Sometimes it felt like the world was ending in 2017. We had disaster after disaster, ranging from political to meteorological and everything in between. The number of disasters last year was unprecedented – at least on the meteorological front. Massive flooding. Raging fires. Homes and businesses destroyed. People dead or displaced. The US had 16 individual billion dollar plus weather and climate events, setting a record cost of $306 billion and 362 deaths according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And let’s not forget that the 362 official death toll undercounts the many hundreds more estimated from Hurricane Maria.
2017 highlighted the concrete impact of two previously abstract issues – issues I’ve spent my educational and professional career studying – on human life: climate change and infrastructure. For climate change, the disasters of 2017 may be the beginning of a new normal as human-caused climate change continues to accelerate. Scientists have increasingly sophisticated extreme event attribution models that now investigate the extent to which human-caused climate change has influenced a past event. In fact, these studies have determined that human-caused climate change has become a critical factor for some of these events – including Harvey’s record-breaking rainfall.
The meteorological disasters of the past year also highlighted the inability of our aging infrastructure to handle disasters in this modern age. One example is the 911, a voice-only system built upon 1960’s infrastructure in the US. During Hurricane Harvey, 911 dispatch centers received 10x the average daily call volume, leading to 45+ minute wait times when calling 911 – if there was any response at all. 911 dispatchers were working around the clock to help as many people as possible but were severely limited by the outdated infrastructure of the 911 system itself. Eventually, a citizen-led effort used social media to collect the names and addresses of 10,000+ people that needed to be rescued during the storm.
2017 has shown us that it is no longer possible to ignore problems that are uncomfortable to solve. The consequences of further inaction will only lead to greater losses – loss of life, liberty, and property. We need to work together towards a zero-carbon world and more modern public infrastructure. In my current role at RapidSOS, a 911 emergency technology company, we’re working day and night to modernize the public safety system before the next disaster hits. As we saw in 2017, the stakes here are high. However, the future rewards are higher. The world didn’t end in 2017, and as we begin rebuilding in 2018, we must rebuild it even better.