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A New View of Disaster Risk and Reduction: An Interview with Roger Pulwarty, Senior Scientist at NOAA

Image Courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by the Environmental Change and Security Program’s New Security Beat on 21 October 2019.

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction recently released the fifth edition of the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR19). The report highlights the increasingly complex interaction between hazards, and provides an update on how risk and risk reduction are understood in practice. GAR19 also highlights how the latest Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) framework integrates into global goals such as the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To better understand the scope and significance of this report, New Security Beat sat down with Roger Pulwarty, Senior Scientist at NOAA, and a lead author of the GAR19.

New Security Beat: In the foreword of GAR19, Mami Mizutori writes, “this report represents a major step towards a twenty-first century view of risk and its reduction.” Can you provide some context for why that is, and explain what makes this particular report so significant?

Roger Pulwarty: This particular report is the first integrated global assessment report on disaster risk reduction since the Sendai Agreement was signed. Previous GARs also emphasized that risk is a function of more than simply hazard—that disasters are not natural, but a product of the interaction of often naturally occurring events and human agency.  This one is different in the sense that it’s the first report that does not take simply a risk analysis approach—in other words, what’s the event, who’s impacted, and what comes out of that—but a systemic approach, acknowledging knowledge, uncertainty, and the potential for surprises, one that asks, what are the drivers that interact and produce complex risks? We know that perception, social, and economic conditions play a big role in risk. We know that they drive issues surrounding environmental degradation, so that when droughts or floods happen (ie. a hazard), we can end up with catastrophes. This report aims to find “what is a systemic view of disasters.” What are all of the drivers that change a hazard into a disaster?

Drivers and responses are complex. Without that understanding, we assume that adaptation and response is more linear than it really is in practice. This report also attempts to look at risks as not just local, but globally networked. For example, when a place experiences food insecurity, it is about what is being produced in that location, it is about who gets what, but it’s also about how global trade affects them.

New Security Beat: What precipitated the switch in focus?

Roger Pulwarty: I wouldn’t say it’s so much a switch as it is an evolution of thought. With all of these things, we start by understanding what different disciplines bring to a problem. But how those disciplines are integrated in solving a problem is not that clear. Just because each discipline brings some piece of knowledge to the problem, doesn’t mean we’re integrating around the solution. Right now, we have a lot of uncoordinated solutions. They have become easier to identify, but not necessarily easier to implement in practice. And that is an evolution in the way of thinking from the Hyogo Framework to the Sendai Framework. Now the issues surrounding the Sustainable Development Goals and climate adaptation are at least trying to be taken into account when understanding disasters.

New Security Beat: The Pacific Region is at the forefront of using risk reduction in conjunction with development planning methods. What is driving this approach? What can other regions learn from the Pacific?

Roger Pulwarty: In places such as the Pacific and other island regions like the Caribbean, what we’re seeing are relatively small, vulnerable economies that have to collaborate, leverage capabilities, resources, and services, and have to be integrated at the regional level. No single small economy can handle all the risks that they are facing. As I like to tell people, if you’re in an island environment—and I was born on one—when you have impacts on one coast and you migrate away from that coast, you’re on the other coast. Because of the urgency of changes—in sea level rise, wave heights and energy, migration, and so on—there is a stronger need to collaborate.

As a result, we’ve seen a lot of events related to planning and practice in the Pacific and Caribbean. They’ve been able to develop information to help reduce risks associated with disasters from an emergency standpoint—getting people out of the way of risks.

But I don’t think that these regions can actually be successful in adaptation without some globally networked links to institutions and support for environmental buffers. Sharing knowledge is how we learn, how we adapt, and how we adjust.

New Security Beat: You’ve talked a bit about what is working within the DRR framework. Where is there room for improvement?

Roger Pulwarty: There’s been a dichotomy for almost 40 years in the literature: that human security impacts are from just the event, or from just the social drivers. Researchers have spent years playing “Gotcha.” But we can’t answer the question about human security without considering both. While the drivers of human insecurity are systemic and long term, it is the proximate events that actually trigger or expose our awareness of those vulnerabilities, and create the windows in which action can take place—but as a well know philosopher of science once noted “bad idea have windows, too.” So, unless we look at both the timescales of early warning and long-term risk reduction, we will not get at the factors and the interventions that constrain or enable risk in the long term. The fundamental question is really, why, in spite of knowing that risk is socially constructed (for more than 50 years), aren’t more solutions commensurate with that knowledge?

There are also areas where we can improve the breadth of knowledge from which we’re drawing. Probably most important is where and how financing for disaster risk reduction, Sustainable Development Goals, and adaptation to climate change can be better aligned to get at an integrated response to a changing environment and avoid the dodge of upfront costs as a distraction.

New Security Beat: So how do we go about actually addressing the drivers of risk in an integrated way that doesn’t oversimplify the drivers, but also doesn’t obscure entry points with complexity?

Roger Pulwarty: There is the tendency either to try to find the one driver to bind them all—which, by the way, there never is a single one—or to make everything so complex that it’s difficult to know where and when to act. It’s become a red herring to say “it’s not climate, it’s because governance was bad.” The question is, knowing that, how do we use the trigger of an event to actually get at this fundamental question?  The idea is: What’s the entry point? In this case, the disaster offers an entry point…if we are ready and willing to act.

But if you walk in and you say “well, you know, it’s because you folks made poor decisions about w, y, and z” you won’t get very far. Those who work on these issues from the point of political ecology and systems have revealed vast inequities, which are absolutely necessary to recognize. But we’re not going to fix things by saying “you created this risk.” Unless you’re there to help me solve the problem, I don’t want to hear about it. But when we share risks and opportunities, we can find a way out of it together.

New Security Beat: The GAR19, just like IPCC, gives us a statement about risks and the potential for future risks. What should we do with that foresight?

Roger Pulwarty: For using foresight, early warning information systems are critical. A modern view of early warning information systems involves not just a statement of risk or an “early warning,” but embedding that knowledge in practice. Questions like: What are the institutions and how are they arranged, what roles are they playing and what triggers decisions, and how do we ensure that the marginalized are involved in the decisions? Not just the decision to act, but the decisions related to the investments for reducing risk. Also, just as important in governance is empowering leaders at each stage of the process. No institution, however well designed, is independent of two or three people making it work as it was intended to. We need to find or help develop those people, the so-called “policy entrepreneurs” or “change-agents,” or whatever the new word for it is, at the local, state, and national levels, and ensure that they’re actually supported to do their jobs. These are the people who are not simply careerists but who assume immense professional and personal risks to bridge cultures, link ways of knowing, and build networks.

The successful interventions we’ve looked at share common traits. You have the events, triggers, and awareness of the long-term risk, the public and leadership engaged, you have a basis for a collaboration with researchers and others, and you have a few people who have dedicated their lives to making it work. The latter we tend to underplay, because the institutional aspects overwhelm a lot of that. But change doesn’t come about if there are not a few of those people making it happen beyond the project lifetime.

New Security Beat: Are there any closing thoughts you’d like to add?

Roger Pulwarty: We have many different approaches to trying to understand risk and the opportunities that are provided for communities to be able to take advantage of those risks. The view is that understanding the physical drivers and the socio-economic drivers of risk is fundamental. But there’s a third aspect, which is people’s capacity to see themselves as being able to make a change in their environment and their lives. That is, human dignity. This is the most important thing. Being able or capable to make an informed choice about what happens to you and what you can do about it.


About the Author

Mckenna Coffey is an intern with the Environmental Change and Security program at the Wilson Center. 

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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