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Environmental Change and Security Program
A production of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC
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Location: Washington, DC
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September 18, 2014 06:23 AM PDT

Adolescent boys are 75 percent more likely to die from HIV/AIDS than girls. Why? That’s unclear. Lack of data and failure to engage boys in discussions about sexual and reproductive health and HIV care has left many suffering, says Elizabeth Berard, a health science specialist with the U.S. Agency for International Development, in this week’s podcast.
While preparing to speak at the Wilson Center, Berard says she was struck by how little information is available about adolescent boys with HIV/AIDS. A 2012 report from UNICEF states that of the 2.2 million adolescents (between 10 and 19 years old) living with HIV, approximately 870,000 of them are boys. And that’s about it.
Not only is there little data overall, but what is collected has not been aggregated, she says. “There are a variety of different numbers that are floating out there, some for 15 to 19 years old, some for 15 to 24 year olds, others that are just somewhere in between.”
Different Genders, Different Needs
Addressing this data gap is key. Berard notes that adolescent boys living with HIV are more likely to have been infected at birth and as a result face different challenges than adolescents who have contracted HIV behaviorally (many young girls contract the disease from their partners – new infection rates for women between 15 and 24 years old are double that of men).
Adolescent boys also have fewer ways to access care. “Many women, regardless of age, find out they’re living with HIV only because of antenatal care,” Berard says. That leaves young boys with fewer opportunities to get tested and receive treatment.
Cultural, religious, and traditional norms in many places limit the ability of young people to have open conversations about sexual and reproductive health generally, Berard says. This has a significant impact on their understanding of HIV transmission and care as well as the need to adhere to strict treatment regimens. In 2013, only 29 percent of youth in 157 countries had comprehensive knowledge of HIV/AIDS, according to the Population Reference Bureau.
Improving HIV outreach and treatment for adolescent boys requires unique programs that engage boys in conversations about sexual and reproductive health in culturally and youth-appropriate ways, Berard says.
She suggests a variety of interventions to get more boys into clinics, including family testing, voluntary male medical circumcision, couples’ testing, and targeting specific vulnerable groups, such as orphans, young men who have sex with men, and adolescents diagnosed with tuberculosis or malnutrition, which could be symptoms of HIV infection.
Berard spoke at the Wilson Center on July 30. Download her slides to follow along.
Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

September 10, 2014 12:42 PM PDT

What exactly is meant by “water security?” Different conceptualizations of the problem can lead to different, possibly misguided, solutions, says Coleen Vogel in this week’s podcast. Vogel, a professor at the University of Pretoria and a lead author of the IPCC’s 4th and 5th assessment reports, calls for reframing the water security discourse in three key ways.

Water as Productive and Destructive

The first step is to agree on a starting point for discussion. “If we don’t have a common kind of understanding I think we could do maladaptation and not just adaptation,” she says. Vogel advocates for the definition of water security introduced in a 2007 paper by David Grey and Claudia Sadoff:

The availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems, and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks to people, environments, and economies.

This framing looks beyond the need to ensure adequate supplies and recognizes that water can also be a destructive force, she says. “It’s not just about the absence of water, but it’s also about the presence of water.”

The multifaceted nature of water is captured in Grey and Sadoff’s typology of the “three H’s,” says Vogel, which suggests that wealthy countries have been able to “harness” water’s productive potential, while middle-income countries are “hampered” by hydrology and low-income countries are “held hostage” to it.

Climate Change’s Distorting Effect

Second, divergent understandings of climate change can hinder progress toward water security, she says. “We need to be framing the climate change discourse in this bigger thing called water security.”

Analyses of climate change often emphasize long-term trends and overall changes in water supply, but the more urgent concern is actually variability, she says. Rapid and unpredictable changes pose a more immediate threat and are harder for societies to absorb. “Your institutional design can’t really cope if your rate of change is being exceeded too quickly.”

