Book Review: Living with Climate Change: How Communities are Surviving and Thriving in a Changing Climate

The book’s anticipated use might be as a classroom text for students pursuing degrees in emergency management, it also has broad application for practicing emergency managers at the local, state and federal levels.

by Eric Holdeman / February 26, 2016

Living with Climate Change: How Communities Are Surviving and Thriving in a Changing Climate (Jane Bullock, George Haddow, Kim Haddow, Damon Coppola) is a wide-ranging look at many aspects of past and present disaster mitigation efforts across the United States. The authors look at these efforts through the lens of climate change, and they understand that the debate on the cause of a warming climate is not accepted in all political circles. The book includes a number of case studies that look specifically at the previous benefits of the FEMA Project Impact program.

The body of the text comes primarily from a wide selection of contributors who have direct experience in academia, as well as emergency management practitioners. While book’s anticipated primary use might be as a classroom text for undergraduate and graduate students pursuing degrees in emergency management, it also has broad application for practicing emergency managers at the local, state and federal levels. We are entering a new era where climate impacts are beginning to reveal themselves. Emergency managers will need a resource that documents what has worked in the past and can apply to a new and undetermined future in which climate change exacerbates what were previously considered rare weather phenomena.

With new and more aggressive hazards come the need to understand terminology that is being used in different contexts. The two-page monograph by Cooper Martin, in which he tries to explain the difference between the terms “sustainability” and “resilience,” is quite helpful.

Finally, climate adaptation takes center stage in many chapters of the book. It is addressed from multiple perspectives, both theoretical and practical in nature. One chapter extracted here specifically addresses climate adaptation from an emergency manager’s perspective.

Climate Adaptation for Emergency Managers (abridged by Eric Holdeman)

While the rest of the world has been thinking about the warming climate and planet for some time, here in the United States we are just now starting to play catch-up on what we need to do to deal with projected issues that will impact emergency managers everywhere. In reality we have given the world a 10-year head start in thinking about and reacting to climate change issues. As late as 2008, the National Weather Service (NWS) was not allowed to officially or unofficially write about or discuss climate change and its potential impacts. In an interview in January 2009, the people at FEMA headquarters were asked what they had done or were doing about climate change and climate adaptation. At that point, they had done nothing and the topic was not even on the radar at their national headquarters.

Since that time and the beginning of the Obama administration it has become politically acceptable for federal officials to write about, discuss and publically present on the topic of climate change. The United States military has described climate change as one of the greatest destabilizing forces in the world and a significant threat to our national security. The president’s 2014 U.S. Climate Action Report highlighted the existing impact of severe weather, and attributed these impacts to climate change here in the United States. This impact was measured in terms of the size of disasters and their scope, severity and financial costs to respond and recover from.

Moisture, Too Much or Too Little
Severe weather is predicted to become more frequent and destructive. Warmer air holds more moisture, which means record-breaking rainfalls and snowstorms. In the past few years we have seen huge rainfall events across the nation. Areas like Minnesota and the Province of Alberta, Seattle, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Phoenix, Ariz., are communities that have had deluges of rain that generated significant flooding events.

While there are areas of the nation that will have record amounts of rain and snow, other regions of the country will be living with continued drought conditions. Snow pack has been the expected standard for many parts in the western states, which are supporting growing populations, hydroelectric projects and irrigation for our nation’s food supply. California’s current water emergency can be directly credited to a lack of snow pack.

Terminology Defined
It would be good to define some terminology. In some political circles and geographical areas, the terms “climate change” and “global warming” are not well received. Many people use both terms somewhat interchangeably. There are segments of our society that believe climate change proponents are using voodoo science and computer models to contort what is happening in nature. One way to avoid getting sucked up into the debate about the causes of climate change is to talk about the warming climate using the term “climate variability.” Many who oppose the notion of the changing climate being attributed to human causes, such as carbon emissions, do accept the notion that our world has gone through various periods of warming and cooling, such as the Ice Age. The term “climate variability” speaks to this issue. No matter the cause, we need to deal with the consequences of a warming climate.

In climate change terms, the word “mitigation” is about controlling carbon emissions. Cap and trade is one tool some countries are using to reduce carbon emissions. If you are taking steps to deal with the changing climate, the term used is “climate adaptation.” In emergency management terms, climate adaptation may look more like our typical disaster mitigation, but sticking with “climate adaptation” will help you stay out of hot water. Another warning is required. For purists who are seeking to reverse global warming, the thought of focusing on climate adaptation is like surrendering to the inevitable. They fear that a move to climate adaptation will negate all the efforts at climate mitigation by reducing carbon emissions.

The Politics of Climate Change
Climate change can have a polarizing effect on people and organizations. Much of the angst that emanates from climate change comes when the causes of the warming climate are attributed to human-caused carbon emissions. People quickly separate into different camps. The energy industry is reluctant to take the full blame for a changing climate. In fact, fossil fuels are critical to our functioning economy. Much of our nation’s electricity comes from coal-fueled power plants and our system of roads and rails that moves goods and people depends on carbon-based fuels.

Some businesses fear the cost of increased regulation and higher taxes to pay for implementing more expensive alternative fuels or the systems to further scrub pollutants from the air. Elected officials have different constituencies that expect them to represent their points of view on the issue of climate change. Those opposed to taking any action to reduce carbon emissions want to delay any implementation of carbon reduction strategies until there is conclusive and irrefutable proof that there is a direct correlation between the warming climate and carbon emissions coming from direct human interaction with the planet.

