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Malgosia Madajewicz Studies How Communities Make Decisions in the Face of Rising Seas

Malgosia Madajewicz, an associate research scientist at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR), has learned from experience that communities vulnerable to climate change are hungry for opportunities to improve their livelihoods.

Malgosia Madajewicz headshot
Malgosia Madajewicz is an economist who focuses on climate adaptation at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research.

Working with communities in New York City, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Jamaica, and Tanzania, Madajewicz has seen how important it is to involve local citizens in planning for climate change impacts. The economist has observed that whether or not people benefit from an intervention depends on how well it is tailored to the local environment, regardless of how good the underlying science is. She says the only time communities become resistant to climate change “assistance” is when it is poorly designed for people’s needs in the local context.

Madajewicz’s family migrated to Buffalo, New York, when she was 13 years old. “I grew up in communist Poland and my parents were refugees when I was still a teenager. It has been a long road for me to become an economist,” she says. Her curiosity about the abject wealth disparities across the globe resulted in her earning a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard University.

Since then, her work has focused on developmental issues and more specifically, on how communities that are the most vulnerable to climate change can sustain their livelihoods and adapt to climate change. In a conversation with State of the Planet, Madajewicz talks about the social sciences aspect of climate change adaptation and her latest research work.

As an economist, how did you carve a niche for yourself in climate change adaptation and management of climate risks?

It was mainly driven by my interests. I am a development economist. While working in different countries, I realized how the impacts of climate change are fundamental to addressing every development issue that there is.

group of people talking under a tree
A farmers’ group in Adi Ha, Ethiopia, meets to discuss how well a drought risk management project being implemented by Oxfam America and the World Food Program is working. Madajewicz (front, right) is evaluating the impacts of the project on farmers’ livelihoods. (Photo courtesy Malgosia Madajewicz)

I also became increasingly conscious of this being the biggest crisis humanity has faced in a long time. It became difficult for me to think about anything else. I knew that to remain motivated in my research and passionate about what I’m doing I need to simultaneously understand the impacts of climate change and what society can do about them.

So, I joined the International Research Institute for Climate and Society [at Columbia University] in 2007, where I was focusing on finding approaches to climate risk management in developing countries. I continue to have projects in developing countries in both rural and urban areas. But, after Hurricane Sandy, I also started studying climate impacts in urban areas of the northeastern U.S. after moving to CCSR in 2011.

As a member of the Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast (CCRUN), can you tell us more about how communities have been coping with coastal flooding and sea level rise? 

It was surprising to observe that few people have begun to adapt to increasing risk of flooding driven by sea level rise. I found that one of the major issues was the lack of access to information about flood risk that is sufficiently specific to inform decisions about what people can do. Communities simply don’t have the information required to plan ahead and prepare.

Where did these coastal communities go wrong while rebuilding their homes post-Hurricane Sandy?

They spent all of their money on rebuilding their homes exactly how they were before the natural disaster hit them. The boilers and water heaters went back into the basement exactly where they were before. There was an opportunity at that time to build resilience for the future and it was missed. And unfortunately, it was missed at a big cost because the communities along the coast in NYC are not particularly wealthy. They are low- to middle-income communities. These homeowners wiped themselves out financially, so today they are far more vulnerable to future storms and sea level rise than they were before Hurricane Sandy.

One of my ongoing projects is engaging with coastal residents to develop collaboration within their communities. And to also provide them with information that they could use to prepare for future floods. This includes educating them about the costs of not adapting to future flooding — that is, the costs of future flood damages in the absence of adaptation — and adaptation options.

I was also studying whether access to relevant information affects behavior, and which other policies are needed to spur adaptation action. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc with that project. The entire project is based on workshops and face-to-face engagement with residents. So we’re on pause at the moment.

What kind of climate change adaptation measures do you think the homeowners should have taken while rebuilding post-Hurricane Sandy?

They could have replaced all those electric utilities higher up in the house where they would be out of the way of future floods. That way, people wouldn’t lose access to electricity. New York City is currently working hard to upgrade its electricity infrastructure to build resistance against future storms. If people had done their bit on their end in the homes, they might have not suffered the kind of electrical outage that lasted from weeks to months after Hurricane Sandy in some places.

What is the most frustrating part of being an economist in the climate change sector?

Most attention is focused on climate science and models of the physical environment. But, relatively little attention is being paid to how people make decisions, how information and policies influence decisions, and how decisions and policies influence outcomes that people care about and that determine livelihoods. Those are critical linkages. Resilience and adaptation are going to be built on people’s behavior — things that people choose to do or not to do. And then their ability to do those things with the incentives that might be provided. That part of the picture is receiving less attention at the moment.

group of people sitting at a table
A group of Columbia researchers and collaborators from Jamaica meet with farmers who work on a large coffee farm in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains to discuss the challenges to coffee production, and in particular risks posed by the changing climate. The conversation explored whether seasonal climate forecasts may help farmers to manage their coffee production. Madajewicz collaborated on developing the project and evaluating the impacts of climate information on farmers’ livelihoods. (Photo courtesy Malgosia Madajewicz)
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