Focusing too much on distant projections can also impede responses, says Vogel:

I’ve been party to so many discussions where my well-meaning climatology friends and meteorologists come into the room and they run the simulation, the GCM models, and they switch it on and by 2070 the whole of Africa is red. And it just gets redder and redder, and you can look around the room and everyone is kind of feeling very uneasy... It’s marginalizing, because you lose your sense of agency because you think, ‘well I just can’t do anything about it.’

Technological Change vs. Social and Institutional Change

Third, the “solution space” must be expanded, says Vogel. Technological solutions to water problems are only one part of the equation but often receive disproportionate attention. “If you only look at dam storage and hydropower from that perspective and you miss out all the power dynamics that go into moving people to design the dams and so on and so forth, you’re missing a whole huge wodge of stuff that you need to be including.”

“We also need to be looking at the institutional space,” including water governance, laws, and pricing, she says. Water security cannot be achieved over the long term without integrating many different perspectives – including not only insights from across the social sciences, but also local and traditional knowledge, which often go overlooked.

“Unless we open up that trans-disciplinary space really wide and fully, I don’t think we’re really going to do much,” says Vogel. “I think we’ll just be doing business as usual, spending a lot of USAID money.”

Vogel spoke at the Wilson Center on August 20.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes

August 22, 2014 10:00 AM PDT

With less than 500 days until they expire, it’s almost certain that the Millennium Development Goals on child mortality and maternal health will be missed by many countries. Already, work on drafting the MDG successors has begun; but unless policymakers put nutrition at the center of maternal and child health systems, reducing global maternal and child mortality ratios by an appreciable amount will be difficult, says Dr. Ranu Dhillon in this week’s podcast.

“The issues of nutrition and health…sometimes get separated out when we talk at a policy level,” says Dhillon, a global health expert from Columbia University and Harvard Medical School who has worked on strengthening health care systems in India and other developing countries for more than a decade.

Health system designs are “often premised on ‘how do we close the gap on MDG 4 and 5,” he says, which cover reducing the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds, reducing the maternal mortality by three-quarters, and achieving universal access to reproductive health.

But “half of child deaths are driven by undernourishment,” he says, and malnutrition can have lasting implications for children that survive. In total, one-fourth of all children under 5 – 165 million children globally – are permanently stunted from malnutrition, says Dhillon. They face physical and cognitive deficiencies and vulnerability to disease and illness through adulthood. Limited cognitive development, for example, can lead to poorer education outcomes, which in turn can lead to a reduction in income potential – 22 percent on average, according to UNICEF.

However, addressing malnutrition in children, as Dhillon says, requires paying more attention to mothers. As he illustrates through the story of Reena, a severely malnourished infant he encountered while on a site visit to a clinic in India, pregnant women who suffer from nutrient deficiencies are likely to pass them on to their children. This intergeneration cycle of malnutrition is fueled by economic and gender inequality and compounded by broken health systems. Poorer women like Reena’s mother lack the means and rights to attain food and care for themselves and their children, and the health facilities that they can access, are usually short on supplies, skills, and staff.

Breaking the cycle starts with more effectively tackling nutrition issues, says Dhillon. Health systems should be reconfigured to offer “true primary health care” that addresses a broader spectrum of maternal and child health issues, particularly malnutrition, and does so proactively, rather than tackling problems after they’ve spiraled out of control.

“Things Are Not Stuck the Way They Are”

To build such a system, he explains, requires empowering mothers and health care providers.

Care providers, from doctors to clinic staff to community mobilizers, should be equipped with the training to adequately treat patients, as well as maintain what Dhillon calls “organizational complexity” – managing multiple, interrelated interventions across health systems.

As patients, mothers must be able to demand services and accountability from providers. He explains, for example, that Indian women in areas of high literacy, like Kerala state, “will not only meet the system halfway, they’ll show up at its door,” demanding proper services, whereas mothers like Reena’s have a general sense of their children’s health needs but are “not empowered to actually force the system to perform.”

“Things are not stuck the way they are,” says Dhillon. “There’s enough people – poor and privileged – who see the ways things are as intolerable and unacceptable… When we start making the system reforms, I think you can have a virtuous cycle where the system reforms are actually reinforced by people actually being empowered and getting what they need and demanding [those services] to be there the next time.”

