State of the Planet

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Designing Impactful Climate Literacy Education for Emergency Management—and Beyond

Emergency managers are tasked with preparation, response, mitigation and recovery from natural hazards leading to disasters and other emergencies—a responsibility that has grown increasingly challenging as climate impacts become more frequent and less predictable.

Joshua DeVincenzo
Joshua DeVincenzo

For Joshua L. DeVincenzo, assistant director for education and training and adjunct lecturer at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia Climate School, this issue raises several questions. For one, do emergency managers believe in the science behind climate change and that climate change is impacting their jobs? And if not, DeVincenzo wanted to understand what some of the disconnects are, and how they might be addressed in a productive way that bridges politics.

Through exploratory research—mainly interviews, surveys and assessments—DeVincenzo hopes to gauge the current mindset of U.S. emergency managers when it comes to sustainability and climate change impacts. He also hopes to identify a practical path forward for comprehensive training and education; a path that will also be meaningful for climate experts and other professionals in the future.

In the Q&A below, DeVincenzo details his key findings, as well as how they can translate to real change for the emergency management field and beyond.

What was the motivation behind your research?

At NCDP, we work on a series of training and education grants funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And a really unique and unprecedented thing happened with FEMA’s most recent strategic plan: They prioritized climate literacy [the understanding of one’s influence on climate, and of climate’s influence on individuals and society] for the very first time, which opened up a lot of opportunities and exciting programs and initiatives.

There are a lot of unknowns around how emergency managers as a field are going to respond to FEMA’s new strategic priority. And there are plenty of ideological political barriers that need to be unraveled to use this small window of opportunity to figure out some of the existing knowledge and attitudes toward climate.

How do we create effective training and education programs, especially knowing there might be different reactions around the country? How much of the content needs to be focused on teaching the science behind climate change and how much of it also needs to be directly applicable to emergency managers and what they’re seeing and facing?

What were the main takeaways?

Almost every type of organization sector probably needs their own baseline assessment on what climate training looks like and what climate literacy means  for them, because so much of what came from the study is very unique to emergency management.

Text reads 100% participants reported a willingness to spend at least 1-2 hours learning about climate change in a given year

There’s a concept called potential for future learning that helped me navigate the study. We didn’t want this to feel like an exam on emergency managers’ degree of climate literacy. Instead, we wanted to know: How do we create a learning environment with the resources these individuals need so that they’re on a trajectory to expertise? What are some of conditions that are necessary for fruitful engagement between emergency management, climate experts, policymakers and educators?

Even in this study of a profession of very service-oriented, mission-driven individuals, one of the participants was not completely convinced of the science of climate change. But he was still willing to participate in all the data-collection methods and to contribute his perspective to give a well-rounded and holistic picture of the field.

We found that even if people aren’t necessarily agreeing on the causes of climate change, they still said the effects were overwhelmingly evident in their day-to-day operations. They still want to be there to help their communities and support all the phases of the disaster response and preparedness.

What do you hope will come from this work?

The study gave us a lot of insights around areas to emphasize, and also areas to potentially avoid when talking about climate. We were able to see people in this study envisioning climate change in their own professional frameworks and infrastructure. So if we can start framing our training from that direction, that’s going to be more impactful.

Were any of the findings surprising to you?

One of the surprises for me was how important the four phases of emergency management— preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation—were to this group. They almost form these strict lanes in which, if you’re talking to a preparedness person, they want to talk about climate change in a preparedness fashion. Or if you’re talking to a mitigation person, they want to talk about it through a mitigation lens. Without going to the depths of this research project, we might have opted for a very broad overarching approach to climate change, rather than tailoring the education to these subsets or focus areas.

It was also very clear that there was a shared sense of being overwhelmed by climate change within this field, which is very understandable.

During COVID, participants said they were asked to go above and beyond their typical roles and responsibilities. They shared a fear that climate change would impose a similar type of overwhelming burden on their role.

text reads 73.21% of participants said that they are extremely sure that climate change is occurring.

They also mentioned, prior to the Biden administration, you couldn’t even really talk about climate change much in emergency management circles. So there’s a nice momentum going now. But one thing I want to convey is that, although we are championing climate literacy for emergency management and across sectors, it is going to come down to the resources to actually operate on any type of these projects.

We need the scientific information, but we also need the tools and operational activities to become ingrained in day-to-day roles and responsibilities. And how do you marry those topics? At least for the near term, I think that will always be the question for organizations.

Outside of emergency managers, what other individuals do you think should be paying attention to these findings?

I think any organization could benefit from these findings. It is a step-by-step process that has to be scaffolded quite strategically. Every organization is going to have their own needs, motivating factors, resource capacity and mental model frameworks.

There is some transferability to the larger public in the sense that we’re thinking about how adults and professionals want to engage with climate change information. And it was very clear from the outset that solely providing better data sets and the like wasn’t going to be enough.

The other question is how climate experts could better collaborate with emergency managers. The emergency managers want to hear from experts and learn the latest information that’s relevant to them, but the reverse is also true. Being at the Climate School, I think there’s also a lot the climate experts would benefit from learning about emergency management, or the folks who are going to be on the ground responding to these events.

Read the full dissertation study here.

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