National security needs eclectic view

Your nation’s security faces a wide range of threats: tanks, planes, storms, climate change and pandemics. But cast your net even wider. Dr Kelly applies engineering discipline in his scrutiny of UK national disaster policy. With lessons for all nations.

Published by permission. First published in The Critic July/August 2020

Warming not the only threat

The vast sums spent in the UK and globally on climate change mitigation have never been subject to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. To date they have had no measurable impact on the climate, let alone climate change and have thus been a colossal waste of money. Recent events have shown us that climate change is just one of many challenges facing our world today, so it is sensible to ask for every pound spent on climate change, how much money should be set aside to prepare us for other threats: Carrington events (solar electromagnetic storms), pandemics, global financial collapse, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis and more? What is the appropriate level of global insurance, and where is the insurance for poorer countries?

Only rich nations have the resources to protect their populations against rare events. The monomaniacal focus on climate detracted from our ability to respond to the pandemic. It is time to consider a much wider range of threats.

These are not hypothetical questions: a global pandemic is upon us and desperate attempts are being made to stave off a global financial collapse resulting from it. But where is the money coming from? The answer is that the vast sums being spent on climate change mitigation come from the same pot that effectively holds our insurance against all threats.

The body responsible for advising how to spend this money is the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent statutory body set up under the Climate Change Act of 2008, consisting of experts in climate science, economics, behavioural science and business. It is mandated to drive towards the targets set in the Climate Change Act at any cost, apparently on the assumption that the benefit of continued survival would be worth any price. The current pandemic shows up the fundamental flaws both in this approach and in the constitution of the Climate Change Committee.

Fresh approach needed

The monomaniacal focus on climate has undoubtedly detracted from our ability to respond to the pandemic, and the costly recommendation of a futile attempt to achieve net-zero carbon emissions now looks like madness in project engineering terms. It is therefore time to instigate a programme entitled “Resilient Britain”, with a new committee, along the lines of the CCC, considering a much wider range of threats:

  • The collapse of an unstable subterranean rock formation in the Azores could trigger a large tsunami along the whole south coast of England.
  • A solar electromagnetic storm, like the one that struck the Earth in 1859 (the original Carrington Event), would take out all space-based electronics (including GPS) and all north-south electricity transmission lines globally. A similar storm in 2010 missed us by only a few earth diameters.
  • A mega-volcano in Iceland could take out all northern hemisphere air traffic for many months.
  • A cascade of mistakes could trigger a thermonuclear, biological, chemical or cyber war.
  • The huge debt hanging over the globe could become unsustainable (e.g. if this pandemic continues for a year or more) threatening a collapse of trade, commerce, manufacture and wealth.
  • A pandemic could go global, but combining Covid-19’s ease of transmission with rather higher levels of mortality.
  • A rapid change in climate over an extended period could threaten the global supply of food and water.
  • The rise of terrorism, populism or other extreme actions at scale.
  • Societal collapse could happen under any of these or other threats.
  • Regular preparedness exercises for each of these threats.

There have been numerous official and unofficial warnings about the possibility of a future pandemic over the years, but these have not resulted in the creation of an equivalent of the Climate Change Committee, and without a champion the warnings have gone unheeded.

If a Resilient Britain Committee had existed instead of the CCC, there would have been a much better state of preparedness for the current pandemic; not in the sense of keeping ten hospitals on standby just in case, but at least having regularly updated and sizeable stores of personal protective equipment and continuing support for the research on pandemics and preventative measures.

An annual report and debate in parliament would keep all the issues live and maintain a sense of proportion among them. A debate on the provisions for such future threats would become an important feature of society. Pandemics have been occurring every decade since before 1900 so, as the present outbreak recedes from memory, the debate could remind policymakers of the scale and impact and could rightly be used to ward off the inevitable trimming of action budgets in future times of austerity. The Resilient Britain Committee would also be a resource for Cobra, the interdepartmental committee on crisis management.

Disaster insurance possible only for wealthy nations

A further practical role for the Resilient Britain Committee to advise on would be a free-standing investment fund, managed by the Treasury, but dedicated to providing disaster insurance, as in New Zealand. It would have to grapple with, and advise on, the level of insurance premium we should maintain as a resilient nation. Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve, has wise words on this very topic in his 2014 book The Map and the Territory 2.0: Risk, Human Nature and the Future of Forecasting:

“The choice of funding buffers is one of the most important decisions that societies must make, whether by conscious policy or by default. If policy makers, private and public, choose to buffer their population against every conceivable risk, the nation’s current standards of living would, of necessity, decline. Funding such ‘investments’ requires an increase in savings and, accordingly, a decline in immediate consumption. Resources can be put to active use or on contingency standby status, but not both at the same time.

“Buffers are a dormant investment that may lie idle and seemingly unproductive for much of their lives. But they are included in our total real fixed assets (and real net worth) statistics. It is no accident that earthquake protection of the extent employed in Japan, for example, has not been chosen by less prosperous countries under similar risk of a serious earthquake.

“These countries have either explicitly or implicitly chosen not to divert current consumption to fund such an eventuality. Haiti, a very poor country, has not yet fully recovered from its 2010 earthquake. It has neither built a protective infrastructure like Japan’s nor has it had resources to recover on its own. Buffers are largely a luxury of rich nations. Only rich nations have the resources to protect their populations against events with extremely low possibilities of occurrence.”

The issue of resilience of poorer countries to the current pandemic will be a particularly difficult challenge for the UN and its agencies over the coming months and years. A Resilient Britain Committee could also be given the brief of issuing overall guidelines for the level of British overseas support for disasters, which seems at present to be ad hoc.

Disaster foresight always pays off

One concrete example of a national approach to disaster insurance that has seen several cycles of payouts is the Earthquake Commission (EQC) in New Zealand, founded in 1942. Funded by a levy of five cents per $100 insured and invested under Treasury guidance, by 2010 it had paid out NZ$6.1 billion.

It had reserves of NZ$5.6 billion when, on 4 September 2010, a powerful earthquake struck near Darfield in Canterbury. This began a series of earthquakes and aftershocks lasting till around 2016. The most destructive of these was the 22 February 2011 earthquake, centred close to Christchurch, in which 185 people died. More than 15,000 families lost their homes, and repair costs were estimated at more than $40 billion.

The EQC received more than 470,000 claims. This was the most insured event in world history, as most private household insurance policies include an earthquake provision – of course, premiums have risen sharply since then.

A balanced concern for all threats

With the heightened awareness of natural disasters in New Zealand (including the Mount Tarawera volcanic eruption in 1886), it is no surprise that the country was very quick to take draconian lockdown steps to avert the coronavirus pandemic, and seems to have been successful.

A Resilient Britain Committee would have greater credibility than the Climate Change Committee, having balanced concern for all future threats, and perhaps with a budget to cover precautionary measures. It would not have been able to drive the depth and pace of change in carbon dioxide emissions demanded by some in the UK. When one considers that the net emissions of the world over the last 30 years have increased 70 times more than the reduction of UK emissions, there is simply no argument of engineering or economic integrity that suggests this trend should continue a minute longer anyway.

I hope that a Resilient Britain Committee will be one concrete outcome of the analysis into the level of preparedness for the pandemic.

One Thought on “National security needs eclectic view

  1. Could some mathematician explain the amount of forcing a subterranean, really submarine, rock formation collapsing would exert on salt water at any given depth?

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