The Most Interesting Story of All: When Nothing Happens

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Learning about learning through innovative role-playing sessions at the BRACED KM meeting in London, U.K.

Learning about learning through innovative role-playing sessions at the BRACED KM meeting in London, U.K.

By Roop Singh, C+S ’15

Climate extremes like floods, droughts and landslides happen all the time around the world. Yet we very rarely hear about instances when there is no mass suffering or casualty.

Why? Are these events happening in remote or scarcely populated areas where there is no one to report on them?

Climate extremes like flooding can happen anywhere, indiscriminate of human population centers. For example, just a few weeks ago, flash flooding occurred in Brooklyn causing the stagnant, sewage-filled water of the Gowanus Canal to overflow onto city streets.

However, to better answer these questions, we must realize that the ability of people to anticipate, adapt to and absorb climate shock differs from place to place. That means a flood of similar magnitude can devastate in one area and have little impact in another. The stories of the places that are minimally impacted by these extreme events often go unreported, but they’re arguably just as important.

How people cope with the flooding, the actions they take to protect themselves and their property from damage and the ways they’ve learned to adapt to their environment are unique from place to place. These stories provide a glimpse of human vulnerability or resilience to natural hazards.

Learning about what makes it so that a flash flood of equal magnitude in Brooklyn only inconvenienced some people, and yet similar floods in Nairobi, Kenya last month led to property damage and loss of life is vital to understanding what coping mechanisms are effective.

Did the flash flood warning in Brooklyn help save lives? Did the lack of flood warning in Nairobi catch people unaware? These are the questions that the project I have been working on this summer called World Weather and Wellbeing (W3) hopes to answer.

W3 is a part of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre’s role in a larger resilience-building project called Building Resilience and Adapting to Climate Extremes and Disasters (the aptly-aconymed BRACED). I recently had the pleasure of traveling to London to attend the convening meeting of the BRACED Knowledge Manager, a consortium with the aim of generating evidence and facilitating exchange of learning and dialogue on what works to build resilience in a variety of political, geographical and cultural contexts amongst the many organizations implementing projects in the 13 BRACED countries.

W3 uses the Global Flood Monitoring System to monitor extreme amounts of water.

W3 uses the Global Flood Monitoring System to monitor extreme amounts of water.

Creating learning and managing knowledge are very esoteric concepts that can lose all meaning if we aren’t careful to ground them in real and tangible things. This is why W3 uses satellite information and models to identify the hazards as they occur, and without knowing the impact on the ground, sends reporters to investigate and tell the story of what went right. We can all remember an instance where taking one action, like boarding our windows before a hurricane, saved us from harm. Those are exactly the stories W3 hopes to tell.

We naturally have a tendency to focus on things that disrupt the status quo instead of maintain it. But the story where “nothing happens” is really the most interesting of all, if we can manage to understand why it is that nothing (or at least very few things) bad happened.

While it may not be useful to compare two places as different as Brooklyn and Nairobi, W3 will allow us to learn which resilience mechanisms that are currently being implemented in East Africa, West Africa and Southeast Asia through the BRACED program actually hold up during real extreme events.  This learning can be applied in a number of different ways, as I learned during the BRACED knowledge management meeting in London.

It can be used to course correct projects that are already being implemented, to promote the implementation of certain policies that reinforce the resilience mechanisms we will learn about through W3 and amplify the resilience mechanisms in other programs and parts of the world.

And so, these very tangible stories can be turned into very tangible outcomes that will allow the world to brace itself for impending climate extremes, and ideally come out on the other side saying nothing happened.

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