The Climate Conversation Must Include Emergency Management

Yesterday I wrote a summary of everything that candidates said about disasters or that were directly related to emergency management. I wasn’t going to do much more than that but it came to my attention today that the only mention of this topic was a single, slightly misinformed, Wired article nothing else was written.

 This is absolutely mind-boggling to me as the entire framing of the even was Dorian bearing down on the East Coast after causing catastrophic damage in the Bahamas. There was even a live feed of a bush fire burning in California. The audience was filled with Disaster survivors and candidates went on and on about all of the communities they have been to that have recently experienced disasters. 

They all acknowledge that disasters are our future and that those disasters are influenced by climate change. This is a major part of the story and certain deserves at least half the attention that Kamala Harris is bizarre answer about straws has gotten. I understand that politicians and mainstream media are light-years behind what activist, survivors, and scientists know to be true about climate change generally and disasters specifically but to have no coverage of these literally life and death impacts happening now is unconscionable.

So, I’m dictating this post via Bluetooth while I drive to campus to start my actual real full-time job. Forgive the typos and lack of links for support. 

 I should preface this by saying I cannot think of another political debate, Townhall, etc. that has discussed disasters and emergency management as much as this event did. That is a very good thing. That said, it is appropriate and necessary for us to critique what was said both in terms of the questions that were asked on the answers that were given. 

There were several key themes that I felt came out of the discussions regarding disasters an emergency management. 

1.   The impacts of disasters are unequal. There are various impacts that vary according to race, class, gender. There was recognition of this inequality for all four phases. and that this trickles over into the recovery. Some candidates were successful in linking this to environmental justice. I thought some candidates were more successful than others though. That said none of these candidates were offering up tangible policy ideas to address these issues. Castro came the closest with the Civil Rights Office. I need to read more about this but I am a little uncler how this would have an immediate, tangible impact for communitiies. Good in the long-term though.

2.   We all know that we need to be preventing disasters from happening in the first place. I will say this is a pretty new thing for politicians to be saying and emphasizing and I am 100% here for it. We have always been and currently are reactive when it comes to emergency management and you’ll rarely meet an expert in the field who says we shouldn’t be proactive. In fact, disaster researchers and emergency managers have been saying this for DECADES. That said, as Booker said about re-joining the Paris agreement, saying that you’re going to mitigate the impacts of climate change is barrier for entry in running for president in 2020. 

3.   Related to mitigation the third theme was this question of retreat. This seemed to be a big theme because CNN was making it a big theme. Certainly there are communities now and in the future that will need to move because of the effects of climate change. That said I’m not sure why uprooting people’s lives should be a final resort, not the starting place. This notion that the impacts of climate change are only on our coast is a major problem. When you look across the country there is no place left untouched already by the effects of climate change. From flooding in the Midwest, to heat waves, to wildfires, I don’t understand why it is so difficult to grasp that it’s not just an issue of moving someplace else. But, fine, even if relocation or managed retreat is your primary approach to climate adaptation not a single candidate is offering policy that says how they will effectively, efficiently, justly do so. Beto saying he was going to fully fund FEMA and fully fund the PDM is not a policy idea it’s the starting place. Furthermore the suggestion from some candidates, namely Bernie Sanders, that the federal government will cut off aid to people who have been affected by disasters to dictate their recovery process. Was a huge statement not backed by any serious policy but rather a snide comment about sticks and carrots. Disaster survivors aren’t horses.

4.   Terminology was a nightmare. There was a significant discussion regarding what we would call either climate adaptation or disaster/hazard mitigation. There is a lot of confusion surrounding these terms because of course climate mitigation is referring to mitigating the affect mitigating climate change itself. Joe Biden especially really messed this one up in answering a question asked by the mother of a woman who died during Sandy. She was asking about disaster mitigation policy and he answered with something about appliance standards. Of course, climate mitigation is also disaster mitigation which again is where a lot of this gets confusing. However if you were running to be the President of the United States of America you need to be able to distinguish between mitigation and adaptation in there multiple forms and know what it means. When is survivor from Puerto Rico is asking about tangible recovery policies and you’re answering her with mitigation policies we’ve got a problem. The focus on mitigation was good however, the other three phases of disaster are just as important. We are not going to mitigate every single disaster before it happens. Even if we had a nation-wide investment in mitigation there would still be bad things that happened that require us to prepare respond and recover. Our current set up leaves the President of the United States with real influence over our approach to emergency management. They need to have a general understanding of the difference between recovery and mitigation. I don’t expect the President of the United States to be an expert in emergency management. I do expect that the President of the United States and the candidates who are taking a run for president seriously have emergency management expert prepping them for an event like this. I don’t think that a single one of them does (For the love of god, ELIZABETH WARREN CALL ME). 

I think that most candidates take disasters seriously. I’m thinking especially of Castro and Warren here who both had empathetic (it’s a low bar but still) responses to questions asked of them and seem to be the two that at least have stopped to think about potential policy. Castro’s defense of the national flood insurance program was really fantastic and I wish that he had the opportunity to expand on that more. I think Warren’s ability to prioritize the local community when it comes to emergency management and disaster issues was interesting. I don’t fully know how she would cut out state government in the process of administering funding but I’d like to here more. 

Ultimately I felt like some of the candidates, again the ones were taking this seriously, probably have some good ideas or could find the people who do have good ideas but they just haven’t thought about it. It’s frustrating to see that this issue we see replicated among the public of not thinking about disasters until they happen is true of the presidential candidates as well. In the same way that we cannot be reactive in emergency management anymore neither can the candidates who are running for president. They need to be proactive in their approach to emergency management. It needs to be integrated into all of their plans and policy.