

That’s [the feeling] what you’re doing just won’t matter. That is influenced by the fact that you’re only helping a portion of the problem. There are many people that you’re not helping, and that sends bad feelings. The warm glow you get from helping gets hijacked by the negative elements in the picture.

We have an experiment of helping a starving child. A certain percentage of people help [by donating money to the kid]. Then we have another condition with a different group, same child, same situation, except we put the numbers of the statistics of starvation next to her picture, and the donations dropped in half.

We call it pseudo-inefficacy because it happens to people who actually can make a difference. They don’t act because it doesn’t feel worthwhile, or they don’t think it’s worthwhile.

The third is a more analytic problem that we believe [affects] decision-making. We call it the “prominence effect.”

Brian Resnick

What’s the “prominence effect”?

Paul Slovic

It stems from work I did a long time ago; actually the first data was collected in 1961. When people are making a decision between two courses of action … people often used a simple rule to choose.

One example was a gift for a friend: It’s a bundle of cash and a coupon.

Gift [bundle] A has more cash and less of a coupon value. But [bundle] B has a much larger coupon and less cash. The gifts overall were equal. But now you have to choose.

People don’t flip a coin in those situations. They choose systematically. Close to 85 percent or 90 percent of the people would resolve that tough choice by going with the gift that had more cash.

There’s a bias in decision-making toward the intrinsically more defensible. If you have to defend your choice, you can’t go wrong choosing a gift that has more cash. If you do it with the coupon, you say, “Well, are they really going to get the money’s worth?”

You can think of reasons why it’s not as defensible.

Brian Resnick

Is that what happens when politicians turn a blind eye to refugees or humanitarian crises around the world? That it just seems more defensible to ban them?

Paul Slovic

Our leaders, they see what’s happening. They get the vivid pictures, the individual stories. They know this is horrible, and yet they still often choose not to act.

We see that, for example, with the refugee situation.

Last fall before the administration shifted, I remember some quotes from Mike Pence, who was governor of Indiana, and Dan Coats, who was the attorney general of Indiana at the time. They basically said, “We’re not going to let any refugees at all into Indiana unless we can be 100 percent sure that they are not going to cause us harm.” They can get away with it because everyone says, “Yeah, of course we don’t want to let terrorists into our communities.”

Even though you say it’s important to attend to the humanitarian catastrophes, when it comes down to choice, the choice to protect the homeland is more defensible.

We might be able to build machines more moral than humans

A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo stay under a shelter during a rainy day on March 8, 2014, at Uskudar in Istanbul. 
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Brian Resnick

Should we not blame people for apathy, if it’s in human nature?

Paul Slovic

Partly. We shouldn’t be surprised.

That doesn’t mean we should accept it. That doesn’t mean it’s right. It means we need not to rely on our feelings, which don’t get it, but we need to think in a more reasoned, careful, deliberate way about the realities beneath the data that we’re getting. Then we need to design laws and institutions and procedures that are based on the deliberative thinking, not based on our feelings.

Brian Resnick

How so?

Paul Slovic

It’s like the income tax system, we don’t leave it to individuals’ feelings of how much they think they should pay to the government for the services they receive. We have an analytic procedure that is thought through to a great extent and very detailed, which specifies to the penny how much you owe the state. It’s backed up by the force of law.

For better or for worse, it’s an analytic system. We don’t leave it to people’s feelings of loyalty and obligation; we couldn’t. I think it’s the same thing with these moral crises — when you think carefully and you realize the scale, you have to create laws and institutions that are not sensitive to the feelings of the moment.

Brian Resnick

I can imagine a future — this is getting more sci-fi — where we automate compassion. When we have a moment of slow thinking, we can program a machine to direct the response to horrible things.

Paul Slovic

A lot of people would be repulsed by the thought of turning over morality to machines, but if you think of the fact that, in many ways, our moral intuitions really lead us to do the wrong thing, maybe [artificial] morality might not always be that bad.

What should be the value of a life? If we find that humans are inappropriately devaluing life, maybe these program values would be better.

Brian Resnick

That’s such an interesting idea. If we can program some machine to be moral, it could be more moral than we are.

