My PhD project investigates the ethics and politics of earthquake/tsunami risk management. Specifically, I work on the risk of catastrophic tsunami-generating earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest USA and Canada.
I am supervised by Simon Caney and Keith Hyams, with Rebecca Bell and Douglas Toomey as informal advisors. The interdisciplinary focus of this team reflects my interest in combining insights from both normative political theory and empirical earth science to motivate my project. My studies are funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
My interests also extend to other areas of the world which face a considerable threat from major earthquakes and tsunamis, including Alaska, Chile, Japan and New Zealand. I am generally open to research collaboration on the governance of risk and disasters; please do contact me in this regard.
A more complete project summary can be found below.
- * Analytic social, political and legal philosophy
- * Science, technology, ethics and public policy
- * Natural hazards, disasters and emergencies (esp. earthquakes and tsunamis)
- * Risk, uncertainty and resilience
- * Gender and sexuality
- * Parenting, childhood and education
Seismic Justice: The Ethics & Politics of Megathrust Earthquake Risk Management in Cascadia
How can science, ethics and public policy analysis work together to mitigate the risk of very large earthquakes? My PhD research explores this question through an in-depth investigation of the hazards from megathrust earthquakes and accompanying tsunamis in the Pacific Northwest area of North America (known synonymously as Cascadia). Geological evidence indicates that this 700-mile region, stretching from northern California to British Columbia, has seen 41 earthquakes greater than magnitude 8.0 in the past 10,000 years, including 19 greater than magnitude 9.0 (Schulz 2015). The last great quake to hit the Pacific Northwest occurred on January 26, 1700 (Atwater et al. 2005; Jacoby et al. 1997; Satake et al. 1996; Yamaguchi et al. 1997).
Recent disasters, such as the Indian Ocean earthquake of 2004 and the Tohoku quake of 2011, have exemplified the destructiveness of megathrust earthquakes and their accompanying tsunamis. Millions of people face the possibility of a similar catastrophe in the Cascadia region, but uncertainty remains over when the quake will occur, how large it will be and the severity of the consequences. What is the rational response to the risk of a major Cascadia earthquake, which is unlikely to materialize in any given year but is certain to cause widespread disruption when it does (Zack 2006: 12)? My thesis examines Cascadia as a case study for its policy import in the contexts of both American and Canadian emergency planning.
Therefore, my central research question is: “What ethical framework should guide the development of preparedness policy for megathrust earthquake and tsunami risk management in Cascadia?” To answer this, I will address several sub-questions, as follows:
- Which ethical principles should guide an adequate level of protection and the fair distribution of protection?
- If there are winners and losers from earthquake preparedness policy, how should the benefits and burdens be distributed?
- What individual policy responses are required to deal with the threat of large Cascadia earthquakes as a case of intergenerational risk, where both current and future generations are affected?
- How should institutions be designed to account for the intergenerational risk emanating from the threat of large Cascadia earthquakes?
- Given that Cascadia earthquake risk is a cross-border problem, involving both the United States and Canada, how should responsibilities be distributed among the international, national and sub-national levels?
Relevant empirical literatures are drawn from policymakers and policy advisors (OSSPAC 2013), disaster experts (e.g. Tierney 2019) and risk scholars (Bailey 2011). However, none of these are explicitly grounded in ethical principles. Additionally, there are sophisticated philosophical discussions of social justice, risk (Frick 2015; Horton 2017; Tadros 2013) and intergenerational responsibilities (for reviews, see Caney 2018; Meyer 2020). Meanwhile disaster ethics itself remains marginal in the philosophical literature (existing work includes Zack 2009; Doorn 2015; Brake 2019). None of these philosophical discussions substantively invoke earthquake risk management, nor do they provide a systematic treatment of the relevant normative principles. Thus my central contribution to the scholarly literature is to develop a systematic normative theory of earthquake risk management for Cascadia, one which integrates an empirical understanding of earthquakes and existing seismic policy, on the one hand, with philosophical analysis, on the other.
This project focuses on the Pacific Northwest as a case study for several reasons. First, empirical analysis reveals contextual factors specific to the Cascadia case. For example, seismic awareness is not culturally ingrained in the Pacific Northwest due to this region’s relative inexperience with earthquakes (Unprepared 2015), which will hamper efforts at earthquake preparedness (Pathirage et al. 2014: 13) and contributes to greater social vulnerability (Spiekermann et al. 2015). This increases the chance of severe consequences when the next earthquake occurs. Second, the transnational dimension of this case—implicating both the USA and Canada—distinguishes it from other societies facing similar hazards, such as Chile and Japan. Challenges in cross-border coordination will complicate effective disaster response in Cascadia. Therefore, my research aims to enhance public awareness of the particular difficulties facing Cascadia earthquake preparedness, for both Americans and Canadians.