Arts & Culture

Heading disaster off at the pass

9 min read

Bill Clinton joins others in conference on preparing for crises

Before Hurricane Katrina, you could walk along a street in New Orleans and look up to see a ship glide by — with an ocean of water held in check by just one dike.

That casual glance foresaw a future in which one catastrophic storm could knock out the dike and fill the Big Easy like a bathtub.

“Everyone knew it would happen, and it could happen,” said David T. Ellwood, in remarks opening a May 4-5 conference at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (KSG). “And yet no one took action to prevent it.” Ellwood is dean of the KSG and Scott M. Black Professor of Political Economy.

The conference — two plenary sessions, 11 panels, and two major addresses — was intended to open a public dialogue about future crises that loom over the world like that ship in New Orleans.

To study why future crises aren’t addressed in time, the KSG will spend $1.5 million over the next two years on up to nine research projects. The four under way will wrap up in six months to a year; others will be commissioned in the fall.

KSG research teams are looking at, among other things, how to get quick institutional responses to hurricanes, earthquakes, pandemics, and other large-scale disasters. And how to narrow the “knowledge-action gap” in public health.

The biggest potential for catastrophe resides in two threats: nuclear terror and global warming, which were covered in the conference’s bookend plenary sessions.

Daniel Schrag, professor of earth and planetary sciences and professor of environmental science and engineering, offered an example of disaster in a warming world: If melted, the ice trapped in Greenland and in western Antarctica alone contain enough water to raise global sea levels by 13 meters (42.6 feet). He showed a slide predicting the possible consequences in the United States, where the long leg of Florida would shrink to a stump.

Other potential problems are “creeping crises,” said Ellwood, a former adviser to the Clinton White House. They include social displacements related to poverty, genocide, and — in the United States — the failing systems of health care and long-term care.

“These are crises in plain sight” and yet little planned for, said Ellwood, who chaired the two-day event. “The cost of acting sooner will be lower than the cost of waiting until much later.”

Yet governments are typically unable or unwilling to act in time to avert catastrophe. So the conference — attended by 400 scholars, policymakers, and KSG graduates — came with an apt title: “The Looming Crises: Can We Act in Time?”

What action will require

On the optimistic side, there are examples of governments acting in time, said Ellwood. In 1947, the United States implemented the four-year, $13 billion Marshall Plan to rebuild a war-torn Europe. In 1989, governments across the world signed the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement banning ozone-depleting chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

International cooperation — one of four broad issues raised in the conference — is still “vastly more difficult” to get than cooperation within nations, said Ellwood.

The three other issues:

Vividness, or how to express the importance of a coming crisis in a world already overwhelmed with information — “so people, indeed, feel the pressure,” said Ellwood, “the urge to act.”

The role of democratic institutions and leadership — a problem for U.S. politicians distracted by frequent electoral races.

The role of the private sector, which can often act faster than governments. A looming disaster (the ozone hole) might mean an opportunity for innovation and profit (alternatives to CFCs).

But in some looming crises, there is no profit for anyone. KSG’s Graham T. Allison Jr. moderated the May 4 plenary, which looked at nuclear threats. He’s Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and author of “Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.”

Allison called nuclear weapons in the wrong hands “the single most serious threat to darken our world as we know it.”

Deepening the problem is the durability of the risk in nuclear material, illustrated by the half-life of uranium-235 alone: 713 million years. “Every time a government makes a nuclear weapon, that is a lasting danger to all of us,” said Ashton Carter, Ford Foundation Professor of Science and International Affairs and co-director of the KSG’s Preventive Defense Project.

In a world of shrinking funding, “we have to do fewer things better” to be ready for a terrorist bomb, or an attack on a nuclear plant, said KSG lecturer Juliette Kayyem, who is Massachusetts Undersecretary for Homeland Defense. That includes better port security, and hardening defenses at nuclear power plants.

But another lesson is important, she said: Citizens should be ready to shelter during any kind of disaster, which means having food, water, and other supplies at home for three days. (Carter, going further, said that 1950s-era fallout shelters “will come back, and should come back.”)

