State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Haiti: America’s ‘Teachable Moment’

stevecohenPresident Obama is providing the leadership we need and hoped for in the face of the horror of the Haitian earthquake. The clearest evidence of American unity behind the effort to respond to the tragedy in Haiti took place at the White House on Saturday, Jan. 16, as Obama joined forces with two ex-presidents to announce the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund. The simple humanitarian impulse that led these leaders to set aside partisanship represents this country at its best.

While it will never be as fast as it needs to be, a massive response to the Haitian earthquake is well underway, led by the Obama administration with contributions from other governments, nongovernmental organizations, corporations and individuals throughout the world. The president’s commitment is being backed up by troops, food, medical care and, most importantly, leadership. As he promised, we are not “forsaking or forgetting” the Haitian people. Some may argue that the sheer scope and intensity of this tragedy leaves the administration no option; but when it comes to public policy, we all know that even in the face of the unimaginable, the idiotic is always possible.

Here in New York City, and all over America, emergency responders have been trying to make their way to Haiti. Private money has been donated, and ships ranging from a floating hospital to an aircraft carrier have either already landed or are on the way now. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and USAID administrator Dr. Raj Shah have traveled to Haiti. I hope that in the near future President Obama will visit Port-au-Prince himself.

With the exception of the craziest fringes of right-wing media, most Americans are united in their compassion for the victims of this horrific disaster, and support for efforts to help out. This provides the president with what might be called a “teachable moment.” Obama has an opportunity to demonstrate American compassion, commitment and competence to the rest of the world, while perhaps increasing America’s own understanding of the human tragedy of extreme poverty.

Over the past several days the images and stories from Haiti have been burned into our collective consciousness, and we must now digest the sheer horror and the extent of the collapse before us. An earthquake of this magnitude in a wealthy developed nation would not have nearly the devastating impact we are seeing in Haiti. David Brooks made this point in his New York Times column by comparing the 63 deaths during the 1989 Bay Area earthquake and the many thousands of deaths in Haiti.

While Brooks does have a point, I think it is also important to understand that even wealthy cities are not immune to natural or human-made disasters. It is true that wealthy nations are more able than poor ones to respond to disasters and rebuild in their aftermath. However, those of us who were here in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, got a taste of how vulnerable we all are to disaster. Wealth is a necessary but not sufficient condition for resilience in the face of disaster.

The world today is a more crowded and interconnected place than ever before. With most of us now urban dwellers, disasters that might have only grazed human population centers now hit them dead on. Disease and disaster that strike one part of the world inevitably have impacts in other parts of the world. We can run, but we cannot hide. I know that I am not the only one who looks at the New York City skyline whenever I travel to another place, and pray that it will still be there when I return.

If we are to survive, human beings must help each other in times of great distress. President Obama is doing a wonderful job of leading and coordinating our response, but we need to invest in worldwide resources to reduce the impact of disasters.

After the World Trade Center was attacked, Manhattan was closed below 14th Street, but the whole, much larger, city shuddered. New York City is fortunate to be protected by the “finest” (NYPD) and the “bravest” (FDNY). They are so good at what they do, we all know them by their acronyms. This is a model that is well worth imitating. While right now we must devote all of our energy and resources to the disaster at hand, when that work is completed, it is essential to upgrade the informal network of disaster-relief institutions now in place.

There is a great deal of work to be done in responding to the crisis in Haiti, and in saving lives still very much in peril. We should be proud of the selflessness and sacrifice of all of those on the front lines of response in Haiti and of our last three presidents for their important decision to lead by example.

Steve Cohen is executive director of The Earth Institute, Columbia University. A version of the piece previously appeared in the Huffington Post.

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