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A news agency specialised in investigative reporting in the US, ProPublica, released an informative series of reports (here, here and here) on the use of body scanning technology by the Transport Security Agency, who is responsible for implementing and regulating travel security measures under the Homeland Security Act of 2002.  After its 10th anniversary, many people are wondering what the TSA has actually accomplished in making airports in the US safe from terrorism.  The articles focus on the use of body scanners, which are at the focal point of controversies surrounding the TSA.  Early on, before the body scanners were first introduced, there was concern as to whether they could pose a significant health risk as the x-ray scanners use ionising radiation that could cause cancer in a minority of airline passengers that pass through them.  This is due to the fact that since millions of people enter the scanners the probability of an unfortunate few getting cancer from the machines goes up.

“Even though it’s a very small risk, when you expose that number of people, there’s a potential for some of them to get cancer,” said Kathleen Kaufman, the former radiation management director in Los Angeles County… ProPublica

This health risk is considered low based on the amount of ionising radiation people receive from scanners, which is much less than what they receive while airborne.  People receive much larger doses of ionising radiation from being bombarded with cosmic rays when travelling by air at high altitudes.  In fact, pilots and flight attendants are actually classified as ‘radiation workers’.  According to a study from NASA, flight routes at high latitudes potentially increase radiation exposure to passengers during solar storms.  In the case of x-ray body scanners, it is one of a number of risks that air passengers must endure. Read more

The environmental and economic problems of climate change are both universal as well as specific to different parts of the world.  This requires effective communication about climate change science that has the potential to inform people’s understanding on both a national and local scale.  Climate science communication is a strong theme of this AGU Meeting.  I attended a several poster sessions as well as sessions on innovative ways to communicate how the Earth’s climate changes over time, but also ways to engage young people in schools allowing them to actually do climate change research themselves — a truly exciting prospect.  One example is having students build their own pyranometer for measuring incoming sunlight at the Earth’s surface (insolation) and doing experiments.

There is a range of opportunities available.  NASA is one of the frontrunners in communicating climate science in the US, providing flashy forms of web interactivity that can be used to inform young people and adults alike about climate science.  There are a few sites by NASA that I learned about and would recommended to anyone interested in how to communicate climate science to a broad audience.

NASA Global Climate Change

Eyes on the Earth

Visualization Explorer

I also learned that in the US there is a great deal going on in terms of communicating the impacts of climate change, especially in Boulder, Colorado home to the National Center for Atmospheric Research and National Snow and Ice Data Center.  I was able to chat with some of the people from these organisations as well as NASA who are developing ways to communicate climate science that will likely influence how people view climate change in the US.  There is also the economic and policy side of things.  Not only do we need citizens who are better informed about climate science, but that are also aware of its economic implications.  In conversations about climate change, it is often the economic argument that trumps the rest, this is partially why international climate change meetings such as the one happening now in Durban, South Africa are incredibly difficult in terms of coming to a general agreement on emissions reductions.

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A new report from the United Nations Development Programme argues that development, equity and environmental sustainability must be addressed together in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the world today, such as poverty, rising food prices, deforestation and climate change.

Similar to the international advice given in the World Risk Index, it is ambitious in scope and presentation.  Many developed and developing countries alike have been struggling to work out an economic and environmentally sustainable plan for the future that mitigates climate change and other environmental crises.  What this report emphasises is that such a strategy should not be separate from equity — fairness and social justice and greater access to a better quality of life.

Some countries have provided model examples in developing their economies through environmentally sustainable initiatives including Bangladesh, Vietnam, Nepal, Chile, Cameroon and many others.  The Report argues that ‘health, education, income, gender disparities and energy production, combined with protection of the ecosystem’ are part of ‘environmental sustainability’.  As I’m sure many of you are aware, the term ‘sustainability’ is often ambiguous and frequently exploited, such as for ‘green washing’ campaigns by some private companies whose aims may be anything but ‘sustainable’.  Yet the UNDP argues for the importance of sustainability, perhaps helping to breathe new life into an environmental movement that has been incorrectly interpreted as promoting ecology at the expense of economic development. Read more

Dave Petley and Brett Cherry review the harrowing landslide event that took place in South Wales — the Aberfan Disaster — including its aftermath.  While this disaster, the largest of its kind in UK history, took place decades ago, many lessons have been learned from it then and in recent years, but in some cases still need to be learned in parts of the world vulnerable to landslides caused by the build-up of mining debris.

The story of the Aberfan disaster is seared into the memories of a generation of people in South Wales, and it remains a tragedy of huge proportions.  Today, 45 years on from the disaster, there is much to learn from the events leading up to, and that occurred on, the day.  In this post, we seek to explain the events that occurred in Aberfan on 21st October 1966, to review why the disaster occurred, and to examine the aftermath.  Finally, we briefly examine the legacy that this disaster has left in many spheres of life. Read more

As the autumn term is upon us there are a variety of new research seminars coming up in IHRR.  More will be added in due course, but this is the list thus far:

Building resilience to landslides in mountain communities
10 October, 12:30-14:00

To kick off the start of this academic year’s seminar series Executive Director of IHRR, Prof Dave Petley, will give a fascinating seminar on research in mountain communities that are vulnerable to landslides. He argues that an alternative approach is needed to build resilience to landslides in less developed countries that reside in mountainous regions of the world, especially in Asia and Central America.  For those interested in this topic see also Building Rural Resilience in Seismically Active Areas.

