Political Ecology of Climate-Related Disasters

Some questions I ask:

  • How are the effects of climate related disasters socially stratified, and why?
  • Which power-brokers and institutions control the recovery from climate-related disasters?
  • Do disasters change the popular understanding of what climate change is, and how it affects regular people?
  • Do “climate resilience” building initiatives target the social components of resilience, or just the physical ones? Do they disrupt or reproduce social hierarchies of power?

Why I study this topic:

Disasters are potentially catalytic events, providing opportunities for learning, building, and creation. However, this potential is only fully realized if reconstruction and reform are oriented towards the next disaster: learning from the mistakes of the past, then going one step further to address the vulnerability of the present and the unpredictability of the future.

Scholars of hazards and disasters frequently note that society tends to prepare for the last disaster, rather than the next one. This reflects a cognitive bias to make assumptions about risk on the basis of previous experiences rather than the likely future – which poses enormous challenges for the policy-making community.

These challenges are made all the more immediate given the threat of a changing climate and the urgent need to plan for an unstable future. Successful adaptation to climate change requires an integrated analysis of social and ecological systems, a recognition that these systems are inseparable, the amelioration of existing vulnerabilities and the institutionalization of flexible management patterns more suited to a dynamic world.

Climate change, with all its catastrophic potential, also provides a policy window, a new discursive space for building a more resilient and just society. These two phenomena are united in the form of climate-related disasters, no single one of which can be directly attributed to climate change but all of which represent the changing hazardscape. The aftermath of these events are argumentative contests in which popular narratives battle one another for prominence, and the results of these contestations determine how society plans for, and assigns meaning to, future threats.

Understanding the political response to climate related disasters offers scholars and stakeholders a clearer vision of where opportunities for innovation and learning exist – as well as where those opportunities have been closed off.

Research Products

Discourse, Disaster, and the Urban Hazardscape (Dissertation)

My case study, Hurricane (or Superstorm) Sandy, is an example of this contested space. Using political ecology to analyze the narratives and counter-narratives which arose from the disaster, I seek to unmask the ways in which the idea of “natural” disaster was used as a political tool. By identifying this hegemonic narrative and its material consequences, I establish a contrast with the counter-narratives which subaltern groups used as a tool of political opposition. These counter-narratives form a toolkit which stakeholders can use to prepare for the disasters of the future, rather than the past.

Superstorm Research Lab White Paper: A Tale of Two Sandys

Responses to Hurricane Sandy consistently cluster into two types according to how the issues have been defined and understood. On one hand, the crisis was seen as an extreme weather event that created physical and economic damage, and temporarily moved New York City away from its status quo. On the other hand, Hurricane Sandy exacerbated crises which existed before the storm, including poverty, lack of affordable housing, precarious or low employment, and unequal access to resources generally. A Tale of Two Sandysdescribes these two understandings of disaster and discuss their implications for response, recovery, and justice in New York City.