Dhillon spoke at the Wilson Center on July 27.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

August 13, 2014 01:03 PM PDT

“Climate change is not just a far-away thing that affects far-away people,” says Ian Kraucunas, deputy director of atmospheric sciences and global change at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in this week’s podcast. “It affects things people here in the U.S. care about – and, in fact, that includes national security.”

Kraucunas participated in a symposium this summer hosted by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Seattle on ways to help leaders make more informed choices about climate and security risks.

The urgency of such risks is now well established, thanks in part to recent government reports like the National Climate Assessment, which Kraucunas calls a “pivot point in terms of communicating our understanding of climate change.”

Future climate change scenarios vary based on different modelling assumptions, including how humans will respond, but the gist is clear: things are bad and getting worse. “No science of climate change talk is complete without graphs of things going up and to the right,” says Kraucunas.

But climate change is not a uniform process that affects all areas in the same way. Understanding regional dynamics is crucial to developing appropriate responses, he says.

“In terms of sea level rise, the entire world is not going up at the same rate,” Kraucunas says. Relative rates of sea-level rise are subject to local factors like coastal subsidence and ocean circulation patterns.

And while average precipitation is not expected to change much across the Pacific Northwest, for instance, Washington State will receive more of that precipitation in the form of rain rather than snow – with major implications in terms of hydropower production, flood control, salmon migration, and wildfires.

Extreme heat and flooding threaten national security by affecting the training, readiness, and infrastructure of military forces, Kraucunas says; for example the Hampton Roads area in Virginia and bases in the American Southwest are vulnerable.

Indirect climate-security impacts are more difficult to discern but no less important. “Clearly there are going to be impacts on food security,” he says, “but exactly how those are going to play out, where those are going to play out, and how frequently we’re going to see different types of food insecurity issues arise is really a healthy and active research area.”

Provide Context, Not Just Data

The military and security communities can help address climate change by reducing their own carbon footprint, says Kraucunas, and the scientific community can help by doing a better job translating science to policy. The “loading dock” approach of simply providing information en masse to decision-makers and leaving it to them to interpret just “isn’t that helpful.”

A more productive approach would be developing well-targeted information and providing context. This can be tricky, however – particularly since many security risks are indirect and multi-faceted. “You really have to understand how different systems interact with one another,” says Kraucunas. “It’s important to not just provide climate information in a vacuum.”

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a national research institute managed by the U.S. Department of Energy, is addressing this concern by developing a range of data tools and modeling systems to address different aspects of climate change, including those relevant to national security. By examining the links between biophysical, climatological, hydrological, ecological, energy, and socio-economic systems, scientists at the lab hope to offer more constructive, actionable guidance to decision-makers, says Kraucunas.

For instance, mapping water supply and demand at the global level can provide useful information about macro-level water scarcity hotspots and trends, while higher-resolution modeling can illuminate how such trends play out at the local level.

“This function of bridging between the science community and the decision-making and stakeholder communities is one that really could use a lot more attention and a lot more expertise,” Kraucunas says. Bringing them together not only helps improves climate responses but also helps identify the issues that people care about most.

Kraucunas spoke at the Wilson Center on July 29. Download his slides to follow along.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

July 31, 2014 12:07 PM PDT

Successfully incorporating the rights of young people and women into whatever development agenda succeeds the Millennium Development Goals next year hinges not only on the scope of new goals, but how those goals are worded, says Suzanne Ehlers in this week’s podcast.

Youth are a crucial component in the sustainable development framework, which UN, civil society, and government representatives are negotiating now. The choices young people make today – about their education, their employment, and their health – will have economic, political, and environmental consequences for the world well into the future.

As director of Population Action International and a member of the FP2020 Rights and Empowerment Working Group, Ehlers advocates for the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people and young women in particular. Sexual and reproductive rights have gained prominence in the development arena but in many cases momentum has yet to translate into action.