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River Eden, UK. Eden Rivers Trust

The River Eden is one of the most beautiful rivers in the UK, if not all of Europe.  It is host to a wide variety of different plant and animal species and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  Many communities live on or near the River Eden or one of its tributaries.  Human impact on the landscape often has unintended or unforeseen consequences on ecosystems, including rivers.  Agriculture, primarily through the use of fertilisers, changes the ecology of river systems which affects all plant and wildlife as well as humans.

Over time, pollutants accumulate in the River Eden through farming practices, something that has been of concern to local communities and scientists alike.  In order to monitor and develop ways for decreasing diffuse pollution from agriculture, researchers from Durham, Lancaster, Newcastle, the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology, Askham Bryan College (Newton Rigg) and the Eden Rivers Trust, have come together with communities, including farmers, to develop new ways to monitor and improve river water quality.  The project known as the Eden Demonstration Test Catchment, or EdenDTC for short, has installed 10 river monitoring stations to monitor the water quality of the River Eden.  The EdenDTC has made live, real-time data about the River Eden freely available online. Read more

A World Risk Index was released earlier this month by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, Germany.  It uses four indicators to define countries at risk to natural disasters namely exposure, susceptibility, coping capacities and adaptive capacities.  It gives a ‘risk score’ for 173 countries around the world by combining their exposure to physical hazards with their vulnerability, including susceptibility along with coping and adaptive capacities.  It focuses on countries’ exposure to sudden hazards such as earthquakes, floods and storms, but also hazards that occur slowly over a long period of time such as drought and sea level rise that is becoming more frequent due to climate change.

According to the World Risk Index, the risk of disaster is highest for the Pacific island of Vanuatu, which was given a score of 32 percent.  The country with the lowest risk score is Qatar at .02 percent.  The UK came in at 138 mostly due to its ‘Lack of coping capacity’ (47.55 percent), but also ‘Lack of adaptive capacities (30.25 percent) and ‘Vulnerability’ (31.11 percent).  Japan appears to be the only developed country with an index of around 10 percent or more, making its risk index one of the highest (World Rank: 35) of all the countries analysed.  Read more

A few months ago I featured the UK Government’s response to the Ashdown report, which sought to review the ways that Britain provides assistance to both slow onset and sudden crises, including both social (e.g. conflict) and hazard related (e.g. earthquake) events.  Today, DfID (the UK Government department responsible for foreign aid) released its new policy statement on this topic, providing details of both priorities and modes of operation.

Overall, I think that this is a very positive development, and there is much to cheer in the document.  The thrust is set out in the Foreword by the Secretary of State, Andrew Mitchell, who notes that

Lord Ashdown’s report was clear: we will achieve far more in the long run if we pull together and collectively channel our efforts through a coordinated international system. Governments across the globe must share the burden of helping those in humanitarian need. We will work first and foremost through the UN, lending our full support to its Emergency Relief Coordinator, Baroness Amos, as she strives to help the UN-led humanitarian system to reach its full potential.

I am not entirely sure how this squares with the Government’s announcement in March this year that ‘The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) has not performed its international co-ordination role well.  The UK will still be a member of UNISDR as it is part of the UN Secretariat, but DFID will no longer provide additional voluntary funding.  This funding averaged £0.9m between 2002 and 2010’ (see a detailed discussion here).  But presumably this indicates that alternative mechanisms will be found (the same document was complimentary about UNDP and GFDRR).  The new policy document does talk about the need to improve UN leadership and coordination; it will be interesting to see how this might be achieved. Read more

After the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) and the Pentagon, there is still much work to be done in how security, terror and risk are understood and prepared for in society.  Like financial crises, it is not so much a matter of if it will happen, but when it will happen.  The goal of increased security intelligence is to mitigate risk of any terrorist attack, but a recent review of national security in the US from the federal and state levels, all the way to the security technologies used by airports, shows that vulnerabilities do exist and they need to be addressed as soon as possible.  The 9/11 attacks not only changed how the United States viewed the risk of terror, but resonated with countries throughout the world who have experienced terrorist attacks since that tragic event, including the 7/7 bombings in London, the bombing of commuter trains in Madrid, the Belsan school hostage crisis in Russia that killed 330 people (mostly children) and a whole list of others.

The 9/11 Commission’s report, while literary in tone and revealing of a number of important details about the attacks, still only provides a limited scope of what actually took place before and after the attacks.  There were a number of testimonies left out of the report including one given by a former translator for the FBI, Behrooz Sarshar, who said he had knowledge of a ‘kamikaze pilot’ plan to attack the US.  He was formally interviewed by the 9/11 Commission who received pressure from the 9/11 Family Steering Committee to take Sarshar’s testimony and although a memorandum of this meeting is available online, it is heavily edited, with much of its content omitted.  Sarshar said he had written to FBI Director Robert Mueller twice about what he knew, but did not do so until  November 2002 and again in January 2003, long after the attacks.  When asked why he waited so long to bring forward this information ‘he said he didn’t want to do any damage to the FBI’.  Sarshar’s and other potentially useful testimonies were left out of the 9/11 Commission’s report. Read more

A new report has ranked 196 countries according to their levels of economic risk to natural disasters.  Published by Maplecroft, a private risk research firm based in Bath, UK, the report ranks countries according to their economic exposure to hazards, including earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and landslides, along with other factors such as socioeconomic resilience.  While the results certainly provide some depth in understanding countries that are most economically vulnerable to hazards, the impact of disasters can hardly be expressed in economic terms alone.  Data for the report (from 2005-2010) was derived from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Central Intelligence Agency in the US, according to AFP.  Here are the top eleven countries classified as ‘extreme’ and ‘high’ risk’ of paying the greatest economic costs for disasters:

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