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Selling DRR: How to Highlight the Benefits of Sacrifice

Have you ever asked yourself the question:

“At what level does a risk that is created by risk reduction itself become EXCESSIVE or UNACCEPTABLE, as measured in terms of the (potentially monumental) net gains that result for societal resilience?”

It’s a moral dilemma (and a mouthful), no doubt…

…yet this is a critical question we will all need to answer as we navigate increasingly innovative (and, at times, desperate) ways to manage the climate crisis (which, to be clear, has arrived).

I'm going to restate the question, because it's important that this concept be understood clearly AND consistently across all stakeholder groups - whether they be with or without agency in the decision-making process.

Because in the answer we will find the core debate surrounding every mitigation or adaptation intervention we will hope to advance.

So, here goes…

“Are we, as individuals, willing to accept that some of us who might never be harmed by the mitigated hazard itself will instead be harmed by the risk reduction solution we implement – WITH AN UNDERSTANDING THAT the end result will be that risk across all of society is reduced?”

Of course, if one is among those who benefit from a lowered risk…this would seem a fair bargain.

If, however, you or a family member is among those inconvenienced…harmed physically or financially…or perhaps even killed as a result of a risk reduction program, you may think differently.

If we could easily predict who would be harmed, this would be a simple democratic exercise (not necessarily equitable, just, or fair, to be clear).

But the reality will often be that we can’t predict with specificity who will benefit and who will be harmed. So how do we approach these decisions when the win/lose factor is largely random - as it often is?

The concept is by no means novel. Take Smallpox vaccination.

About 130,000 Americans died from Smallpox – a number that would have been exponentially larger had transmission not dropped to zero following worldwide vaccination. Globally, the fatality count for the 20th century alone exceeded 300 million people.

The vaccine, however, killed 36 people in the US and more worldwide (about 1 per 1 million who were administered it). 

36 people who may have survived a bout of Smallpox, but were killed by risk reduction itself.

And while every one of the 8 billion people of us alive today is ‘safer’ because of those 36 people…

…they unknowingly gave much more than they gained.

It’s always easier to look back and judge such sacrifice to be justified, whether with defensive military action, public health measures, construction accidents, etc.

It’s looking forward, into unknown outcomes, that’s difficult.

A more recent example, of which we will undoubtedly hear more about, is found in the following article:

This is a perfect example of a risk reduction measure that promises to harm a small number of people that would have otherwise ‘avoided’ some mitigated hazard, in exchange for a potentially game-changing reversal in total societal hazard risk.

Drunk driving kills 37 people daily in the US – over 13,000 per year.

Compare that to US weather-related deaths. Since 1940, there have been fewer than 20,000 deaths TOTAL.

Which is to say, it makes sense to mitigate drunk driving.

Building cars to limit impaired driving will require each of us to accept the potential for ‘false positives’ as described.

Maybe that means missing a movie or sports event.

Maybe it means not being able to get to a hospital.

There’s a big difference between the two, yet each is a strong disincentive.

And so, with a global society that increasingly:

  • Fights even the most justifiable adjustments to insurance premiums despite the reality of actively collapsing P&C

  • Opposes public health measures that inflict no meaningful or profound negative impacts on one’s life (e.g., adhering to mask recommendations during localized outbreaks of a disease)…

  • Suppresses the public awareness that might be gained through exposure map modernization over fears of possible implications such data might have on perceived property values…

How will we ever achieve the bold action required to navigate this active and increasing emergency?

With climate risk – just as with road risk, health risk, or otherwise - we (the DRR community) must be ready and able to sell sacrifice, because the alternative - inaction - is much more consequential.

Know that those with competing interests are already well-versed in selling that option.


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