National Priorities, Climate Change, and Disaster Management

Polls show conservatives on average are much more likely to doubt the existence of anthropogenic, or human-influenced, climate changes. This stance usually means opposition to regulatory action on greenhouse gas emissions. Besides creating resistance to alternative energy sources, skepticism about climate change also helps preserve the current neoliberal priorities of the State. That is, if climate changes are not happening, the State can continue insisting that the primary threat to public safety is crime and terrorism. If, on the other hand, climate changes are seen as a legitimate and looming threat, would there be a role for government to play? If so, what are the implications for current neoliberal disaster management practices that focus on counterterrorist activities, private contractors, and redevelopment over community protection, preparedness, and mitigation?

In a 2008 Gallup survey, 73 percent of Democrats reported that climate change was occurring due to human influences, as compared to 42 percent of Republicans. The partisan divide is so clear it is easy to forget that it did not always exist. In fact, until the mid-1990s, differences in the opinions of Republicans and Democrats toward global warming were negligible. After the mid-1990s, however, a sharp divide developed, as Republicans suddenly began reporting skepticism over climate change research.

What happened in the mid-90s? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that the earth was not only warming, but that the warming was correlated to human activities, paving the way for an international treaty to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Worried about regulations, corporations began ramping up campaigns to cast doubt around climate change and its link to fossil fuels. A small group of researchers, many with limited if any background in climate science, were trotted out to news debates and even congressional hearings as "proof" that a scientific consensus did not exist on the issue. Some, such as physicist Fred Singer, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the fossil fuel industry and have a history of doubting scientifically settled issues, such as the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.

What developed was the growth of entire websites, journals, and organizations focused on creating doubts about climate change science, which found a receptive audience in a media that regards "balanced" journalism as presenting differing views on an issue, even when one side is scientific consensus and the other is a small group of skeptics and industry-funded contrarians.

However, climate change is not just about where we get our energy and who benefits, as important as that is. Climate change calls into question our national priorities and the function of the state.

FEMA and Homeland Security

According to political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, we need government because, at some point, we need to sleep. Although John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau flowered up this rather pessimistic view of human nature with talk of consensus and a social contract, the classic neoliberal conception of the State remains providing protection from internal and external threats to the individual and social body.

Disasters were originally not part of this conception. Indeed, although federal disaster management is now common, it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Disasters were originally dealt with by the communities they affected and sympathetic neighbors. As the American landscape was adapted to the needs of industrialization and modernization, the number and severity of "natural" disasters also grew. These could also be called socio-natural disasters, given the increasing intermeshing of the social and natural world.

In 1802, for example, the Army moved into New Hampshire to help tame a large fire that was overwhelming local efforts at control, then offered tax breaks to help affected communities rebuild. This was the beginning of a patchwork of programs and policies designed to assist communities with disasters. By 1979, the programs were organized under a new agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Created by President Carter in 1979, FEMA began as an all-around "hazards-response" agency, helping communities deal with both socio-natural and technological disasters. The agency was just beginning when President Reagan gave it a makeover Dr. Strangelove would have approved of. Louis Giuffrida was appointed to head FEMA. A former military officer who wanted to be referred to as "General," he saw the agency’s main priority as preparing for nuclear fallout. His Army War College thesis, "National Survival: Racial Imperative," discussed interning blacks in the event of an urban riot, suggesting he saw domestic order and security in terms of race. FEMA’s efforts were focused on hypothetical counter-terrorist and nuclear war exercises, dominating FEMA spending over socio-natural disasters 12 to 1 by 1991. President Bush I maintained the agency’s focus and when Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew hit, FEMA was revealed as woefully unprepared, costing Bush Florida and arguably the 1992 presidential election.

After assuming office, President Clinton appointed James Lee Witt as FEMA’s director. An emergency services officer determined to make over the agency, Witt refocused FEMA’s efforts on socio-natural disasters, working with communities on emergency response training and mitigation. Witt utilized what disaster research shows: far from the popular mythology of civilians freaking out during emergencies and thus requiring top-down control, people often demonstrate high levels of cooperative and helpful behavior during such events, behaviors that can be further strengthened through training. Using the federal government as a tool to build on local efforts, FEMA quickly went from what had been described by Senator Ernest Hollings as a "bunch of bureaucratic jackasses" to a responsive and dependable agency that many Democrats and Republicans approve of.

After 9/11, FEMA was put under the newly-created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which focused on combating terrorism. DHS director Tom Ridge was given authority to redirect department funds as he saw fit, which he did, siphoning $80 million from FEMA’s $550 million annual budget and redirecting many of FEMA’s emergency response programs to other agencies or cancelling them outright. Michael Brown was made head of FEMA in 2003 and, while many have legitimately questioned the wisdom of appointing a former Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association to the position, Brown did protest the steady hollowing out of the agency. Notably, when a series of hurricanes struck Florida in 2004, Brown made sure affected Florida residents—and voters—were well taken care of.

Needless to say, the same care was not extended to the people of Mississippi and New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit one year later. After an informal evacuation policy of "figure it out for yourself" and the neglect of stranded residents for days, when FEMA did work its way into the area, it was clear that Homeland Security tactics had infiltrated disaster management practices, resulting in paid private contractors like Blackwater brought in to police rather than work with local residents. Policing residents, in turn, may have much to do with how post-disaster reconstruction funds have become increasingly distributed and used.