According to Ehlers, policymakers in developing countries are gripped by “a real fear of accepting reality;” the reality that young people are having sex, are being married at very young ages, and are not finishing school.

Rather than “getting out in front of what a young person’s reality is and helping them influence the…decision-making process,” policymakers have been reluctant to confront the needs of youth in earnest, she says. This reluctance stems in part from the idea that cultural systems and traditions that deny basic rights to women and youth are outside the purview of policymakers.
Instead, the international community has grounded its youth agenda in “box-checking,” Ehlers says, investing in health and education services without necessarily addressing the constraints that prevent young people from actually accessing those services. The result is a development dialogue which glosses over issues of rights and is steeped in a vernacular of risk and return. Will investments in infrastructure, schools, and services for youth “pay off” as future economic gains? Will the “human resource potential” of the vast numbers of young people be realized or squandered?
For Ehlers, such investments will not succeed “unless we make the conscious decision to be on a different trajectory and to never ever talk about young people as a ‘problem,’ as a ‘threat,’ as a ‘vulnerability,’ – the only way that young people would fit into any of these categories is if we haven’t done the groundwork for them to realize their full potential.”

We know we have this enormous human resource potential there, but if we’re not helping eradicate early forced and child marriage, and if we’re not putting comprehensive sexuality education into the schools and into communities, [and] we’re not absolutely ensuring girls are finishing secondary education so that they can go on to be a part of the labor work-force, we’re not going to have them to invest in as ‘human resource potential.’
She touted recent efforts by USAID to not only set a lofty target of meeting 75 percent demand for family planning by 2030, but also to expand the definition of family planning demand to include all sexually active women (not just married women).

Ultimately, those best poised to articulate the needs of youth are youth themselves. Involving them in the drafting process for the sustainable development goals will require additional effort, but leaving them out, says Ehlers, will only generate policies that miss the mark, wasting time and resources for years to come.

The key is to empower young people by respecting and fulfilling their rights, Ehlers says, not by treating them like investment opportunities. “I realize to some of you in the crowd [this] sounds like semantics and kind of a vocabulary lesson, but it’s not,” she says. “It really has to be about a complete reframing and re-pivoting of how we understand potential and what our responsibility is to unlock that potential.”

Ehlers spoke at the Wilson Center on July 10 at an event commemorating World Population Day.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

July 23, 2014 12:08 PM PDT

More than 1.8 billion people – nearly a third of the global population – are between the ages of 10 and 24, comprising the largest-ever generation of young people. According to Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “how we meet the needs and aspirations of these young people will define the world’s future.”

Currently, most young people are “growing up in poor countries, where education and health systems are weak, reproductive choices are not guaranteed, good jobs are hard to find, and where mobility may be constrained,” he says in this week’s podcast. As countries develop, people tend to live longer and have fewer babies, meaning future generations will not benefit from a larger group of younger workers to support them. “We will have to ensure that we equip [young people] appropriately to be able to sustain themselves,” he says.

Education is critical: Today’s primary school enrollment rate is over 90 percent, and while this reflects an “enormous success” at the global level, there is much room for improvement, Osotimehin says. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in four primary school-aged children do not attend classes, and secondary school completion rates lag much further behind – in some cases as low as three percent. The problem is worse among girls, who are far more likely to drop out than boys. “They get married at 11 or 12, and they disappear from the statistics,” he says.  

Ensuring that girls stay in school “would achieve so many things at the same time, from both a health and an economic perspective,” says Osotimehin. But doing so requires tackling sensitive issues – like sexual and reproductive health and rights. “It’s a difficult thing to talk about, but it’s the right thing to do,” he says.

If [girls] are going to stay in school, delay childbearing, enter the labor force, and achieve what we want them to achieve, they will have to have access to information and services to be able to determine when they want children, how many they want, if they want children, and if they want to get married or not.

Child marriage remains a persistent problem in many countries. Although most countries have signed onto the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and have a minimum age for marriage, the law isn’t always enforced or respected, says Osotimehin – “people just give their girls off.” This not only prevents girls from finishing school but also puts them at greater risk of dying or being gravely injured during childbirth.

