In a Post-Disaster Setting, to Ignore the Environment is to Ignore Risk

The death and destruction left in the wake of the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010 was extraordinary. More than 200,000 people died and the financial damage exceeded 120% of Haiti’s 2009 GDP. After the immediate search-and-rescue activities, humanitarian agencies, alongside the Haitian people and government, turned their attention not merely to getting life back to normal, but to the goal of ‘building back better.’ Billions of dollars and extraordinary human capital poured into Haiti, yet during the recovery process a vital factor to ‘building back better’ was often overlooked: environmental sustainability (ES).

The Barriers to Environmental Sustainability in Post-Disaster Settings

My research (available here) sought to understand the barriers to ES in post-disaster settings. Using transitional shelter implementation in Haiti as a proxy, I examined how humanitarian actors considered ES, and the barriers they faced to incorporating environmental concerns into operations. Data demonstrated that in post-disaster settings there is a low prioritization of, but growing interest in, ES. In Haiti, as a result of the barriers outlined below, the inclusion of ES was sporadic and inconsistent. These barriers can be broken down into two categories:

1) Prioritizations and perceptions within the disaster response sector limit enthusiasm for incorporating ES into programming. Specific barriers include:

  • A perceived trade-off between a rapid recovery and ES;
  • A muddled delineation between emergency response and mid- to long-term redevelopment; and
  • Environmental concerns simply do not drive decision-making.

2) Structural and organizational barriers within the disaster response framework impede ES and serve as a further disincentive to incorporating it into programming. Specific barriers include:

  • Unclear accountability amongst donors, implementers, and organizers regarding ES;
  • A lack of personnel with both ES and disaster expertise;
  • The humanitarian sector is slow to adapt to new practices and technologies; and
  • Pre-positioning and pre-planning are logistically difficult.

These barriers are reinforcing and deeply interrelated. For example, in Haiti, if it were perceived that ES required trade-offs in speed or costs – a common but ultimately disproven perception – ES would generally not be pursued. Moreover, in the balancing act between rapid response and comprehensive planning, an emphasis on speed tends to persist past the search-and-rescue phase and into the mid- and long-term recovery. The emphasis on speed is driven by the unique pressures of operating in a post-disaster setting (e.g., media and donor scrutiny).

Even if humanitarian actors wanted to pursue ES, structural, organizational, and logistical barriers impeded implementation. In addition to a lack of clarity regarding who was ultimately responsible for taking the lead on environmental programming, the fact remains that there were limited actors with sufficient expertise in both the environment and disaster recovery to lead the effort. That is, even if ES was considered a paramount concern, there were significant human capital challenges that would have impeded their efforts. As a result of the totality of these barriers, in Haiti, ES ultimately came down to the capacity and motivation of specific implementing agencies, many of which were already overwhelmed with the complex operations one would expect after such an extreme event.

Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Resilience

While asking the humanitarian sector to consider the environment might strike some as beyond the humanitarian imperative – to save lives and reduce suffering – this ignores three critical points: 1) with the right expertise and proper planning, considering the environment will not interrupt the mid- and long-term humanitarian response; 2) proper environmental management will help bridge the gap from emergency response to long-term redevelopment; and 3) in the mid- and long-term recovery, ignoring the environment can expose new vulnerabilities or exacerbate old ones. As such, ES must be embraced as a goal – or more accurately, a tool – of the humanitarian sector.  Conversely, disaster response efforts that do not incorporate ES risk hindering long-term recovery efforts, and thus, disaster resilience.

Author’s Note – Two points of clarification: First, the environment in this instance refers to local, acute issues – particularly those around the impact site (e.g., increased risk of landslides due to improper material extraction). This is not about global environmental issues (e.g., climate change). Second, this analysis focuses on the mid- to long-term recovery and not search-and-rescue or emergency operations. To paraphrase a research participant, I am not suggesting ‘we hug a tree before we hug a baby.’ I operationalized a definition for post-disaster sustainability as “Sustainable post-disaster activities provide resources to affected citizens to ensure health and safety and to promote redevelopment, without causing further damage to land or existing structures, exacerbating the impacts of the disaster, or placing undue stress on the natural environment.

