The Risk-Monger

Imagine that you are checking in at an airport and your airline asks you to sign a liability waiver: “In the event that the plane crashes due to the ash cloud, the airline is not liable for damages due to loss of life”. You would not sign this nor find it a normal thing. You trust that experts would ensure that the planes are safe before you get on one.

But the experts were almost unanimous – flying through volcanic ash is pretty nasty. Sheers of undetectable glass crystals can sand-blast sensitive equipment, clog the engines and literally peel the paint off of airplanes. This would be considered an unacceptable risk.

So why did Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas sheepishly stand up on Tuesday and say: “Never mind that the Icelandic volcano is continuing to blast – you can fly now”. What a disappointing debut for Siim in his new post – he used to be so good at standing up to lobbyists. Perhaps it was the risk of having to pay compensation to all of the airlines? Maybe Siim did not want to be the face of the 2010 double dip recession? Or is he leading a new anti-precautionary strategy at the Commission? One thing is clear – listening to voices of the market and grumpy tourists over the voices of your independent experts is plain stupid and I just pray that the point is not proven to Siim with a tragedy.

Why were we so fast to accept the risk of flying through a sandblaster at 30,000 feet when the experts strongly warned us not to? A volcano is a natural disaster and we are only programmed to be afraid of man-made risks. We’ll run scared from traces of a synthetic chemical in our packaging or on our food, but then we’ll drink a cup of coffee or walk through a forest where we happily ingest far greater doses of known carcinogens. We worry about anthropogenic greenhouse gases even though it is only around 2% of the global GHG production – this volcano is the ‘Hummer’ of the greenhouse gas world and I look forward to some GHG numbers to put our meager activities into proportion.

A natural risk is a fact of nature – an inconvenience we have to solve rather than a disaster (man-made risks) we are probably going to pay for. Benefits are lost from natural risks (and must be restored as soon as possible); benefits are stolen through man-made risks (and we have to give them up as they were never ours). So we take natural risks more easily. The problem is that a loss of a life is a loss of a life and Siim Kallas should think about that more than how much it will cost his standing to bail out the airlines. Flying planes into known risks is a man-made decision.

There were also no loud-mouthed NGOs telling Siim what to do (they were all stranded on Easter holidays demanding to fly back to Brussels). That volcano is an inconvenience to their campaigns (the fine atmospheric ash in the atmosphere will probably lower temperatures short term). In a dialogue-based policy world, policy makers don’t move unless they are provoked. Siim has shown he can be easily provoked into action.

Apparently a much greater volcano in Iceland is due to erupt very soon. Now that we have realised that we don’t have to fear any risks from flying in that situation, I guess that means we are fine.

How do you spell stupid?

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