This minefield of opinions is one that many emergency managers are afraid to step into. One strategy to consider is to concentrate on the aspect of climate change that has a direct impact on emergency manager functions and responsibilities. The one saving grace is that many people are in agreement that the weather has changed, and we are seeing more impacts from severe weather. This generally accepted view of a changing climate can be leveraged to allow you to focus on the areas of climate change that fall within the responsibility of emergency managers.

The Emergency Manager’s Role

In the last 25 years, additional hazards have been added to the inventory of things that emergency managers need to be prepared to deal with. Before the turn of the 21st century, terrorism in all its forms, including weapons of mass destruction, were an afterthought, if considered at all. Solar storms and what they can do to our modern electronic society were not a topic at conferences and seminars. The likelihood of an asteroid strike on earth, while acknowledged as possible, was dismissed as one of those things you could not plan for. All of the above are now part of the lexicon of emergency managers, and dealing with climate change is going to top that list.

Climate change is not likely to bring us a totally new category of disaster. Instead it will be the frequency, severity and wider impacts of natural disasters. Climate change may exacerbate some disasters so that they morph and become compounding events, one building on the other.

Consequence Management
The traditional role of emergency management in most people’s minds remains consequence management, being the disaster response function of coordinating agency responses to disasters as they are detected and unfold. This role will continue in the future. The change that can be expected is that the frequency and severity of disasters will increase. The increasing impacts of natural hazards will focus more attention on the discipline of emergency management and its leaders. Federal, state and local emergency managers will be in the spotlight more often and perhaps in circumstances where the resources of a community are totally overwhelmed and the systems in place are no match for the size and scale of the event and the damages incurred.

Part of this response role will include warning people and organizations of impending events. The greatest partnership in this respect is with the NWS, from whom we get the majority of our weather warnings. However, warnings require more than hazard detection. Systems for distributing the warning must be put into place and tested on a regular basis to ensure they are functional and that a warning can be issued in a timely manner to populations who are threatened. Today the majority of those warning systems come from the 20th century. Newer technologies are available that use modern telecommunications systems like smartphones and tablets to provide warning, as well as instructions people can use to protect themselves.

The last challenge in the warning process is to get people to react to the warning message and immediately follow the instructions provided. There are plenty of sociological studies that show that people do not immediately act, but check with others as to what they are doing. This process is called “milling,” and we need to find ways to hasten it. One way to do that is by utilizing social media before an event to help build trust with the general public so that your warnings have more credibility and the public’s reaction time is shortened.

Emergency managers will need to be proponents for finding ways to adapt to increased natural hazard risks. The process for doing this will require determining what assets to defend, protect or abandon. Every community will have to do its own homework as to the value of specific infrastructure or properties. In some cases, the decision to protect certain pieces of real estate will be a no-brainer. For large urban areas like New York City, their primary action will be to defend their critical infrastructure, because moving it or abandoning it to the elements is not an option. Their particular challenge will be deciding to what degree they will defend different aspects of their infrastructure. For instance, following Hurricane Sandy, New York is already seeking ways to seal off their subway systems from future flooding. The debate is already in full swing about the need to build a seawall to keep waters out of the urban area. How high should that wall be and, most importantly, who will pay for this level of protection? Should the project move forward there are sure to be compromises because of the costs involved and uncertainty about when the next large event will occur.

Emergency managers will become even more dependent on science and technology to provide the information for making adaptation choices before events and also in their aftermath as we pick up the pieces during the recovery phase. The timing for making most choices on climate adaption will only come after a large-scale disaster. It is then, and usually only then, that there will be the political willpower to make hard choices. You have the best opportunity to make advances in disaster resilience in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. As the months and years go by, the motivation and energy to make significant changes will fade rapidly. Emergency managers will need to work with their community partners in advance of a large disaster to envision how the community might be changed for the better by protecting some portions and abandoning others. Abandoning means using some techniques such as creating green space when and where it is not fiscally possible to defend every inch of land.

Moving Forward
Black Swan events are those disasters that seem rare, but in hindsight you can find evidence that they were always possible. It is just that the majority of people function in their daily lives unaware of the dangers that surround them. In part this comes from our perception of risk that is not based on statistics, but more on our personal feelings and our collective ability to measure time only in terms of a human lifespan. While it may appear that no one is listening, the emergency manager must continue to provide information on hazards and risks to their individual communities. Building coalitions of people and organizations with mutual interests in climate adaptation remains one of your best tools for success.

Emergency managers have gotten used to the federal government providing guidance, policies and funding for a whole host of issues. In the case of climate change and the need for climate adaptation, you can expect that it will be states and cities that will lead the way — as they already have been in these areas. The politics of national government and Washington, D.C., will provide significant obstacles to any forward movement on anything other than conceptual strategies. This is a case for doing it yourself and not waiting for guidance — and especially funding.

Expect the Unexpected
Insurance companies have always used past losses to measure and estimate what future losses might be. They’ve used these figures to set their customers’ premiums as they seek to have the necessary resources to meet future loss estimates. Today they acknowledge that the past is not necessarily a good guide to what losses may be in the future. They are struggling to create a better system to prognosticate about the future.

This is also true for emergency managers. We are seeing extremes across the board — seven feet of snow in Buffalo from one storm, 10 inches of rain in one hour in the South when there was no tropical storm. We are dealing with what will be a new normal when we don’t know what normal might be in the future. The bottom line is to expect the unexpected and be prepared for all eventualities. Doing so will reduce your chance of getting caught flatfooted in responding to a disaster. Remember that today’s disasters may be tomorrow’s catastrophes.

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