Reflections from "Disasters and Environment" Conference of the National Council for Science and the Environment

Posted by Jessie Levine on Wednesday, March 13 2013


Jessie Levine

Thanks to a Switzer Foundation Professional Development Grant, I had the opportunity in January to attend the 13th National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment, titled “Disasters and Environment: Science, Preparedness and Resilience.” The conference brought together experts from many disciplines and sectors to delve into the complex challenges associated with preparing for, responding to, and recovering from natural disasters.

The insights I gained at the conference will certainly enrich my work with The Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which encompasses issues of climate change adaptation as well as disaster recovery policy and planning opportunities. At TNC, I am largely focusing on identifying tools to realize the multiple benefits of improving our transportation infrastructure, particularly upgraded road-stream crossings. I began working with TNC through a Switzer Foundation Leadership Grant early in 2012, just a few months after heavy precipitation from Tropical Storm Irene caused unprecedented flooding in communities across the Adirondacks, Vermont and Massachusetts. As the region recovered and I spent time talking with local leaders and highway supervisors, it became clear that relatively simple measures to “climate proof” infrastructure can contribute to more resilient freshwater ecosystems, save communities money in the long term, and better protect people from flood impacts from intense storms like Irene and Sandy, which we expect will become more frequent in the future, and contribute to healthier and more resilient freshwater ecosystems. Yet a host of economic and regulatory hurdles are leading to the perpetuation and even rebuilding of the stream crossings and roads with the same set of problems.

The NCSE conference touched on many key themes of my work and many new topics. Here are a few highlights and reflections.

  • There was extensive discussion of resilience, and many attempts to define the concept. Since my work has mostly focused on a particular climate change impact (precipitation events increasing in intensity and frequency), I appreciated a new definition, which has helped me to broaden my view: “responding to an uncertain future, rather than adapting to a specific scenario.”
  • The idea of incentivizing resilience came up repeatedly. In places where regulatory approaches may not be feasible, agencies can take steps such as providing more post-disaster recovery funding or quicker access to the funding for communities that have taken steps to prepare and decrease their vulnerability to disaster impacts. In my work, I am working to promote economic incentives for adopting stronger infrastructure standards, and it was exciting to see this concept being taken seriously by a range of sectors, including insurance and re-insurance companies.
  • Many people talked about the challenges of communicating the value of behavior and actions that will mitigate risk. One speaker introduced the idea of changing how we portray disaster risk, from focusing that builds on fear (vulnerability to certain risks) to something that communities can proudly get behind (readiness, preparation). While this may be a small step, it can be crucial in encouraging communities, especially ones where discussing climate change is still not politically acceptable, that preparedness and hazard mitigation are worthwhile activities.
  • A major barrier to climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction measures (which are different but may have significant overlap) is the cost and the long-term nature of potential return on investment. As noted by several speakers, we have little economic information to support the case for investing in resilience measures. While my work focuses on a specific topic in a specific region, I am finalizing a study that makes this very case, and I am excited to see that it will help fill this bigger picture gap. While the tradeoff of investing in today vs tomorrow will still exist, and the mismatch between political cycles and return on adaptation investment will not go away, we will have more information that communities can use to make decisions that improve their resilience.
  • The “climate change adaptation” and “disaster risk reduction” communities remain largely in separate silos, with the former focused on ecological health and the latte focused on human communities, yet they are often doing and encouraging many of the same things. This conference reinforced the importance of working together; for my work, this means reaching out to emergency managers to talk about what we are doing, learn about their concerns and begin to work together.
  • There was widespread criticism of the National Flood Insurance Program, the federal government’s second largest fiscal liability, on the grounds that it effectively uses tax dollars to subsidize development that private insurers find too risky to cover at an affordable rate. As a reinsurance company director noted, we should not “use insurance-like programs to encourage bad zoning.”
  • Finally, the conference was full of great stories, which reminded me the importance of making this kind of work more meaningful at the local level through stories and examples rather than only through high-level analytical discussions.

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