The challenges are significant, but can be addressed, says Osotimehin. In Niger, UNFPA developed “husband schools” that have improved girls’ health and education outcomes by directly engaging men, and a $250 million World Bank-funded program to empower girls and women throughout the Sahel reflects a major step in the right direction, he says. “I think we know what to do, but we have to scale up; we need to have everybody on board to be able to do this.”  

“The youth agenda has never been more important,” he says – particularly in the context of the post-Millennium Development Goals agenda. Young people will not only be the primary beneficiaries of the next big international development framework, but will also be critical for ensuring its success. “They are the ones who will own that space, and the girls are the ones who will actually make the difference going forward,” says Osotimehin.

Osotimehin spoke at the Wilson Center on July 10

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

July 17, 2014 08:27 AM PDT

In the quest to improve maternal health care for the world’s poorest women, getting more mothers into clinics for regular check-ups during pregnancy is often trumpeted as a critical starting point. But delivering antenatal care to women in low-resource settings is as much about quality as it is about quantity, says Faith Muigai in this week’s podcast.

Through her work as the director of clinical operations at Jacaranda Health in Kenya, Muigai hopes to “transform maternal health care in Africa.” Jacaranda began as a for-profit mobile outreach enterprise to provide antenatal care services and education to women in local markets, churches, and women’s groups. Four years later, Jacaranda now boasts two care centers in Nairobi that help women through delivery and together provide outpatient care to 600 women every month.

Between research and policy, “there’s a middle piece that is missing and that’s implementation,” says Muigai. “This is where I feel that Jacaranda fits in: a means of proving concepts that impact the delivery of cost-effective, patient-centered, quality care in low-resource settings.”
Jacaranda serves women in peri-urban settings who do not access to care for a variety of reasons: some lack transportation or money; others, an understanding of the importance of antenatal care or adequate decision-making power in their families.

The typical Jacaranda patient is “the woman who traditionally cares for others – her children, her partner, her spouse – but has not set a minimum standard in terms of accessing quality services for herself,” says Muigai. She is usually not the primary decision-maker in her household, so receiving antenatal care services – and high quality services at that – are rarely priorities. Instead, many women wait until delivery to visit a clinic for the first time.

Happy Doctors Make for Happy Patients
Though Jacaranda is for profit, they are working specifically to reach underprivileged women as clients and make their services affordable, Muigai says, who worked in hospitals in the United States before moving to Kenya. They can often do so more effectively than public clinics, she says, because the legally mandated free services these clinics provide leave them strapped for resources, inefficient, and staffed by overwhelmed doctors and midwives.

Through what Muigai describes as a patient-centered care model, Jacaranda works to increase the quality of antenatal care by analyzing client satisfaction through surveys and creating standards that eliminate inefficiencies for women who lack time and resources. They have also streamlined the training of care providers and are using mobile technology to help patients manage their appointment schedules, stay informed, and save money on delivery fees, she says. These improvements satisfy not only patients, but staff as well, who in turn deliver more consistent, higher-quality care.

Besides improving quality, Muigai hopes that they can help change the family dynamics that keep women from accessing care. “We have been thoughtful about male engagement early in the pregnancy to drive positive decisions about accessing [antenatal care] early and choosing a place for delivery,” she says. “This has included personalized invitations to our clients’ partners [and] education materials on what to expect when she’s expecting and financial options.”

In the end, however, Muigai’s best tool for bringing in new patients may be her past clients. “By building a passionate, talented, and committed workforce, we’re able to service our clients,” she says. “These clients in turn steer the community towards the quality service we provide. We see women and children every day and we’re positively changing their stories, and in turn, the stories of families and communities.”

Muigai spoke at the Wilson Center on June 30. Download her slides to follow along.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

July 09, 2014 01:45 PM PDT

There are now well over 16 million refugees worldwide and 65 million people internally displaced by conflict and disasters, according to recent estimates. As more and more people are uprooted from their homes, mounting environmental pressures threaten to reinforce cycles of poverty and displacement if left unaddressed, says Alice Thomas in this week’s podcast.

