Climate Change Integration (Remarks from the February 27, 2017 launch of Climate Change and Natural

The following is a summary of my remarks at the launch of Dr. Vinod Thomas' book Climate Change and Natural Disasters:

Good evening. Dr. Tomas asked that I speak tonight about my experience with emergency management and climate change, but first I’d like to add to the praise he’s received on the launch of his new book. Vinod deserves recognition not only because this book is an important addition to the small, but growing climate change catalogue; I also want to recognize that his book contributes specifically to what we know and understand about the consequence management side of climate change response. This is the part of the problem that matters most to emergency managers, and to the disaster risk management community.

In fact, emergency managers haven’t ever been very concerned about whether climate change is man-made, part of some natural cycle, or something else entirely, because that has little bearing on their role. Dr. Thomas’ book effectively connects these two separate issues – managing greenhouse gas emissions, and managing the impacts of climate change. This simple – yet fairly elusive concept – called “integration” – is a theme in Dr. Thomas’ book, and is likewise something I believe to be the foundation of community, and country resilience.

I would like to illustrate this point, but before I do so I need to step back and provide some context about what climate change means in the emergency management world, as this helps to explain why integration is even needed.

During my twenty years in the emergency management profession, which has placed me in close working relationships with stakeholders at the international, national, and local levels, I have never seen any issue that has had as profound and rapid an impact on the long-term direction of my filed as climate change has had these past few years. Until just very recently, the greater operational focus of the climate change community was almost exclusively on prevention rather than on dealing with the potential disaster impacts. Even just ten years ago, when we still called it ‘global warming’ – most emergency managers viewed climate change as a potential future problem that might or might not materialize depending on whether the regulatory folks could head it off. And so while it was a common topic in planning discussions, there wasn’t very much in the sense of operational activity, especially at the local levels.

More recently, in the past five or ten years, we’ve hit a tipping point, and communities are starting to see the direct impacts of climate change, and this has set off an awakening of sorts among emergency managers. Some of this is a result of increased availability of funding or perhaps the promise of it, but most of it is genuine recognition in the face of increasing impacts. But it’s still very new from this perspective, and to many emergency managers, it’s not clear what this new hazard means.

The problem is that climate change isn’t a typical hazard for an emergency manager. First of all, climate change impacts aren’t exactly obvious, in the sense that it isn’t always clear where the regular hazard ends and where the climate change part begins. It’s not like we have buildings brought down, or people killed, as a direct result of climate change. To the emergency manager, climate change isn’t so much a novel hazard as it is a skewing of risk assessments for hazards already faced, like coastal flooding, or cyclones. It creeps up, invalidates our plans, increases our response requirements, and clouds what we know about vulnerability.

A second difference is that climate change isn’t so much a distinct hazard as it is a larger social issue, like crime or poverty. It’s existence, and its causes, are linked to almost everyone, and to everything we do, across all of government and society. And because of this, there is no single discipline, no function of government, and no profession that is able to simply take over the problem and solve it on their own, emergency management included. Emergency managers understand well that the impacts are something they will have to figure out. But the rest of it – the emissions control, public opinion, renewable energy - that’s not something they consider a part of their wheelhouse, and so they feel justified in avoiding it.

If we consider the terrorism hazard, there are many similarities for emergency managers in this regard. The preparedness and consequence response activities are an obvious match - but there is a whole different group of people that handle the prevention. With climate change, emergency management is a critical part of the solution, but it’s just that - a part of a much larger whole. Driving the climate change agenda, we also have the Climate Change Management community, which started and grew almost entirely outside of the emergency management world (which makes sense given this was an environmental and regulatory problem before it was ever a disaster problem.) And we have a third, completely distinct group, which is the Development community, which like emergency management, has been tangentially thrust into climate change.

We now find ourselves in a situation where the problem is being hit from three different sides, by three distinct professional communities, each with its own unique, highly-siloed structure. And that means separate Frameworks, separate plans, and separate organizations, which we see not only at the international level, but also at the national and local levels. And this is where Integration becomes so important.

In 2013, when the Hyogo Framework for Action was nearing its end, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction was beginning to take shape, there was considerable uncertainty about what role climate change would play in the new agreement. This was compounded by the fact that at the exact same time, the Kyoto Protocol and the Millennium Development Goals – both of which have disaster and climate change influences – were also nearing renewal.

At this point in the process, I was contracted by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction to capture examples where these three policy goals (climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable development) were happening in a coordinated - or rather an integrated - way.

The first step was to define integration, and we concluded that in the context of climate change it is actually two different things. First, it’s the formal, and functional alignment of these three goals - essentially a merging together where efficiencies exist (joining together the people, the resources, and the projects). And second, it’s the mainstreaming of these three goals, across all of government, recognizing that they aren’t limited functions but rather are broad efforts that go beyond what any one agency or ministry does.

While the study had a global reach, we decided to focus on the Pacific because it is the first place where climate change became an existential threat not only to a country but to a whole region. The Pacific has often been called our ‘climate change canary in a coal mine’, and unfortunately it makes for a good comparison except that with all the urgency that exists there, the progress on a number of issues that exists there is at times generations ahead of what exists elsewhere - especially with regards to integration.

It’s not just the urgency though. Because these countries have such compact government structures, efficiency is an administrative necessity. Small governments must often do more with less, and so it made sense to reduce redundancy and see how climate change responsibilities could be shared or spread across government. The movement actually started in Tonga with a directive by the Prime Minister to streamline Climate Change, DRR, and sustainable development efforts. Less than nine months later, Tonga issued the first of Joint National Action Plan, or JNAP, on climate change, DRR, and sustainable development.

The plan itself took care of the type of integration – the coordination of issues, stakeholders, and money. To address the mainstreaming component, an Integration Secretariat was created in the Prime Minister’s office, tasked with creating a “whole of government” approach.

What happened in Tonga set things in motion for the region, and with the help of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme several other Pacific countries followed along with the same or similar arrangements.

Obviously this just touches the surface of what was involved in making integration happen in the Pacific - and I should be clear that it isn’t necessarily possible or even practical to just scale up what happened there in larger countries. However, the study showed that there is little for any country to avoid some version of these integration activities. Beyond the fact that integration simplifies the organizational structures, and breaks down the traditional siloes, it provides a key set of important benefits in that it:

  1. Makes funding go much farther across all three policy goals than it otherwise could if limited within a single silo;

  2. It opens up new and more coordinated ways to address risk from all-hazards, not just those associated with climate change;

  3. It helps all the different stakeholders to know who each other is and what each other is doing; and

  4. It helps to make climate change policies and strategies more coherent and complementary.

While my perspective is that of disaster risk management, the experience I just described is shared by the climate change and development communities as well. And it is important to add that these three communities will always be distinct from each other - which isn’t a bad thing. It is possible to have effective integration while maintaining organizational independence. In fact, while integration does feature throughout the new Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, there is special recognition that each community must be cognizant of “respecting the respective mandates” of each other.

For more information on integration, I recommend the SPREP report JNAP Development and Implementation in the Pacific: Experience, Lessons, and Way Forward, and the joint UNDP, ISDR, and GFDRR report Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation in the Pacific.

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