At what point are we accountable for what we know?

Consider the recent tsunami in Japan. Anyone in one of those coastal towns who knew that the wave was coming would have warned whoever they could. And many did. There are stories of great heroism by fire servicemen, emergency workers and ordinary citizens staying in danger themselves as they encouraged people to reach higher ground.

Anyone who had the opportunity to raise the alarm but failed to use it would feel guilty for the rest of their lives.

Earthquakes and tsunami happen in Japan. This inevitability forces planners to carefully consider where buildings must go in relation to this known risk. Engineers must also put their expertise into building construction sufficient to withstand shocks from shifting ground and walls of water.

Should these precautions for a foreseen event follow similar rules to those when danger is real and present? Applying a planning rule or choosing a structural material does not require heroism, but there might be a similar sense of responsibility around the decisions made in these professions.

Sydney coastline

Prime real estate in coastal towns is where there is an ocean view.

Planners who zone the coastal fringe as green space or tsunami protection zones would not be popular. Developers would soon find an alternative to an engineer who insists on the super safe construction options for these are almost always expensive.

In the political and economic realities of a modern world, developers will leverage many a weight onto hapless planners for the profit is in those plots with an ocean view. Perhaps these decision makers need courage too, only for, them, it will be much harder than in the adrenaline-fueled heat of an emergency.

What about courage for decisions on climate change? We now know that there will be changes to the intensity, frequency and timing of weather events – the altered likelihood of extremes and long-term shifts in the averages. We can foresee these climate change effects even though it is not a real and present danger just yet.

It is, however, time to plan for sea level rise, extreme weather, drought, heat waves and shifts in seasonality that are the likely effects with significance for livelihoods.

At the moment we are dodging this accountability.

It would be sensible to put climate change scenarios into strategic and local planning tools and have planners understand why climate change effects should be considered in their planning horizon.

Building design already has the smarts for energy efficiency, structural integrity and resistance to extremes. All the engineers need to do is favour these options and set their skills and experience to figuring out even better solutions. The planners can support them with compliance requirements that assist against the pull of market forces that will always favour the cheaper alternatives.

There is a difference in these examples of required courage and personal responsibility. Decisions made in the face of danger are instinctual. When danger is at some unknown point in the future, we have time to think.  We rely less on instinct and more on reasoning and allow ourselves some latitude. We may respond to the pressure of compromise. No need to worry, it’s not happening now.

Without immediacy there is no adrenaline required, we can relax into the comfort of busy work and allow the process of decision making to take over. Soon it is the meetings, hearings, forms to be filled and documents to be filed that allow us to forget that there was actually an important, responsible choice to be made.

When buried in the process it is easy to forget that there might be some responsibility to make the call and some accountability for it.

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