“If you’re not following this very closely, a lot of people just think that refugees live in camps and have images of people behind fences,” says Thomas, the climate displacement program manager at Refugees International. “Actually most refugees do not live in camps; they reside with host families and host communities, and increasingly they live in cities.”

The ability of displaced people to recover from crises is often hindered by lack of access to natural resources that would otherwise provide them with livelihoods, food, and water, says Thomas. Her research shows that people’s decisions to resettle or return to their areas of origin hinge on whether they have a means to make a living. Environmental recovery is therefore critical for creating long-term, “durable solutions” to displacement – as well as addressing some of the immediate “protection risks” that plague camp settings, many of which stem from resource scarcity, Thomas says. 

Planning for the Short and Long Term

“The international humanitarian system is fairly good at handing out aid,” says Thomas, “but it’s gotten much more important to think about how to get people off of aid and living independently.” 

Many responses to international crises are constrained by rigid sectoral funding and a lack of coordination between different sectors and organizations, she says. Donors tend to prioritize life-saving assistance over other interventions, and shorter-term humanitarian efforts are often disconnected from longer-term development efforts.

A broader focus on “resilience” can facilitate greater integration, Thomas says, “whether you like that word or not.” Pooling funding, as opposed to keeping it narrowly focused on specific outcomes, allows projects to simultaneously address both immediate concerns, such as drought-induced food shortages, as well as long-term concerns, such as the need for improved farming practices. “This is, in my experience, a positive development…It’s an opportunity to start taking a more holistic approach toward the response,” she says.

Building Self-Reliance

One avenue for incorporating environmental programming into crisis response is through the “self-reliance” approach adopted by the UN Refugee Agency’s latest Global Strategy for Livelihoods, which aims to reduce the dependency of displaced people rather than “teach them to make soap or sell snacks.” The strategy provides an opportunity for environmental actors to get involved early on, says Thomas, and begin “restoring the environment on which refugees and other people rely.”

Other opportunities for integration can be found in cities, where humanitarian efforts must address not only growing numbers of displaced people but also a growing number of conflicts and disasters, says Thomas:

It doesn’t make sense in urban environments…to just have a sector approach that looks at food, sanitation, and shelter. You’re seeing a response that looks at the urban challenges as a whole and talks about what they call ‘neighborhood coherence’ as opposed to ‘sector coherence.’

A case in point is the recovery and rehabilitation plan adopted by the Philippines’ Tacloban City after Typhoon Haiyan, says Thomas. “It looks at the need to not just restore some of the environmental damage that was done…but it takes the opportunity from the storm to actually re-zone a lot of the city and figure out where people should live.” Rather than simply creating no-build zones in disaster-prone areas, which prolongs displacement, she says, the plan takes a holistic approach to resilience and encourages decision-makers to consider a diversity of possibilities, including the relocation of the airport, for instance.

The success of such plans is largely a matter of political will, Thomas says. “It’s not enough for the international community to come in and say ‘this is what you need to do’; you need to have the municipalities themselves wanting to take on urban challenges in this way.”

Thomas spoke at the Wilson Center on June 25. Download her slides to follow along.

June 26, 2014 01:29 PM PDT

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on New York in October 2012, the city’s chief urban designer was at his home in Brooklyn deciding whether to evacuate or not. In the end, Alexandros Washburn decided to stay.

“As a designer, you want to experience what it is you’re designing for,” Washburn says in this week’s podcast, and he wanted to see the rate and patterns of flooding firsthand. The storm surge “came on faster than you were expecting, and it made you panic.”

Washburn is one of four authors from around the world featured in a new Wilson Center publication on “smart cities,” the idea that harnessing ubiquitous, networked computer technology and data analytics can create more efficient and resilient cities. Some see the rise of smart cities as the next major paradigm shift in urban planning, as cities are growing faster than ever while their vulnerability to climate change is simultaneously increasing.