Disaster Mitigation or Neo-Development

Federal disaster management involves not just emergency response, preparedness, and evacuation, but assistance with post-disaster reconstruction. Many fiscal conservatives have decried such assistance as a boondoggle, unleashing federal funds to states and undoing incentives for communities to prevent such disasters from occurring. The criticism about removing incentives is fair enough, but, as always, the devil is in the details.

Many disaster management programs and policies began with the requirement of post-disaster mitigation efforts in exchange for federal aid. That is, a community would receive federal government assistance if they adopted measures to prepare for and thus lessen damage from similar future events. As local boards moved toward mitigation, such as requiring more wetlands in coastal regions to buffer hurricanes and limiting development in flood-prone areas, private developers began decrying such regulations as an unconstitutional "taking" of their property value. This eventually led to 1992’s Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, a Supreme Court case that found mitigation requirements that lessened a property’s value were unconstitutional, unless not instituting such requirements would create a public nuisance. In other words, providing for the public interest is not enough. Thereafter, local planning boards began backing off mitigation measures. Other mitigation regulations, such as retrofitting old buildings to withstand earthquakes and reinforcing trailer homes to better handle tornadoes and hurricanes, are often loosely enforced.

The result is a free market for the largely poor and disempowered living in hazardous areas and inadequately protected housing. They suffer the worst consequences when disaster strikes and usually qualify for the least post-disaster assistance as renters, mobile home tenants, and public housing residents, rather than property owners. Meanwhile, the very same private interests that fought off mitigation efforts are the first in line to collect federal benefits—such as flood insurance, low-interest business loans, and tax breaks, as well as federal rebuilding of destroyed public infrastructure, nourishment for eroded areas, and levees and seawalls to protect their property. Many disaster management funds have come to compensate investors for unwise development decisions, while relegating certain segments of the population to live in danger.

Hurricane Katrina took this cashing in on disaster funds to whole new levels, as still habitable low-cost and public housing units were torn down for post-disaster gentrification projects, leaving hundreds of thousands of former Gulf Coast residents permanently displaced. This looting of the federal treasury during an emergency event is what author Naomi Klein refers to as "disaster capitalism." Disaster funds no longer merely rebuild, they fund whole new levels of inequality, courtesy of taxpayers.

The Next Predictable Disasters

As documented in multiple government reports—despite fossil fuel industry lawsuits to stop such reports from being released—the Arctic has warmed an average of four degrees Fahrenheit. This is no secret to many Alaskan native villages, as insufficient sea ice formation has made their coastline vulnerable to storms and erosion. A 2003 Government Accountability Office report found that four Alaskan native villages need to be relocated and that the political infrastructure for relocating them is lacking, to say the least. To this day a coherent government body to assist with relocation does not exist, leaving villagers to work it out themselves.

Among these villages is Kivalina. Due to their close connection to the land and subsistence lifestyle, which has allowed Alaska natives to survive the harsh terrain for thousands of years, Kivalina residents noted erosion back in the 1950s and voted to relocate in 1992. Eighteen years later they are still trying to move their village to a safer area. As they try to piece together a relocation plan, their homeland is rapidly eroding, an alarming situation as the village is a thin strip of land, two square miles, surrounded on one end by a lagoon and the other by the Chukchi Sea. If Kivalina were to be hit by a large storm and flooded, residents would have nowhere to go.

What began as an awareness of erosion and the need for relocation turned dangerous in 2004 when a storm hit and a large chunk of the island abruptly crumbled away, leaving some Kivalina homes with the sea at their doorstep. Large storms also hit in 2005, 2006, and 2007, the latter leading to a dangerous evacuation by cargo planes and all terrain vehicles, while some residents stayed behind to armor the coastline with sandbags and debris. After the evacuation, Congress allocated funding for a protective sea wall, currently under construction. In 2009, however, funding for the wall was revoked, and it is not known whether the wall will be completed.

The wall offers only temporary protection, however, and relocation remains a necessity. The Army Corps contracted out development of a master plan assessing possible relocation sites to the URS Corporation, an engineering and tech firm that receives many Homeland Security funds. URS released the master plan in 2006. Kivalina residents disagreed with URS findings concerning the feasibility and costs of relocation to their preferred relocation site, and quickly asked the Army Corps to take into account their feedback and issue a revised master plan. Over three years later this has yet to happen. Thus, the residents of Kivalina wait.

Given the rapid pace of climate changes, the number of potential disasters will only increase and they will be anything but natural. It does not have to be this way. Due to distortions in federal funding, disaster management does not require massive new investments, it requires redirecting funds away from subsidizing private developers and unneeded contractors toward protecting communities, neighborhoods, and one another. This fits squarely within both conservative and liberal conceptions of the State: using government to help provide for internal order and protection.

To acknowledge climate change, therefore, is to acknowledge that strengthening community resilience to socio-natural events is going to be an increasingly important function of the State. That is why so many wealthy elites regard public recognition of climate change as such a threat. It offers another glaring example of why we, as a nation, so desperately need to stop the socialization of costs and privatization of benefits, and reclaim our government, for all our sakes.


Christine Shearer is a PhD candidate at UC Santa Barbara studying climate changes, disaster management, and law. She also writes for the website CoalSwarm and is managing editor for Conducive Mag.