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Environmental Change and Security Program
A production of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC
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March 19, 2015 02:14 PM PDT

When it comes to international development, a resilience framework is key, says Tom Staal, acting assistant administrator of the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID, in this week’s podcast.

“You need an approach that looks at everything from climate change, natural resource management, conflict issues, the sort of social dynamics of the country, as well as your long-term development approach to that group of people and the resources they have,” Staal says. “That put together, to me, is building resilience.”

Although it is sometimes considered a nebulous term, Staal, who has worked in humanitarian assistance for USAID since the 1980s, says the core idea of resilience is evaluating problems in a multidisciplinary manner. Understanding how environmental changes can have consequences for health and conflict, for example, or how gender dynamics dampen efforts to relieve poverty.

This issue is particularly important in fragile states.

“They’re very vulnerable to a variety of problems,” said Staal. “They’re vulnerable to climate shocks, to climate change. They’re vulnerable to conflict over resources, but even things like conflict over water sources. And then that gets exacerbated when there is a drought.”

Staal worked in one pastoral community in southern Ethiopia that faced natural resource strain because of bad wells, with some wells producing no water at all. When drought hit, pastoralists were forced to move their cattle elsewhere. This then caused conflict between the displaced pastoralists and the communities already living in the spaces they arrived in. “How do we build [capacities] to give people the ability to withstand the shock, to rebound from it, and to move ahead?” Staal asked.

In a previous era, USAID probably would have responded by using humanitarian assistance money to truck in water, a hugely expensive endeavor, he says. Instead, in concert with the agency’s new resilience framework, designed to better address recurring crises, they repaired the pastoralists’ wells. This not only helped the communities manage their natural resources, but will hopefully curb the shock of drought and the potential for conflict in the future.

It may seem simple, but breaking down the topical siloes that have traditionally defined development and aid is a slow process. Merging humanitarian assistance and development projects has led USAID to also set up a “Resilience Leadership Team” and secretariat within the agency where staff from different bureaus and projects can discuss best practices and lessons. This allows for more cross-cutting solutions, which is really the heart of the approach, Staal says.

“Resilience is not a special initiative. It’s really a much more holistic way of looking at what we’re trying to accomplish.”

March 11, 2015 07:27 AM PDT

“I firmly believe that U.S. global leadership depends on our ocean leadership,” says Sherri Goodman in this week’s podcast.

Goodman, perhaps best known among the climate community for her work with the CNA Military Advisory Board, recently moved on from CNA to become CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. The non-profit represents more than 100 major research and education organizations in the United States in Washington, DC, advocating for “sound ocean policy.”

Although she is leaving the influential climate security work she helped found and lead at CNA, she still sees national security as an argument for strong environmental policy. “Our security, our stability, our global leadership depend very mightily on the fact that we are a landmass positioned between the two mighty Atlantic and Pacific Oceans,” Goodman says. “From forward presence to freedom of navigation, it all depends on being able to preserve the sanctity and security of our ocean heritage and maintain this even as the oceans around us are indeed changing.”

Goodman says given the magnitude of the oceans’ effects on society, there should be greater investment in scientific research and monitoring.

“No region of the planet is changing more rapidly than the Arctic today,” she says. “As ice cover decreases…ocean warming will accelerate and we’ll likely see these effects in sea-level rise, release of methane gas that contributes to a warming climate, loss of habitat, and livelihoods.”

“Our ability to…develop an Arctic future that is safe for the coming both exploration and exploitation of its vast resources, from fishing to energy to mining, depends critically on our understanding better how the Arctic is changing. That’s why the science we need to advance now on the circulation of the Arctic, on ocean ice interactions, and on real-time observations are all really critical.”

Sea-level rise threatens not only the destruction of major cities and the displacement of millions, but the spoiling of food-producing regions and higher storm surges. The extent and speed of sea-level rise, however, is unclear and may vary from place to place. “Monitoring sea-level requires an expanded system of advanced water level measurements and sustained satellite measurements as well,” Goodman says.

