Tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, and asteroids: are we ready for the next 100 years?

Position:Includes remarks by James Gathii - Includes discussion - Proceedings of the 101st Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: The Future of International Law - Discussion

The panel was convened at 10:45 a.m., Thursday, March 29, by its moderator, James Gathii of Albany Law School, who introduced the panelists: Michael Cohen of the New School; David Fisher of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; and Arthur Lerner-Lam of the Earth Institute, Columbia University.*


Welcome to this panel on tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, and asteroids. This panel will examine the international community's ability to respond to disasters. Our panelists are David Fisher, Senior Legal Research Officer, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; Professor Michael Cohen of the New School, where he was the founding Director of the International Affairs Program; and Dr. Arthur Lerner-Lam, the Doherty Senior Research Scientist and Associate Director for Seismology, Geology and Tectonophyics at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and the founding Director of the Center of Hazards and Risk Research, the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

This panel will be structured as a conversation, with the panelists addressing a series of questions. They will tell us whether advances in science and technology can help to prevent catastrophic events such as tsunamis, hurricanes, of earthquakes, which, as we know, cause untold destruction and human suffering on a massive scale. Just this morning, there is news of destruction and death caused by numerous tornadoes across the United States.

The panelists will also discuss what these disasters reveal about international law. While international law cannot control nature, can it mitigate its negative effects? In a recent book, Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle, Cass Sunstein has argued that the precautionary principle does not offer any guidance about how governments should respond to health, safety, of environmental risks. (1) While Sunstein's book deals with risks such as global warming, arsenic in drinking water, and genetically modified foods, his analysis may provide insight about how the international community and international law may appropriately respond to natural disasters. For example, to what extent, if at all, should cost-benefit analysis weigh in providing guidance on how to prepare for the next natural disaster? So Sunstein might ask: how much money and time is international society willing to pay for the kind of scientific research and expertise necessary to predict and finance effective warning systems? He suggests that responding to uncertain risks such as global warning should be preceded by a high level of certainty so that such a response does not divert resources from more pressing concerns--such as developing new technologies that might resolve occurring threats such as hunger.

Scientific inquiry should be pursued in a manner that reduces the burdens of the least advantaged members of society. Sunstein' s arguments are mostly restricted to national societies where there is a social compact and expectation for looking after the least advantaged. The responsibility to the least advantaged in other parts of the world calls for an expansion of this conception, as it would certainly be the humane thing to do to share such information with countries that cannot afford to contribute in getting the information. This information could be crucial for saving the lives of people who are vulnerable to natural disasters around the world, as is already happening, and as I am sure our panelists will be discussing.

International law seems relevant because it increases the ways in which we might think of responding to natural disasters beyond cost-benefit analysis. While there are monetizable costs of natural disasters, so are there non-monetizable costs that have no actual market price, but are no less significant--e.g., the destruction of human life, coral reefs, human physical and emotional suffering short of fatality, or the extinction of species.

On the question of asteroids, it is notable that Congress has mandated NASA to survey and characterize some Near...

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