Practical Readiness Advice from Resilience Expert Alice Hill

One of the reasons that harbor is able to help families work through effective emergency readiness plans is that we’re collaborating with some of the world’s foremost experts on disaster preparedness and community resilience. Alice Hill, a member of harbor’s advisory council, is a senior fellow for climate change policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and former senior director for resilience policy on President Obama’s National Security Council. Her co-authored 2019 book, Building A Resilient Tomorrow, confronts the scale of the risks we face and offers a practical guide to the changes we can make now to reduce the impact of climate change.

I had the enormous pleasure of speaking with Alice recently about how climate change is unfolding, the promising work to prepare for it, the psychology of disaster readiness and how she herself plans for emergencies. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Kessler: I would love to hear a high-level overview about how climate change is playing a part in all of these emergencies that we're experiencing. Yes, disasters are becoming more extreme. But how is climate change the driver of that?

Alice Hill: Climate change is destabilizing our climate; scientists expect that in the next 50 years we will see similar amounts of change that we saw in the last 6,000 years. And that has dramatic impacts on how we live, where we live. So if we assume that the past is a good guide for the future, we won't be safe. In fact, we need to have much greater preparedness for new extremes that have never been experienced before. I can't tell you how many times I read in the paper or hear on the news, “We've never seen a wildfire like this before. We've never seen a storm like this before. We never had a flood like this before.” That's the nature of climate change. So in order to better survive as well as better adapt to and be resilient to those events, we need to focus on reducing our risk and being prepared for greater extremes.

We're seeing either more frequent or more intense natural disasters across a variety of different categories. People recognize that, and they're experiencing it firsthand. They're evacuating fires or they're being pummeled by hurricanes, but they are not preparing. Psychologically, what do you think is going on? Why aren't people taking these steps to get ready for what might be happening?

We're all optimists. That's what keeps us going in life. And our optimism causes us to tend to discount the growing risks from different events. And we see that in polling. People say, yeah, I know there's extreme events occurring, but they don’t believe that it will affect them. They do believe it will affect somebody else. And in reality, all of us are facing much greater risk no matter where we live.

I think we're optimists with really short memories. In four or five months, people in San Francisco are going to have blue skies and forget about the fires and think it's not going to happen to them again. My optimism is that we will slowly over time build this muscle and become more prepared and more ready.

Well, I think it's how we cope with life. I think it's how the human brain assesses risk, and we aren't very good at assessing slow moving risk that is getting worse. That's just not how we think or analyze what is a threat. And that's why it's so important that providers, the government, do a better job of informing them of their flood, fire or earthquake risk. But we do see authorities respond after the event. Immediately after a bad event is the best time for policymakers to make change.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions that you think people have about climate change?

Well, the first is that it's something for the distant future. 2020, I hope, has corrected that misimpression. It is here, it's now and it's getting worse. The second is that we've seen the worst, that 2020 is the worst year of wildfires we will experience. In all likelihood, in 2030, we're going to look back on this and say, yeah, 2020 was bad, but I wish we were back there and not dealing with the kinds of threats we'll be dealing with in 2030. And it's happening more quickly than, in my experience, most policymakers believed it would occur. So we find that people don't buy insurance. They don't have emergency supplies. They don't have a plan for evacuation. And they don't have a plan to contact their family or all their medical and other important papers gathered.

If you could pass one environmental policy at the national level right now to try and curb climate change or improve the effects somehow, what would be that one policy?

Well, I have to say, it's two policies, because they're really two sides to climate change. The first is the greenhouse gas emissions that are continuing to cause temperatures to rise. So we need to address that so that we avoid the very worst of climate change. Essentially, we need to manage the unavoidable, which is the heating that we will experience because of past emissions and avoid the unmanageable going forward.

Second, we need to invest in resilience. And my policy for investing in resilience is for the federal government to require resilience before it spends any taxpayer dollar, meaning it should require that no future taxpayer dollars will be spent in a way that isn't looking towards how we better prepare ourselves for this threat. Interestingly, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, when asked recently on the news, what is the biggest threat the United States faces? He said global warming. One of the widely cited figures is for every dollar we spend in reducing risk, we save somewhere around six dollars. That's a great return. So whether it's investing in preparing yourself, or if it's a community making the same choices to prepare themselves, there will be large payoffs for making those investments.

Now we need to push the needle towards disaster preparedness and stop relying on disaster recovery. This is particularly important with climate change, because if we recover everything just to how it was in the past, we're going to get hit again and we're going to have another bad result. And ultimately, as the Government Accountability Office, which is the government's watchdog, has warned, this is a risk to the US federal treasury. That's a problem for our economic health, our personal prosperity, the health of our nation.

What are some good examples of the government supporting resilience in the way that you describe?

Well, recently, the U.S. Congress decided it wanted to try to push more investment in disaster resilience, so it passed the measure that up to 6% of what the nation spends on disaster recovery every year can be spent on disaster resilience. Those projects can be everything from building dunes to protect coastal properties, to restoring wetlands to capture the storm surge, to restoring our forests so that they are less full of dried vegetation that ignites like a match as soon as any fire gets near it. So there are many measures that we can take. Those are the kinds of examples where the government can encourage good behavior that will, in the end, save millions and billions of dollars and also save lives and really save families from the trauma of seeing their home destroyed or their business lost.