The oceans also serve as the primary source of protein for billions. Coral bleaching – the dying of coral formations due to higher water temperatures – is increasing, Goodman says, and “warming oceans are moving fish species toward the polls, away from Africa and Asia where the largest population growth and higher demand for food is indeed happening.”

“We need to invest in the scientific observations if we’re going to be able to more accurately predict the future conditions of the ocean,” Goodman says, “and enable us to build a more resilient society as our weather and climate system are changing more rapidly.”

Sherri Goodman spoke at the Wilson Center on February 25 as part the “Managing Our Planet” seminar series.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

February 26, 2015 02:19 PM PST

“After Ukraine, ISIS, terrorism…there are a lot of distractions in 2015,” says Nick Mabey, founder and chief executive of the environmental NGO E3G, in this week’s podcast. “Short term issues are important, but they’re not everything,”

Climate change is a massive, long-term national security issue, he says, and what happens at this year’s UN climate summit in Paris will be tremendously consequential. Climate experts have seen how quickly their predictions and worse-case scenarios can take place. In 2008, as E3G was looking at climate security, they were discussing if and how climate change would affect things like trade balance, energy security, and resentment between countries, says Mabey. In 2015, those scenarios are now the reality; “this is the world we live in.”

“The Mediterranean is full of refugees driven by conflict exacerbated by drought, and Arctic politics continue to grow,” he says. “We’re seeing a massive growth of government repression of anti-coal activism, including in India but also in places like Poland and Turkey and our democratic friends…We’re seeing a global fossil divestment campaign look like the anti-apartheid movement.”

The United States is the most climate-vulnerable OECD country. Over the last three decades, the United States has experienced 37 percent of all global damage, by value, from major weather events, says Mabey. A recent poll shows 41 percent of U.S. experts believe climate change is a top foreign policy issue. But politics still makes climate change a hot potato. While President Obama and Secretary Kerry have emphasized the issue, Mabey says it is hard to take action once they leave the room. In addition, there is concern that Congressional Republicans could threaten the U.S. role in Paris in their efforts to counter the president.

The lack of engagement and urgency from policymakers, not only in the United States but around the world, is worrying, says Mabey. “Unless you have a gut feeling of how much risk you’re going to take, you will not prioritize to reduce that risk.”

While we have the ability to adapt to and mitigate climate change, top officials across the Atlantic are not having the conversations necessary to get people to understand it is a risk worth avoiding, Mabey says. Building political consensus is difficult not only because of distracting security factors like ISIS and terrorism, but because certain governments are not listening to their citizens’ calls for change.

But popular movements are gathering steam. In 2009, 40,000 people marched at the climate rally in Copenhagen. Last year, 400,000 marched in New York City and were joined by an additional 200,000 around the world. Mabey says even more protestors are expected to turn out in Paris at the start of December’s climate talks.

The public pressure will hopefully drive more official discourse in this high-stakes year for climate negotiations, he says. “The world is fragile, the climate system is fragile, it’s like an egg…and so the question is…how much climate risk do you take? How much do you want to poke that egg?”

Nick Mabey spoke at the Wilson Center on February 12. Download his presentation to follow along.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

February 11, 2015 07:44 AM PST

“Adaptation is very theoretical. When you talk about ‘resilience,’ you draw these Venn diagrams and you draw these really complex issues, but at least at the IPCC level, we didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what people were actually doing,” says Eric Chu in this week’s podcast.

Chu, a contributor to Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, says the ways high-level concepts about adaptation translate to action are very important and not well understood.

“How do city governments in developing countries understand the impacts of climate change?” he asks, “how do they translate those mandates into what they’re [currently] doing?” In his dissertation, which he adapted for the Fifth Annual Graduate Student Urban Poverty Paper Competition, Chu explores these questions in three Indian cities. Each faces unique climate stressors – Surat is dealing with extreme flooding, Indore has been strained by chronic water scarcity, and Bhubaneswar has experienced more frequent cyclones. But they all share long-term relationships with external NGOs and donor agencies concerned with climate adaptation.

