Tag Archives: Disaster Management

Risky Business:   Finding the Right Button to Push on Climate Change, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jul

Monkey on Ice

The second they stopped caring for each other is when they sealed their fate.  Courtney Praski

Anger, confusion, and a willingness to engage in bullying to get one’s way; these are all results of the current hot house climate we find ourselves in.  Diane Kalen-Sukra

Chad could put a solar panel on every roof in the country and yet become a barren desert due to the irresponsible environmental policies of distant foreigners.  Yuval Noah Harari

To save all we must risk all.  Friedrich von Schiller

All choices are fraught with peril, but inaction is the most perilous of all.  Frewin Jones

I’m spending much of this long holiday weekend sitting in front of both a computer and a fan running at full speed.  Though the most severe heat promised over the next two months has not yet come here, this current, muggy iteration is energy-sapping enough.

A quick indulgence of my Weather Channel obsession gives some indication of where we in New York might soon be headed.  From Japan to Western Europe and from India to Australia, devastating heat waves have brought much of life to a standstill.   In Anchorage, Alaska temperatures this week climbed to record levels evoking images of far-away Florida more than of the nearby Arctic.  And in Greenland, so much ice has melted that residents are now assessing the economic opportunities of selling sand to fortify the coastlines of other climate-impacted communities.

And it is not only the heat, but the storms that inevitably follow in its wake.  Already in this summer season we have followed Hurricane Barbara off the Pacific coast of Mexico. And while the Atlantic is relatively quiet so far, forecasters have predicted at least a dozen “named” storms for late summer and fall, with perhaps as many as four of these causing significant damage to places like Haiti and Puerto Rico which have only barely recovered from the destruction of last year’s hurricane season.

As temperatures and sea levels rise, as storms form more frequently and violently, the external risks to “communities of life,” human and other, become more apparent.   What is less obvious, perhaps, is the internal dimensions of risk, finding and acting on the fortitude and courage to match the severity of a deteriorating physical environment with what could only be called a fierce response, a fierceness that is not unlike how parents respond to a gravely sick child, or how neighbors respond to a catastrophic fire or flood.

This is not quite the same as the “panic” recently called for by youth activist Greta Thunberg.  Panic short-circuits a healthy and engaged relationship between our cognitive and emotional faculties.  Panic tends to freeze attention on threats in ways that undermine helpful responses.  It is an emotion well-suited to Hollywood horror films, but not as much to mobilizing the broad and determined public actions – from mass plastics removal and tree planting to ending our fossil fuel addictions – which the current “extinction rebellion” in which Greta is so prominent rightly demands of us.

Like most large institutions, the UN exists largely as a “panic-free zone.”  There is little hand-wringing here, few fiery speeches or raw emotions that might endanger diplomatic relations or resolution negotiations.   Indeed, one piece of consistent feed-back from the many young people with whom we have shared UN space over the years is the surprising lack of emotional content of most UN messaging.  What we collectively seem to be communicating, or hoping to communicate in any event, is that “we’ve got this,” that our strategies and assessments are at levels appropriate to the threats we now face.

Such messaging is not without its truth.  This past week alone, two events highlighted the strengths of UN policy response to the gravest of our current threats.   One of these was a dialogue on “special political missions” convened by Liberia as chair of the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee.  As budgets for UN peacekeeping are being slashed, SPMs are touted as the “one of the most effective tools…to advance preventive diplomacy, conflict prevention and peacebuilding” in partnership with national governments and regional organizations.   For us and for many in the room, the hope is that field-based SPMs can both help keep the peace and provide another pipeline of local knowledge and perspectives on how, as one example, threats from climate change are affecting local residents in real time – the storms and flooding, the droughts and related water emergencies – threats provoking local misery and forcing displacement on a vast scale.