Paul Slovic

Yeah, because we’re not as moral as we’d like to be.

“Even partial solutions save whole lives”

Refugees arrive on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on an inflatable boat on October 2, 2015, near the village of Skala Sikaminias, Greece. 
Matej Divizna/Getty Images

Brian Resnick

How can this research inform how journalists or advocates work?

Paul Slovic

It’s not enough to break through the numbing. You have to give people somewhere to go. You have to then have some action options that they can take.

The second is [to] fight against this false inefficacy feeling. Even partial solutions can save whole lives. Sure, it doesn’t feel as good. Don’t be misled by the fact that you can’t do it all.

In one of our experiments, we showed that people were less likely to do something that would save 4,500 lives in a refugee camp if that camp had 250,000 people than if it had 11,000 people. It didn’t feel as good to save those lives, 4,500 out of 250,000. That’s where you say, “Well, wait a minute. Even partial solutions save whole lives.”

Another thing is we’re looking toward education of young people. You teach kids not just to write, read, and write bigger and bigger numbers. You get them to try to think about the reality that these numbers represent.

We’re taught as kids to read and write big numbers, but we’re not taught to think about the reality beneath the surface of those numbers.

Brian Resnick

Can the problem of psychic numbing really be solved? Are you pessimistic on that question?

Paul Slovic

Look at the problems we have in this world. The scale of various kinds of problems is so vast. Now we have 60 million refugees we’re creating. And we have outbreaks of violence, atrocities being committed on innocent people all over the world. After the Holocaust, we vowed never again would we let this happen. And while the Holocaust hasn’t been repeated in that form, we have dozens and dozens and dozens of continuing mass atrocities that we underreact to.

We’re not reacting to [the threat of climate change]. And there’s so many different problems of large scale that we need to be working harder to combat. I think that is pessimistic.

I used to think that every time I did a study that demonstrated one of these depressing flaws of the human mind, I had to then solve the problem in the discussion section. My son said, “Dad, the first step, you don’t have to solve every problem that you point to; the first step is to create a wider awareness of the problem, to get more people to recognize that we have to be on guard against numbing and all those feelings of inefficacy and so forth.”

If I can’t solve it, I should try to get more people involved [in] trying to solve it.

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Tim Cook to MIT Graduates: ‘Don’t Listen to Trolls, and Don’t Become One’

Tim Cook to MIT Graduates: ‘Don’t Listen to Trolls, and Don’t Become One’

Jun 10, 2017

(CAMBRIDGE, Mass.) — Science is worthless if it isn’t motivated by basic human values and the desire to help people, Apple CEO Tim Cook told graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday, urging them to use their powers for good.

In a commencement address, Cook — who as Apple’s chief executive since 2011 has overseen the rollout of the iPhone 7 and the Apple Watch — said the company is constantly looking for ways to combine tech with a sense of humanity and compassion.

“Whatever you do in your life, and whatever we do at Apple, we must infuse it with the humanity that we are born with,” said Cook, who previously served as chief operating officer and headed the Macintosh division.

“That responsibility is immense. But so is the opportunity,” he said.

Cook said Apple wants to make products that help people. As examples, he cited iPhone technology that can help a blind athlete run a marathon and an iPad that connects an autistic child to the world around them.

“When you keep people at the center of what you do, it can impact,” he said.

Cook said he isn’t worried about artificial intelligence giving computers the ability to think like humans.

“I’m more concerned about people thinking like computers without values or compassion or concern for the consequences,” he said. “That is what we need you to help us guard against. Because if science is a search in the darkness, then the humanities are a candle that shows us where we have been and the danger that lies ahead.”

Cook also urged graduates to resist becoming cynical.

“The internet enabled so much and empowered so many, but it can also be a place where basic rules of decency are suspended and pettiness and negativity thrive,” he said.

“Don’t let that noise knock you off course. Don’t get caught up in the trivial aspects of life. Don’t listen to trolls, and don’t become one. Measure impact in humanity; not in the likes, but the lives you touch and the people you serve.”

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Donald Trump has committed the exact offense that forced Richard Nixon to resign

Donald Trump has committed the exact offense that forced Richard Nixon to resign