26 Dec 2011

Risk transcends geographies. Japan’s triple blow of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis drew a mixture of cosmopolitan empathy and scare-politics.

Risk transcends geographies. Japan's triple blow of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis drew a mixture of cosmopolitan empathy and scare-politics. How to model and manage such risks properly will pose significant long-term challenges for public policy and the discourse of International Relations.

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster first spurred German sociologist Ulrich Beck to observe that many Western countries had become “Risk Societies” obsessed with managing all manner of possible risks that could harm human health and security. Exactly 25 years on, the nature of Singapore’s risksensitive responses to the stricken Fukushima plant in Japan highlight the extent to which Beck’s observations are not limited to Western European states. After all, risk in the World Risk Society knows no geographical boundaries. Japan’s triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, in the age of 24/7 global media coverage, generated two particularly identifiable responses that Beck suggests accompanies events of such global risk. The world initially experienced cosmopolitan empathy from afar as the shared experience of this human crisis and awareness of such risks helped overcome differences between “us” and “them”. A bit more belatedly, however, we have also seen glimpses of the dark side, of the politics of fear as the global risks associated with the tsunami started to spread around the world. What is now known as 3/11 only highlights the central importance of managing risk in public policy and International Relations. Beginning with empathy, Singapore is an excellent example with its outpouring of goodwill and donations totalling more than 9 million Singapore dollars thus far. What Beck called the “globalisation of emotions” occurred when Singaporeans’ everyday existence became part of an integrated media world dominated by repeated footage of the massive waves crashing into fishing ports. We experienced, sometimes even in real time, the simultaneity of horrors that occurred thousands of miles away. We feel as if we somehow ‘connect’ with towns such as Minami Soma or Kesennuma, and empathise with the “Fukushima 50” nuclear workers. This politics of empathy translated into frenetic “disaster diplomacy” by Japan’s friends and foes alike. Within 24 hours, Singapore sent a rescue team from the Singapore Civil Defence Force’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) contingent comprising five search specialists and five search dogs. Within days, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan appeared off Japan’s northeast coast, airlifting aid to flattened towns. China, Tokyo’s erstwhile rival, sent a 15-man rescue team and emergency aid. Such empathy is usually reciprocal. Japan, for its part, had sent aid and rescue teams to help with China’s Szechuan province earthquake in 2008, even deploying a destroyer to southern China for the relief mission, the first visit by a Japanese warship since World War 2.

The agents of globalisation, especially social network sites and global media, have helped foster the politics of empathy. They have also fuelled simultaneously the politics of fear, the evil twin of empathy. While Singaporeans rushed to help Japan’s survivors, some also avoided their favourite Japanese restaurants, for fear of food contaminated by radiation. Countries around the world banned Japanese food imports due to such risks, while China and South Korea urged Tokyo to consult them before venting radiation from the stricken reactors. To put things in perspective, it was reported that one had to consume several hundred kilograms of radiated vegetables to be exposed to the equivalent of one chest X-ray. For those opting for the “precautionary principle”– words acting to avoid serious or irreversible potential harm, despite a lack of scientific certainty as to the likelihood, magnitude, or causation of that harm – many displayed the classic response to an uncertain, invisible, involuntary risk. The continuing uncertainty over radiation risks means that the overriding question here is: whose advice should we follow? The views of one “expert” are contradicted by another the next day. This is typical of a Risk Society. Veteran Japanese journalist Shuntaro Torigoe even suggested that then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan eat Fukushima-grown spinach on TV to attest to its safety, echoing a similar stunt that Kan pulled as health minister when he ate daikon on TV during a food poisoning outbreak in 1996. This eerily mirrors the oft-cited incident in Britain during the “mad cow” disease crisis in the 1990s, when then-Agriculture Minister John Gummer posed for a shot with his daughter, with both munching burgers on TV to prove that British beef was inherently “safe”.

For a country known for its meticulous preparations for disasters, Japan’s experience has highlighted yet again the difficulties of risk assessment and risk management. Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said the tsunami was “beyond the prediction” of risks modelled for the Fukushima plant. The reactors were designed to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 7.9, yet the 3/11 earthquake measured a whopping 9.0. The plant was also designed to survive a 5.7-metre high tsunami but the Tohoku wave height peaked at 14 metres. It now transpires that Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which operated the plant, had underestimated the risks. As Kobe University professor emeritus Katsuhiko Ishibashi noted, Tepco and the regulators had not assessed risk factors more carefully, and “it is critical to be prepared for what might happen even if the possibilities are small”. As a result, other electric companies, such as Hokkaido Electric, have now revised their risk scenarios and tsunami simulations. Clearly, science is increasingly being used to support what are essentially public policy decisions, from new technologies like genetically modified food to nuclear energy infrastructure, infectious diseases and climate change. Yet the very uncertainty of what scientists actually know makes it very difficult for policymakers to decide. To its credit, Singapore has taken a proactive approach to improve modelling of future risk scenarios by establishing a Horizon Scanning Centre, under the auspices of the National Security Coordination Secretariat. Indeed, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs states that by establishing a process of acquiring, analysing and communicating information, horizon scanning seeks to improve the robustness of an organisation’s policies and evidence base.

While the spectre of global risks in our interconnected world increasingly looms large in our consciousness, we can be sure the world will experience the twin emotions of empathy and fear much more intensely and frequently than before. There is an ever-growing plateful of global risks the world faces today – from disease pandemics; climate change; terrorism; water and food scarcity; to nuclear power and financial meltdown. The politics of empathy with “distant” victims of such risks can help bring the world closer together to cooperatively manage these shared risks, a loose form of what Beck called “cosmopolitan solidarity”. However, once the politics of fear takes root in society, it can quickly lead to absurd situations where politicians and their offspring consume suspect foods on TV to show they are “safe”. The danger is politicians reinventing themselves to become simply the managers of our worst fears in a World Risk Society, as a 2004 BBC documentary “The Power of Nightmares” once forewarned. What the world needs is visions of hope and sound policymaking based on rigorous assessments of risk, not more cynical manipulation

Heng Yee Kuang () is Associate Professor of International Relations at the LKY School. He has held faculty positions at the University of St Andrews, UK, and Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.