In a smaller UN conference room, Switzerland and the UN’s office for Disaster Risk Reduction held a session focused on a review of the 2019 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.  With remarks from UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, the event underscored the need for broader, more inclusive risk assessments that utilize the best available science and promote institutional and community resilience in the places most likely to be directly affected by climate-related threats.  Most important to us was the expressed view that “risk is complex and systemic, and can no longer be addressed hazard-by-hazard.”  Such systemic risk, as underscored by Swiss Ambassador Lauber, can best (and perhaps only) be managed within multi-lateral frameworks.

But management strategies on climate alone, no matter how clever and science-based they might be, are unlikely to stem this toxic and urgent tide.  Unless we are prepared to explain to our children why “adaptation” is the best our fragile societies are now capable of, we must keep our focus on climate change mitigation, on raising both our level of urgency (not panic) and the fierceness of our individual and collective responses.   We must change more behavior (beginning with our own), fix our broken politics, plant more trees, diversify our agriculture, create opportunities for greater citizen engagement, and tell more of the truth about the distances our clever, modern societies have fallen, and how we keep contributing to the decline.

And we must insist that our leadership embraces in its pronouncements and policies more clear-eyed and action-oriented assessments of the messes we have collectively gotten ourselves into.

This coming week, as many as 2000 academics, journalists and civil society representatives will descend on the UN for the 2019 High Level Political Forum (HLPF), a time to assess levels of progress (and deficiencies) related to our 2030 Development Agenda commitments at both national and international level.  Notwithstanding the deep ecological footprint associated with conducting this assessment, it is critical that we make the best effort we can to move beyond funding requests and organizational mandates, to remind diplomats of the virtual absurdity of sustainable development in a world where seemingly-intractable conflict rages, human rights are gleefully trampled upon, and more and more societies bake to a golden brown under a relentless sun.

Put simply, we need to risk more, to care more, if we are to restore more.   Inaction, or even action that is simply not commensurate with our current challenges, will not get us to a better world by 2030, a world where guns are silent, storms are milder, the displaced have recovered their homes, and panic is no longer an option.  We have a decade left to demonstrate the fierce commitments that can forge a genuinely sustainable path linking the management of climate crisis and its (for now) still-possible mitigation.

Of all the buttons on our policy console, this is the one that now needs to be pushed.

Masters of Disaster:  The UN Gives Hope a Chance, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Mar

Far from the inspiring stories, crowded hallways and rhetorical flourishes of the Commission on the Status of Women, the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) is now taking place in Sendai, Japan (http://www.wcdrr.org/conference/programme/documentation).

We don’t normally comment on events where we aren’t physically present, but this United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) event is highlighting issues germane to virtually all UN policy priorities.   Moreover, several of the disasters featured at the conference are related to dangerous shifts in climate health which has become, rightly if belatedly, a major focus of UN concern.

The backdrop for the WCDRR event is a high-profile natural disaster which, as reported by Al Jazeera and others, is well underway after Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu early Saturday, “packing winds of 168 miles per hour, and leaving a trail of destruction and unconfirmed reports of dozens of deaths.” In quite an irony, the President of Vanuatu, Baldwin Lonsdale, found himself stranded at WCDRR along with some of the country’s top disaster management officials while a state of emergency had  been declared back home.

Also lingering in the background are the still-unresolved effects of the ‘triple whammy’ that affected Japan’s Fukushima, not far from Sendai – earthquake followed by tsunami, followed by radiation leakage.   Such multiple disasters seem hard to fathom but are actually becoming more and more plausible as levels of human damage to the planet rise.

On Sunday (Japan time) a WCDRR session was held to introduce the 2015 Global Assessment of Disaster Risks Report. The report provides “an update on global risk trends and patterns based on results from the first ever probabilistic risk assessment covering the world.” Participants were informed about current and emerging risks and projected economic losses associated with exposure and vulnerability to hazards, including cyclones, earthquakes, floods, landslides, tsunamis and volcanic ash.

This is quite a list which doesn’t even specify concerns like drought and the forced social mobility this causes.  These are all concerns we would do well to avoid but, failing that, to prepare for with sufficient urgency and thoughtfulness.