Climate Deniers Part I: Sun Tzu

To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape.

-Sun Tzu

Every once in a while I am asked a very troubling question: “Do you believe in climate change?” The phrasing “do you believe in” or any variation thereof feels like ice water being injected my spine. It demonstrates that the conservation community has all but botched the trial on climate change. If this were a criminal case, we provided means, motive, and intent, but couldn’t counter the defense’s wordplay, trickery, and jargon-laden half-truths.

Manifestations of this loss keep coming up. A few weeks ago I visited some old friends. Over a cocktail (or two), climate change worked its way into the conversation. Though not climate deniers per se, they fall somewhere in the skeptical-to-unconcerned range on the alarmist-to-denier continuum. And they are skeptical because, like most Americans, they don’t have time to fact-check the barrage of climate-related information they hear from myriad sources, including some that suggest climate change is not affected by human activity. These hard-to-check impressive sounding “facts” are the simultaneous danger and strength of climate denier’s misinformation campaign; they somehow transform scientific evidence into a viewpoint in a political debate. For those interested in forestalling serious climate legislation, a politicized hung jury in an increasingly partisan society is exactly what a win looks like. But, moral high ground or not, this is as much on those of us who see climate change as a major challenge as it is on those who argue against action or its existence.

Worse, the combined politicization and evident reality of climate change is a double-edged sword. Those who deny climate change have perverse disincentives to back away from their intransigence. They are in a corner: continue to deny humanity’s most pressing challenge or walk away from the denial discourse and face serious political ramifications in terms of their own legitimacy. It’s a nasty paradox. The scientific community and its political allies have, contrary to Sun Tzu’s advice, left our “enemy” no way of escape.

Take, for example, Marco Rubio – an outsized voiced in the Republican Party. When Rubio simultaneously denied climate change and announced his interest in the presidency my reaction was predictably visceral. Yet despite a driving temptation to lash out over his ignorance/delusion/lack of integrity, I no longer think vilification of deniers helps the climate discourse. Particularly whenever it takes the form of left vs. right. Whether he runs for President or remains a Senator, Rubio could face extraordinary political backlash and de-legitimization should the Republican Party suddenly start to embrace the science of climate change. This is why I believe the Republican Party has shifted from accepting the reality of climate change (see President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union) to the evolving party line of “La La La I can’t hear you” or “I’m no expert, but [insert economic platitude].”

Trapping our “enemies” in a particular corner of the climate change debate, and allowing the resultant discourse to be viewed as a left-right issue, has presented us with a deadlock that inhibits further progress. Maybe its time we stop fighting dogma with logic and politics with science. These are flawed strategies; it is asymmetrical warfare. Converting climate deniers is not an issue of showing them the science – we have done that. It has failed. It continues to fail. What we must do is find a graceful way out for the climate skeptics that we – I, for sure – have so long vilified. This is not to suggest we should let up on correcting the widespread dissemination of misinformation (John Oliver’s piece on this is perfect, if you haven’t watched it, do it now.). Only that accidental or intentional vilification offers little to the cause.

Our focus need be dispassionate advancement of meaningful climate change policy. We need to change the conversation and demonstrate the big Truth of climate change legislation: that it appeals to conservative ideals, even if not certain right-leaning constituents. This needs to be made more explicit. The Republican Party prides itself as responsible, long-term planners (see the budget discourse), yet are unconcerned about the widespread economic effects of climate change? Or the myriad impacts on impacts on national security outlined here? It just doesn’t add up.

So here is my proposition to those who recognize the importance of climate change but have been painted into a political corner: tell the conservation community what you need to advance meaningful policy without sacrificing your ideals, and yes, political ambitions. I am done shouting and am very ready to listen. Or to put it in the [cleaned up] words of one of an old baseball coach, “lead, follow, or get the [heck] out the way.”