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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 August 2006, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Watching the doomwatchers
By Martin Rosenbaum and Max Cotton
BBC Radio 4


The latest terror alert at British airports is causing chaos, but it won't have come as a complete surprise to those who are paid to predict the future.

What's the worst that can happen? If you often ask yourself that question, then you're probably an emergency planner.

And perhaps you should note the maxim of Mike Granatt, the former head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat: "Believe it might happen."

The terror arrests and airport chaos of the last few days have reminded us dramatically of one kind of possible disaster - deliberate mid-air explosions. But this is only one of many kinds of events which emergency planners have to try to predict, if possible prevent or, if not, work out how to recover from.

If peace breaks out tomorrow I'd be very happy to be an archaeologist, but in my experience war is the normal nature of mankind
Rear Admiral Chris Parry
Defence Academy

Others range from a flu pandemic to sudden power cuts, drastic flooding to poisonous chemical leaks - not to mention the possibility of the earth being hit by an asteroid, an incident where the potential impact would dwarf all the others. And in the booming emergency planning industry the job is to imagine the most destructive scenarios possible. There are doomwatchers in central government, local councils and private companies but what really scares them?

The centre of Britain's emergency preparations is the Civil Contigencies Secretariat, based in the Cabinet Office. This employs ten civil servants to look for trouble. They monitor the waxing and waning of about 120 potential threats, from terrorism to extreme weather, from security of gas supply to industrial fires like the one at the Buncefield oil depot.

Network society

This unit was reorganised following the failure to deal effectively with the consequences of the foot-and-mouth outbreak and the fuel protests of a few years ago.

"The key thing we learnt was that we live in a very connected world, a network society," says Mike Granatt. "Nothing happens on a big scale that doesn't affect lots of other things. What caught us out was a lack of understanding of how the UK functions."

Granatt says that while lesssons have been learnt, the thing which still worries him most is "indecision in government". He adds: "The worst thing that can happen is that a danger manifests itself, it starts to grow and the people who are aware of it do not move fast enough to take the steps to deal with it."

Buncefield fire
July bombs
Foot-and-mouth disease
Buncefield fire
2000 fuel protests
Bird flu

While Whitehall's doomwatchers are mainly focused on the near term, a longer term perspective is taken by Rear Admiral Chris Parry. He runs the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre at the Defence Academy in Wiltshire, and sees himself as the MoD's horizon-scanner. He tries to look a long way ahead.

"Al-Qaeda is a passing phase," says Admiral Parry. "It's an expression of grievance. It will either mutate into something else, be part of a bigger political process or just fade into the light of common day."

He is more focused on long-term international geopolitical trends, such as the demographic, wealth and resource disparities between North Africa and Europe. He regards this as having "potential for conflict".

Admiral Parry seems to take a rather bleak view of matters. "If peace breaks out tomorrow I'd be very happy to be an archaeologist," he says, "but in my experience war is the normal nature of mankind."

Asteroid menace

While Admiral Parry scans the geopolitical horizon, a retired army officer and amateur astronomer called Jay Tate, based in Powys, searches the skies for asteroids.

In 1908 an asteroid hit Siberia and flattened a large area of virtually unpopulated forest. According to Tate, if that hit London today, it would destroy all structures within the M25.

Foot-and-mouth pyre
Foot-and-mouth hurt farming and tourism massively

When is the next one coming? "These things aren't like bus timetables", says Tate. "They're like the buses. They're totally random."

But that doesn't mean we can't do anything. He argues that as long as monitoring of the skies provides advance warning of about 50 years or so, we could send up a device to knock the asteroid off its course with planet earth.

Does the asteroid threat strike you as improbable? Jay Tate says you should pick up some binoculars and look at the pock-marked surface of the moon. Basically we're sitting in the same rifle range.

And don't forget Mike Granatt's motto: "Believe it might happen."

Doomwatching will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2000 BST on Tuesday, 15 August 2006, and repeated at 1700 BST pm on Sunday, 20 August 2006.

Astronomers (and a few far-sighted politicians such as MP Lembit Opik) have been calling for ten years for proper funding for an international 'Spaceguard' program, to catalogue asteroids which may impact our planet. The proposed cost of this would be around 100 million - less than the cost of making a single Hollywood film such as 'Armageddon' or 'Deep Impact' - yet it seems we as a race prefer risking annihilation to spending 2p per person to save ourselves. With an attitude like that, we're 'doomed, Captain Wainwaring, doomed'. (Or is it possible that the people in power really are all alien lizards who want to kill us off and have this planet for themselves...?)
Jim Abury, Leeds, UK

I have been involved with emergency planning for years. The difficulty is that emergency planning is not easy to sell as a concept to chief executives of public or private companies. I can't answer any of the questions - When will it happen? What will be involved? How many people might be injured? What time might it happen? What other organisations might be affected? With all these uncertainties, Chief Executives prefer to put their money towards issues they know will affect their job tomorrow or next week. These are predictable and seem a lot more relevant. Unless emergency planning is made mandatory, I think a lot of organisations will pay lip service to it. They will have fire extinguishers because they must have it by law; emergency planning is seen as an option, no matter how theoretically desirable.
Carl, Plymouth

NASA predicts a probable asteroid-earth collision in 2880, but none earlier.
Bill Bradbury, Lwowek Slaski, Poland

I would love to know what they plan to do about the impending disaster that it is coming in 2012? The Maya civilisation predicted the end of the world over 9000 years ago! I hope they have it covered?
Spencer dascombe, Milton keynes

Well, the one which they've all forgotten about is the next ice-age which according to geologists in the 1970s was imminent, I'd like to know what's changed since then? it's not as if the earths announced to us it's taken a different course from the one it was on. The only difference is that we seemed to be obsessed with c02 and global warming now and not cooling. Perhaps we're preparing for the wrong event!!
terry, London, UK

If the thing that worries him most is "indecision in government", then the thing that worries me most is having the Civil Contingencies Secretariat watching out for me! What about the terrorist threat of synchronised nuclear attacks on Western cities bringing about the end of civilisation? There's a thriving black market in nuclear materials out there that makes this risk far bigger than most people realise. If we aren't thinking about the right risks, we aren't taking the right steps to protect ourselves.
Ben Cons, London, UK

"In 1908 an asteroid hit Siberia and flattened a large area of virtually unpopulated forest. According to Tate, if that hit London today, it would destroy all structures within the M25." Are you sure about that? Whatever hit Tunguska in 1908 has never been explained satisfactorily.

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