When I was younger, I lived in a part of the US that frequently ‘welcomed’ tornadoes.  While most failed to hit the ground, many uprooted trees, tore off the roofs of barns and houses, and greatly damaged homes and property, often in working-class neighborhoods that could ill afford the losses.

A feature of those times was that the most effective response was often in the aftermath of disasters – insurance agents processing claims, the Red Cross serving soup and assisting with health emergencies, crews helping to restore communications and navigable roads, police providing a reassuring presence.

But we soon realized that rebuilding capacity was not sufficient, that we needed more time and resources to prepare better for what, in some years, was literally a ‘parade’ of funnel clouds.   And, indeed, the focus slowly shifted, not away from disaster response but to more balanced approach that brought science and civics to bear on local preparedness.  Weather-related technology was able to warn us in time of impending crises so that authorities could be mobilized and valuables and loved ones protected.

But this doesn’t happen, can’t happen everywhere. As noted in the Al Jazeera story on Vanuatu, “People are really upset and it’s really hard, just because for the last couple of years, we haven’t received a really big cyclone like this one,” said Isso Nihmei, Vanuatu coordinator for the environmental and crisis response group 350.  Most people right now, they are really homeless.”

In such circumstances, many of us would want to know: Where were the weather forecasters?  Where were the warnings?   Where were the preparations that could have provided more resilient options to ‘weather’ the coming storm?

If we know anything with certainty, it is that the ‘holiday’ from disaster that Vanuatu apparently experienced is unlikely to be repeated soon.  Between increases in tropical depressions, widening areas of drought, flooding from land whose forests have been denuded, the erosion of shorelines, and other hazards – and this on top of the more obvious human-made disasters from armed violence, trafficking and other calamities – trouble is brewing in far-flung corners of the globe.

People facing such the prospect of such disaster need reassurances at two levels.   First, that there are competent professionals able and willing to respond when disaster strikes; and second that all possible efforts have been made to warn residents and promote resilience before trouble strikes.

Forecasting that ‘trouble’ can be tricky business.  But we have suffered greatly in the security sector from assistance – in the form of peacekeepers or military response to mass violence – that arrives too late to stem the violence in its earliest stages.   Disaster relief that arrives too late can also jeopardize lives needlessly.   As noted in the literature of the HOPEFOR initiative (Qatar, Dominican Republic, Turkey and others) to which GAPW has been attentive, when crisis response is needed, timing is always of the essence (http://hopeforinitiativedr.org).  Given extraordinary improvements in disaster technology, improved forecasting must be an integral part of any disaster response.

Not all disasters can be averted.  There are some tornadoes in the south of the US so massive that resilience is almost futile.  Earthquakes and tsunamis can devastate communities and landscapes in what seems like an instant.  And, as noted by several experts in Sendai, technical warnings can fail to reach the right people, or reach them in a way that is confusing in terms of preferred responses.   Or people can choose to ignore warnings (as we in the US sometimes do with hurricanes and floods) or simply have no viable response options to looming threats.

But for many natural disasters, there are warning signs that are far less expensive to heed than the price tag resulting from disasters’ aftermath. This is especially true given the disasters that will likely intensify as our climate continues to deteriorate.  In response to the tragedy of Vanuatu, the president of Seychelles was quoted as saying “Today it is the South Pacific, tomorrow it could be us.”

Indeed it could well be.

Disaster response is in part about running several races against time almost in tandem. We need better forecasting and more quickly.  We need funding to support greater resiliency and more viable options for communities in the face of disaster.  We need more civilian-based response services on high alert to get to the scenes of crises rapidly and even before any crises unfold.  But most of all, we need dramatic diplomatic movement on climate health and other human interventions to give hope to communities suffering from disasters of a magnitude that they simply could never manage alone.

The UN is well positioned to help states meet the challenges, changes and resource needs for highly competent, trustworthy Disaster Management.   Such management is no substitute for a political agreement to reverse climate damage.   But at least until such an agreement is forthcoming — hopefully soon in Paris — and made fully functional, disaster management must maintain this high priority for states and the international system.