Chu found in each, officials and civil society groups are already working to help people adapt to climate change. The main impact of external groups was to “add to the vocabulary” of existing efforts. In some instances, the introduction of new concepts was extremely helpful. For example, a women’s water management group in Indore was better able to organize and plan their work after they understood climate change was driving much of the long-term water stress they experienced.

But on the whole, said Chu, local groups did not absorb the idea of adaptation that external groups attached to their support, choosing instead to frame their work around issues they were already addressing. City governments also struggled to gain support for efforts labeled as “adaptation,” both among citizens and public officials.

“Cities are finding it very difficult to understand how [a conception of] adaptation this broad and cross-sectoral translates into line items on a budget,” he said. “They do have budget cycles, they do have electoral cycles, where climate change doesn’t fit in.”

Outsiders’ best hope to elevate climate adaptation, then, may be to take a more grassroots approach, focusing less on how local governments can mainstream adaptation into their agendas, and more on how to build high-level mandates and incentives around existing local priorities, said Chu.

“It really needs to be internal; to have internal champions and institutional leaders, but also the policy instruments behind it to continue when [external organizations] actually leave.”

Eric Chu spoke at the Wilson Center on January 26. He is one of three winning authors of the Fifth Annual Graduate Student Urban Poverty Paper Competition who presented their work at a seminar sponsored by the Wilson Center in collaboration with USAID, the International Housing Coalition, World Bank, and Cities Alliance. Download the winning papers to learn more.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

February 05, 2015 11:16 AM PST

“If you care about climate change and international response to climate change, the first two weeks of December in Paris, France, will be your Super Bowl,” says Lisa Friedman, editor of ClimateWire, in this week’s podcast.

Friedman predicts the next UN climate summit will be the first to bring together all countries with voluntary but binding pledges to address climate change. Previous negotiations separated countries into two categories – wealthier nations bearing the bulk of emission reduction goals and everyone else.

Much of the onus sits with the world’s largest carbon emitters, like China, the United States, and India. But there are also questions about what sort of responsibility countries with growing economies and emissions should bear, such as Brazil, Turkey, and Indonesia. Friedman says this question is at the heart of the Paris debate: how much responsibility should countries take?

“Is it a formula?” Friedman says. “Is there a formula out there that all countries can agree to [that is] some mixture of emissions per capita, historic emissions, future emissions, GDP?”

Friedman says the Obama administration is hoping for equal legal responsibility for cutting emissions among all countries, though it recognizes that level of wealth and development will impact a country’s capacity to respond.

A Broader Cross-Section?

While the climate talks may dominate international environmental coverage in 2015, Friedman says there’s an additional story worth watching. As the historic marches last year in New York and around the world demonstrated, the climate movement is moving away from just environmental activists to a broader spectrum of players who add more nuance and depth to the mitigation debate. “You saw…a movement of not just young people, not just activists, but religious people and older people and families and people coming at this from a business perspective,” she says.

Pope Francis weighed in on the need to address environmental change in recent remarks, and activists are also courting immigrant communities. “Huge pockets of immigrant communities all over the U.S. have not been motivated to be active and politically active on issues of climate change,” Friedman says, but from Filipinos in Texas whose families were affected by Hurricane Haiyan to Vietnamese communities in California, that is starting to change.

These new voices could not only make environmental movements more diverse, they could make climate change a bigger issue for Democrats and Republicans in 2015.

Lisa Friedman spoke at the Wilson Center on January 23. Watch the full event on the year ahead in environment and energy news here.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

January 29, 2015 07:53 AM PST

“Human rights and climate change are completely interlinked,” says Robin Bronen in this week’s podcast. “And…climate change is happening in Alaska faster than anywhere else on the planet.”

Bronen, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and executive director of theAlaska Institute for Justice, says average temperatures have risen 3.5oC since 1975 across the state – well over the 2oC limit proposed by many experts. As sea ice melts, permafrost thaws, erosion accelerates, and extreme weather worsens, peoples’ livelihoods have been disrupted, particularly in small communities who are most vulnerable.

In 2003, about 86 percent of indigenous villages were affected by increased flooding and erosion. The lastfederal survey of those communities (229 in total) found that over a six-year period, the number of communities actively seeking to relocate had quadrupled, she says.

