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Can Japan's disaster help prepare the world for climate change?

Nobody expected that a tsunami would affect Japan's nuclear plants. And climate change will raise the possibility of such awful, unlikely happenings around the world.

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“They had years to prepare at that point, after Kashiwazaki, and I am seeing the same thing at Fukushima,” said Peter Yanev, an expert in seismic risk assessment based in California, who has studied Fukushima for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Department.

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There is no doubt that when Fukushima was designed, seismology and its intersection with the structural engineering of nuclear power plants was in its infancy, said Hiroyuki Aoyama, 78, an expert on the quake resistance of nuclear plants who has served on Japanese government panels. Engineers employed a lot of guesswork, adopting a standard that structures inside nuclear plants should have three times the quake resistance of general buildings."

So, in the aftermath of a disaster --- how do risk regulators recalibrate their subjective risk assessments? Do they tend to "over-react"?

The adaptive process involves both government self-protection investments and private sector investments. Will people choose to live close to such plants and in such coastal locations? What materials will they build their homes out of as they rebuild? The media is reporting that concrete homes in the Tsunami zone survived the disaster with much less damage than wood homes. How will this lesson affect the rebuilding effort?

Returning to climate change adaptation, the key issue here is subjective risk assessment. For voters and day to day citizens, do salient disasters shock people into changing their lifestyles so that they are protected from the next disaster? In the case of the Moscow Heat Wave of 2010, I am sure that this will stimulate air conditioner sales so that next summer's Moscow Heat will cause much less suffering. Does this optimism hold more broadly? Or are we doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again because we do not learn?

Economists are sure that people do learn from their mistakes and increased fat tail risk offers a fascinating test of this optimism.

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