Louisiana’s response to extreme weather.

Today is Earth Day – at not just any Earth Day, but the 50th[1]! A real milestone! But the backstory for today’s post goes back to a February 15themail from the eminent natural-hazard researcher (and, equally importantly, distinguished hazards pedagogue, policy maven, and practitioner) Shirley Laska. She closed this way:

I am also writing to you to tell you that I have a new book out by Springer which is Open Access (free).  It is about the challenges of Louisiana as a coastal state “ahead of the curve” in climate change.  The series editors and I agreed on “extreme weather” instead of climate change in order to encourage doubters to read the book.  I was wondering if it might be possible for you to write about it or let me tell you some of my concerns about how we approach adaptation that are reflective of the chapter themes I invited.  While it is not fully in line with you[r] themes, I think there are a couple of main commitments to thinking I have that you/your readers might find useful.  If I am piquing your interest, I know you will reply…

(and of course I did).

That was more than two months ago. I wish this post or something along these lines had appeared much sooner, and I also wish it could have been more complete. But the nature of 21st-century life is inimical to long-term projects such as reading a book (to say nothing of writing/editing one! Congratulations to Shirley and her chapter authors!). Work pressures, and covid-19 have intervened. That latter intervention is particularly ironic. What better opportunity for tackling a book than longish periods of enforced isolation? But the best I can do is provide a brief progress report, and a very preliminary one at that – and promise that more will be coming in forthcoming posts, if a bit intermittently. 

To begin: the book’s full title is Louisiana’s Response to Extreme Weather:  A Coastal State’s Adaptation Challenges and Successes. (S. Laska (ed), 2020, SpringerOpen Access.) You can gain that free access here.

As the title suggests, Shirley and her chapter authors provide a deep dive into Louisiana’s efforts to manage environmental risks. They address decades of such risk, but mostly through the lens of two events: Hurricane Katrina and (to a lesser extent) the BP oil spill. They focus attention on state–level[2]response, but connect this to local- and federal-level efforts. They also generalize to the larger challenges facing the fifty U.S. states. They make the connection to climate change, and to climate change adaptation. They offer the sobering observation that climate change adaptation is normally considered a risk management strategy, but the reality is that climate change adaptation introduces new risks of its own (an idea that seems self-evident once expressed, but essentially a new one for me). All this makes for a heavy lift! But the authors and the book measure up.

To whet your appetite, especially on Earth Day, here’s an extended excerpt, from Professor Laska’s initial chapter:

The extreme weather adaptation frame offered here combines two concepts – exceptional recovery and essential resilience(Laska 2012). [Emphasis added]

The exceptional recovery process has qualities that have been identified and developed by the authors of this book’s chapters. The recovery process must:

• Be based on a robust commitment to citizen participation

• Honor community self-determination of recovery processes and outcomes

• Have a deep commitment to social justice in the recovery processes at all levels of government response

• Expect a sophisticated recognition by government officials of historical experiences that have led to socially constructed vulnerabilities “causing” the current disaster impacts (Tierney 2014; Wisner et al. 2004)

• Appreciate the economics of the recovery process itself that do not support the enablement and adaptation of the entire community to future extreme weather but rather the interest of the corporations that are used to address the damage and of the “growth machine” (Molotch 1976) putting developer interest ahead of community residents

• Have a deep understanding of the institutionally induced harm that manifests itself in the current government-managed recovery including the technocratic framing of disaster funding as dependent upon benefit/cost and to develop recovery processes that are free of such harm

Without such a robust understanding, the recovery process will contribute to reproducing the vulnerabilities that caused the extreme weather event to generate harm in the first place through a disaster or even a catastrophe from which the community or region is now recovering. Adding the adjective essential to the sought-for resilience gives consideration to the qualities of resiliency that must be part of the outcome of the exceptional recovery. The prolific array of publications that have appeared in the last couple of decades speak to the enhancing of the qualities of the society that permit it to “bounce back” or change so that the form the community/region takes after a disaster enables life to go on effectively, e.g., “resiliently.” As has been repeatedly affirmed, such resiliency extends way beyond preventing the physical event or modulating generally what the extreme weather event can do to a community physically. The use of essential resiliency in this discussion of climate change adaptation is to encourage the consideration of what qualities of a society, of a community, are essential to the robust improvement of the community to withstand future climate change-induced extreme weather impacts[Emphasis added.] To reiterate, it is the robust, carefully considered essential improvements that redound to the benefit of all social classes, races, ethnic groups, and the social organization that supports the full community’s ability to function satisfactorily that are the requirements of successful adaptation.

[An apology; don’t look for the references here; merely indicating that the book is thoroughly annotated. For the bibliography you’ll need to go to the original link.]

Strikingly, these ideas, framed and articulated over the past few years (that is, they come from what looking-back seems a very distant, much simpler, and relatively untroubled past) remain salient in the dawn of our pandemic age (the Virucene?). They’re a useful guide/blueprint for policymakers and publics struggling to manage the current coupled public-health/economic crisis. The six attributes of exceptional recovery process, and the idea of essential  resilience, not just recovery from covid-19, but a recovery that better prepares us to manage future viral threats, need little or no editing to accommodate this current existential challenge. As a society, we have shown past tendencies to take shortcuts in the recovery process, but the authors make clear we ignore these higher standards for exceptional recovery and essential resilience at our peril.

A free book? The 50thEarth Day? Time to kill trapped at home? What are we waiting for? Let’s all continue reading…

[1]Inspired by protests of the 1960’s, then-Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) suggested a “national teach-in on the environment,” which would be held annually on April 22, in order to reach large numbers of university students while still on campus.

[2]And statewide, response; they emphasize a transition in Louisiana framing of the challenge from coastal- to Louisiana-as-a-whole.

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