State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


We Must Incorporate Social Justice When Planning for Compound Disasters

images of hurricane laura, an armed rebel, a home, and a climate forecast map
Compound disasters are situations in which multiple hazards are simultaneously active in the same geographic location or across interconnected regions and populations. Image credits (clockwise from top left): NOAA; Pierre Holtz/UNICEF; International Research Institute for Climate and Society; Vespertunes

As the world faces multiple, concurrent risks — a rapidly warming climate, megadroughts in the American West, new variants and new waves of COVID-19 infections in India, Brazil, and elsewhere — local communities, policy makers, frontline responders, and researchers all face the rising challenges of compound disasters and complex emergencies. These are situations in which multiple hazards are all simultaneously active in the same geographic location or across interconnected regions and populations. The coincidence and interconnectivity of affected people, supply chains, and ecosystems produce compounding effects that heighten the adverse impacts of the hazard while also dividing already limited resources across a wider array of issues and social needs. That compounding of impacts can produce a complex emergency response setting where different actors are all facing a variety of risks, and various response organizations have to navigate the same operating environment, albeit with different missions and goals.

For example, the damage from a tropical cyclone could devastate property, livelihoods and local culture, with dangerous and costly response operations. But when a tropical cyclone impacts an area already disrupted by longer-term stressors such as civil conflict, economic shocks, crop failure from drought, and a pandemic, the risks and costs rise exponentially. While a year ago this hypothetical example may have sounded implausible, this is exactly the sort of situation that many communities around the world have faced or are facing in both wealthy and poorer countries. Unfortunately, over the past year the pandemic has once again shown that underserved and marginalized communities often bear the greatest costs of compound risks and complex emergencies. Often, race and gender are determining factors of who bears the brunt of these emergencies and who are the last to recover.

Because of the urgency of these issues, we worked with an interdisciplinary group of co-authors to publish an opinion piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that calls for the development of new approaches to risk preparedness and response. We and our co-authors combined our collective experience in responding to compound disasters or providing support services in disaster preparedness and response to identify key functions and focal areas that need to be developed to prevent environmental and social shocks from evolving into compound disasters.

illustration shows people running through rain across gap to safe area with umbrellas
We need to redesign institutions to be proactive, agile, and socially just when confronted with compound risks that have become increasingly likely. Image credit: Dave Cutler/PNAS

Among these recommendations, we call for the development of agile, rapidly deployable analytical capabilities that can inform policy planning with a more complete view of the risks, both social and environmental. In recent years, the increased availability of climatic and social data presents opportunities to make progress in addressing disproportionate impact from disasters. However, while availability of these data increases, we see impact from disasters increasing, not decreasing. We must rethink the mechanisms for integrating the right data into disaster risk decision-making at the right time, by those trusted by marginalized communities.

We also highlight the need to enhance communication across disciplines and policy spheres in order to more effectively incorporate multiple types of data and information. This requires that community-based knowledge and stakeholder perspectives be included in the planning and response processes so that we can more effectively anticipate where compound disasters and complex emergencies may emerge, and quickly divert resources to mitigate the compounding effect of concurrent hazards. Importantly, and perhaps most crucially, we call for race- and gender- focused social justice to be built into the entire cycle of early warning, response and resilience planning, stating, “We believe we are at a critical juncture, faced with a need and responsibility to redesign institutions to be proactive, agile, and socially just when confronted with increasingly likely compound risks.”

In our paper, we identify several focal areas for collaborative work. Existing institutions need to be redesigned, and new institutions need to be created to enable diverse stakeholders to work together toward better, more comprehensive disaster preparation. This requires a new sort of flexibility in institutions that have traditionally been rigid or slow to change, such as governmental agencies, large non-governmental organizations, and academic institutions. This requires both an organizational culture shift as well as development of new financing models. In addition to institution and financing redesign, we suggest three focal areas that can enhance planning and response efforts. These include: 1) combined natural and social scientific research on the dynamics of compound disasters and complex emergencies; 2) short-term and rapid deployment support for governments and frontline response actors; and 3) longer-term job exchange programs that place researchers into operational settings and policy makers/responders into research settings, to cross-pollinate research and practice.

While these are important focal areas, we acknowledge that redesigning institutions, financing, and disciplinary divides is a daunting task. However, our paper urges governments, academic institutions, and financiers to take up the gauntlet. Importantly though, this has to be done through the lens of social justice. As COVID-19 has made abundantly clear, social disparities linked to racism and exclusion heighten the risk and magnitude of compound disasters, severely impacting the very communities that are least equipped to handle them, and making society as a whole more vulnerable.

The creation of the Climate School at Columbia University offers an opportunity for one of the leading academic institutions in the world to take up this charge — leading by example, convening relevant stakeholders who typically address one kind of risk and incentivizing a more integrated approach that looks at how these risks intersect and collide in practice. This is exactly the type of holistic and systems approach that the school is striving to advance by building pathways and connectivity across and beyond disciplines and networking with policy organizations. The aim is to work together to co-create approaches that will help lead to more resilient, just and prepared societies in the face of compounding threats.

Jackie Klopp is co-director of Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development. Andrew Kruczkiewicz is a senior staff associate at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. Joshua Fisher is the director of the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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