“Very often, we’ll see the idea of a smart city in a glossy commercial where the lights always turn green, the elevator’s always working for you,” says Washburn, who now directs the Center for Coastal Resilience and Urban Excellence (CRUX) at the Stevens Institute of Technology. “That doesn’t happen, that’s not a reality.”

To Washburn, the most “seductive” potential of smart city technologies is in speeding up the decision-making process of government. “Everything that I think of in terms of ‘smartness’ has to do with [asking], ‘How do you make a choice?’”

“The worst thing for decision-making is to panic,” says Washburn, as he did when the water starting rising in Brooklyn. “You panic when you feel like events are overtaking you, so we have to speed up decision-making so that we stay ahead of events.”

“For New York right now, we need protection from storm surge,” he says. CRUX has been placing sensors all around New York Harbor to collect real-time and predictive storm surge data. Their goal is to not only monitor the harbor but use the data to build a model that can help the city prepare for future storms like Hurricane Sandy.

“If smart technology can be useful for us, it will be something that will let us sense better, visualize better,” Washburn says, so “we can decide in weeks rather than years, and not be overtaken by events…and have the confidence to make the right decisions because we have the technology to support us.”

Of course, there is a risk in becoming over-reliant on technology in decision-making. “We’re approaching the point where we can use smart technology to make decisions faster, but we can’t ever afford to close the loop” and cut people out of the process, he says. When it comes to cities, it’s important to remember that “you’re using smart technology not to control a device, but to control a system. To control a device is technology; to control a city is politics.”

Washburn spoke at the Wilson Center on June 23.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

June 19, 2014 11:29 AM PDT

In this era of “big data,” policymakers are too often focused on overly broad statistics, says Amy Luers of the Skoll Global Threats Fund in this week’s podcast.

Luers spoke at the Wilson Center during the launch of the ND-GAIN Index, which ranks countries on exposure to climate change and their readiness. The index and other “catch-all” indicators like it are useful for making people aware of vulnerabilities, she says, but they also can mask important local variations which are important when it comes to making decisions.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” Luers says, “but I would say, with a word of caution, a number is not worth a thousand words, and how indicators are interpreted however often suggests they are.”

Luers points to the ND-GAIN Index’s ranking of the United States as an example; it’s considered very ready for climate change and not very vulnerable. But that ranking “completely blinds you to the fact that a place like New Orleans is incredibly vulnerable,” she says. “When it becomes operational to support decision-making versus awareness-building, certain people in these countries are not apparent,” leading to marginalization of regional populations that ultimately undermines efforts to build resilience.

More generally, GDP is the “classic example” of a single indicator representing a complex system. It is the “single metric in our society of progress,” Luers says, even though by measuring only economic growth, it prioritizes market goods over non-market goods like natural resources and other measures like vulnerability or resilience to change. The result is an indicator that “creates incentives and priorities that are not necessarily supportive of the general progress and values of a society.”

This does not mean the ND-GAIN Index and other metrics that combine many factors are not useful; their value should simply be kept in perspective. Problems arise when policymakers emphasize “the desire to measure as the goal,” Luers says, “instead of characterizing an indicator and placing it on a country or on a sector, looking at a sector and saying, ‘what is it about that sector that makes it vulnerable?’”

“Research shows that when communities have control over their lives, they are more resilient to stresses,” she says. As such, the goal should be to use metrics in a way that “empowers human agency, and allows us to own the data and own the a way that not only monitors and tracks vulnerability and adaptive capacity, but also builds adaptive capacity.”

Amy Luers spoke at the Wilson Center on December 11, 2013.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

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step 1:

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Plug your mobile device (iPhone, iPad, iPod) into your computer with the Dock Connector cable, and click the device in iTunes's left navigation bar.


Once you have your device highlighted, click "Podcasts" in the top navigation bar and sync the podcasts you want on your device. Click "apply" and the episodes you have downloaded on your iTunes software will sync with your device.
that's it!

The beauty of this process is that now, every new episode of your subscribed podcasts will automatically sync to your device every time you plug it in and open iTunes. You can now take your favorite shows with you everywhere you go.


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