Panelist Thomas Schelling — Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Political Economy Emeritus and the 2005 Nobel laureate in economics — expressed astonishment that it’s been nearly 62 years since nuclear weapons were last used. Today’s question, he said, is, Can we go another 60 years?

Maybe. The taboo of using such weapons, said Schelling, “is worth strengthening and maintaining.” And the accident at Chernobyl, he added, had its own deterrent effect.

A view from the top

At a luncheon keynote address May 4, former President Bill Clinton talked about his list of looming disasters, including global warming, which he said he tried to head off in 1993 with a carbon tax; global resource depletion — a “combustible mix” when added to population growth in poor countries, he said; nuclear proliferation; the broken U.S. health care system “focused on sickness rather than wellness”; and skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes, affecting younger and younger Americans.

As for Katrina, the real disaster came 30 years earlier, Clinton said, when wetlands systems protecting the Louisiana coast started to disappear. With those absorbent barriers in place, he said, the storm would have hit the levies with half the speed it did.

On the more hopeful side, global warming has meant great economic success for the countries that take it seriously, including Denmark and the United Kingdom, said Clinton.

The former president also gave his views on leadership — including the reality that it’s easy to lose sight of long-term problems while you’re trying to both keep campaign promises and solve immediate crises.

But he offered some advice on long-term preparedness, despite how unpopular an idea it is: Put politics aside, don’t let politics blur science, and build cooperation at home and abroad.

Bad things will always happen, said Clinton of disasters, but “you want the big bad things not to happen.”

The mother of all crises

During the two-day conference, looming above all the looming crises was one that has gotten the most attention recently: global warming, the subject of the conference’s last plenary session on May 5.

It has the potential to deeply affect security, economics, the environment, and energy needs nationally and internationally, said Schrag, director of Harvard’s Center for the Environment. Levels of CO2, the chief greenhouse gas, are already higher (380 parts per million) than they have been in 35 million years, he said, when it was sultry enough for palm trees in Wyoming and crocodiles in New England. (By 2050, some scientists predict, global CO2 levels could reach 550 parts per million.)

The Earth is more sensitive to CO2 changes than modeling shows, said Schrag, so “climate change is likely to be more severe than most people think.” To motivate leaders, he said, “we have to give them a solution.”

Solutions or not, there are still only three broad choices, said John Holdren, Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy, and director of Harvard’s Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy: mitigate (reduce the pace and magnitude of warming); adapt (reduce some of its impacts); or suffer. “We have to be clear on that,” he said.

This means tough choices for leaders, including ways of addressing population (“Lower is better,” said Holdren) and reducing the energy intensity of production. And it’s getting almost too late to act, he said. “We have to start heading away from business as usual in the next few years.”

There’s good news on the climate front — real social change, said Kelly Gallagher, director of the Belfer Center’s Energy Technology Innovation Project, which she said is helping create “the architecture for moving forward” on cleaner energy.

But the good news is still not enough, said Gallagher. China, for one, has an appreciation of alternative fuels, she said, and maintains 63 percent of the world’s solar hot water capacity. But the same time, it just last year installed 101 gigawatts of power plant capacity — more than 90 percent of them fueled by dirty coal.

There’s optimism on the technical front, said Schrag, who’s confident that relatively inexpensive technologies can be developed to sequester excess CO2 in old oil fields or under the ocean floor. (To test it out, he said, the world needs 20 industrial-scale demonstration sites in the next decade.)

And there’s optimism in the business world, where there’s “10 times as much action” as in government, said Schrag — predicting that business in the next two decades will invest $10 trillion in clean energy issues.

Government leaders are still behind on responding to the world’s looming crises, including climate change, said KSG’s Christopher Stone, who joined Ellwood in a final panel on May 5, to sum up the conference. He’s the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of the Practice of Criminal Justice.

“It’s not that we don’t know what to do,” said Stone about acting in time. “It’s that we don’t do it.”