Are there any countries or even cities or municipalities that you've seen that are doing this right?

One of the most widely cited examples is the Netherlands: After a 1953 flood that killed a few thousand people in the middle of the night, they said we're not going to have this anymore. So have subsequently become the world's best water engineers. And in about the last 15 years, they've determined that they have to find better ways to live with water. Historically, the reaction of most people is “we're going to build a big sea wall to keep the water out.” Well, as we've learned more about climate risk as well as about hydrodynamics, we need to learn better how to live with water. And that's what they've done. They've built floating neighborhoods. They did a project called Room for the River where they moved some farms out of flood land so it could open up to be flooded in case there's a big event and save cities that are downstream.

On a smaller scale, we see communities like Missoula, Montana, taking fire prevention measures against fire risks. I don't think those have been fully tested yet, but that's increasing defensible space, green space around the city, improving evacuation routes, improving building codes, looking at land use on steep slopes to say, you know, that slope may burn again. So maybe we're not going to encourage more development there. So there are pockets all over the world.

The challenge is that globally we need to come together and share these solutions. Largely, no one really knows what to do yet. Engineers haven't figured it all out. There isn't even a resilient building code in the United States. We need to learn from each other and do better because these events are happening so quickly and so close together.

I would love to hear a bit about how you think about the community level or the neighborhood level. Like, what can communities do to be in a better position for emergencies? What can neighborhoods do collectively to be prepared for climate change?

Communities can enforce stronger building codes and stronger land use properties, that would probably be the most immediate thing they can do to have better outcomes. But there are powers at play that discourage them from doing that, including threat of loss of taxes. So we see that some don't embrace it as much as they could. They could take advantage, for example, of buyback programs from the federal government that buyback at-risk properties and then leave it as greenspace, leaving everybody safer. They also can focus on awareness for their communities and make sure that their evacuation routes are strong, that they've insisted on multiple ingress and egress for new subdivisions, for example, so that they don't burn. And one of the biggest things they can do is build social cohesion. Difficult to do, but we have examples of side-by-side towns with the same socioeconomic characteristics and one with good social cohesion, and during an extreme heat event, a much higher survival rate than in the adjacent town where there was less social cohesion. Because what we find in disasters, often it's the most vulnerable, the elderly, the isolated who die.

Also, an early step is improving their early warning system. Unfortunately, in these latest fires we've seen at least some people confused by the messages. And that happens in hurricanes still that people don't appreciate what the warnings are or discount them. So we need to really work on the science, both of getting the messages out, but also making sure that people understand and act on those messages. That will probably be a social science study, to make sure we're framing these in a way that people respond appropriately.

I'm often aghast at the people who don't wear a mask. It’s a very simple symbol of trying to be community oriented and protecting those around you. And yet some people are “me before we,” in a way that we're not seeing in other countries and cultures. How much of the lack of resilience on the community or individual level do you think is cultural for the United States of America specifically versus something that maybe we can overcome or shift?

That's a very interesting question. I do think in recent decades that we have seen a shift away from a sense of resilience, which would be that I'm going to do this on my own, to a sense of dependency on governments to do the job. That can be traced by the growth in the federal government's involvement in disaster recovery in the 1950s, and from there it's grown substantially. Sometimes the federal government's doing 100% of the recovery, which creates a moral hazard that people feel like, oh, I don't really need to be prepared because the federal government's going to step in.

The mask issue, I think, stems more from a sense of wanting personal freedom to make the choices, which makes you and your community more vulnerable to the spread of disease. But it's similar to not wanting a strong building code because you want to be able to put wood shake on your roof. And as one firefighter said, that's the equivalent of just piling kindling on top of your roof. And then if your house goes up in flames, it's far more likely your neighbor’s will.

So it's a lot like wearing a mask when it comes to wildfire prevention, that everybody takes the steps of screening any exposed wood, making sure that you have fire resistant materials on your roof and all sorts of measures. Because if one house doesn't, it can have bad consequences for surrounding houses. That's one of the reasons why preparing for wildfires is so difficult, because it does require a community-wide response.

I would love to hear a little bit about what you personally do to prepare for emergencies. What steps do you take? How do you plan? What kind of gear or products do you have?

Well, I'd say that I'm not a prepper, but in my car I always have running shoes, water, a first aid kit and some dried food, hopefully a flashlight that works. And I typically rely on my phone for my emergency contacts, and I'm hoping that that will be with me. I travel with extra batteries. I have flashlights in my home. I have extra supplies of food, water, blankets. When I was in earthquake country, I had all of that outside, including tents, stoves and other things. I know that it will be difficult for the federal government to reach me and my family within 72 hours, so we need to be able to stand alone. I think anything that helps in organizing that is really exciting because there are too many miscellaneous lists flying around, too many things that just make it feel overwhelming.

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