Riblet #42: Inaction – A Song of Ice and Fire

The nightly news provides us with images of forests burning in Siberia, Brazil and California.  Such fires are often part of a natural cycle but they have been massively augmented by climate change.  They cannot be stopped but there are actions that can be taken to reduce the impacts and to contain them.  California has adopted fire-safe building codes for houses in the “Wildland-Urban Interface” (WUI) where houses sit among the trees, however these only apply to new structures and there are no incentives for owners to make costly retro-fits. Also, they only apply to the WUI – a lot of fires are transmitted by flying embers that can be carried by the wind into urban areas.  

Actions can be informed by learning from previous incidents and the last few years have shown that the first five feet around a building are crucial to its defence; nevertheless, Californian homes, offices and hospitals still have bark chips laid around the buildings – kindling to their own pyres.

Treatment of risk is the step of the process after identification, assessment and measurement.  You then decide what you need to do to make the risk manageable, to mitigate or control it to an extent with which you are happy.  Treatment actions are developed from a detailed understanding of the risk, from the learning of previous impacts, and from the experience of others.  Yet often action is not taken or only partially completed.  The California example illustrates how actions may be taken but they are not enough, they do not address the risk adequately, this may be down to cost or some belief that somehow the risk would not crystallise again anytime soon.

In 2014 a funeral was held in Iceland for Okjökull, a glacier that had “died” – it was no longer thick enough to flow across the landscape.  A plaque was placed in the location in the form of a letter to future readers which read (in both Icelandic and English):

“In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path.  This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you will know if we did it.”

Where risks are assessed as requiring action, and no action is taken, then the likelihood of the risk may easily increase and it may crystallise without you having taken steps to control it or mitigate its impacts. It may be that you consider the risk not to be imminent, or that it is too costly to do anything right now when you may not see the immediate benefit.  A risk that does not seem urgent to address right now may be crystallising in slow motion, insidiously, it does not mean that it won’t happen, and the results may well be catastrophic. Ask someone who has lost their home in California.

Data Sources:The Economist magazine August 8th 2020 and September 12th 2020.

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