Population displacement is “one of most profound consequences that will be caused by climate change,” says Bronen. “It will happen all over the world… Millions of people are not going to be able to not only live where they currently live, but their livelihoods are obviously going to be affected.”

Protecting community rights and livelihoods during this process will require a much broader conception of human rights, she says. “We normally think of human rights as being individually based. We don’t normally think of collective human rights, and the collective rights of communities to be together.”


Bronen has encouraged state and federal leaders to begin building frameworks that will enable populations to resettle together. No government agency is currently charged with relocation, meaning communities cannot access funding or guidance for their transition, she says.

The Stafford Act, which guides most federal disaster activities, actually requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild communities in the same place, even if that means they remain in a disaster zone. In 2006, the federal government constructed a multi-million dollar sea wall to protect the community ofKivalina from erosion, for example. The day it was completed, a storm destroyed 180 feet of the wall and within a year nearly two-thirds of the community was evacuated in the wake of a storm.

These laws and policies may have originally been designed to protect people, but climate change is rendering some of them obsolete, she says. The community of Newtok, for example, faced a legal Catch-22 when it attempted to relocate to an unoccupied area in 2003: To receive state or federal funding for a school, a community is required to have at least 10 students ready for enrollment, but families were unwilling to relocate without a school already in place.

Although progress at the federal level has been slow, Bronen says she’s encouraged by the dynamism and creativity she’s seen among the communities she serves.

“There are climate warriors in Alaska…these are the people who are being affected now by climate change and with very limited resources taking extraordinary steps to adapt and protect their livelihoods.”

Robin Bronen is a member of the Global Resilience Academy and spoke at the Wilson Center on December 4.Download her slides to follow along.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

January 22, 2015 07:23 AM PST

“We believe that ecosystems can help people to adapt,” says Judy Oglethorpe in this week’s podcast. “But at the same time, people have to help ecosystems to adapt in order to continue to provide environmental services.”

Oglethorpe has been working for the last three years to help communities adapt to environmental change in the Chitwan Annapurna and Terai Arc landscapes of Nepal as part of the World Wildlife Fund’s Hariyo Ban Program. Livelihoods in the two regions are heavily dependent on natural resources, and that dependency brings with it degradation through practices such as overgrazing and deforestation. On top of that, the area faces major climate-related changes.

The program helps communities navigate the challenges of both climate change and man-made degradation by running 16-week classes that empower some of the poorest and most disenfranchised community members. Women and lower caste members are educated on climate change, sustainable landscapes, and biodiversity conservation, with the goal of encouraging communities to better manage the environment and have the confidence to advocate for better resources. A cross-cutting theme is gender and social inclusion, including non-environmental interventions like training women to become community health educators.

One climate challenge the Hariyo Ban Program helps communities navigate is less predictable monsoons. Rains that stop and start intermittently or continue for too long cause flooding that can alter freshwater sources or create landslides with sediment that becomes available when forests have been cleared for firewood. Intense rains also create new health problems, including water-borne illnesses.

In the community classes, participants learn how to combat these challenges by using biogas for fuel in place of firewood, limiting deforestation. They have also developed new techniques for conserving water that can be used to grow crops in the off-season and are encouraged to speak to their governments about additional healthcare resources, such as better-accessible health clinics

Oglethorpe says empowering these communities to have conversations with government and business leaders is critical to the success of conservation and adaptation efforts. “You know, you can help people to protect themselves all you want, but if there’s bad land use up in the catchment – you can’t stop those landslides, you can’t stop their fields getting dumped with rubble,” Oglethorpe says. “We’re promoting upstream-downstream collaboration between communities and bringing in forest departments and others who can help.”

Women’s empowerment, community health workers, and sustainable land management are not new concepts for development, but combining them and focusing on the community-level first are still fairly rare. Oglethorpe says helping communities combat both climate change and human environmental degradation is what sets this program apart.

“Maybe we do the same activities that we used to do, but we’re doing them for a different reason. We’re doing them because we’ve identified that people are vulnerable to climate…and we’re using these mechanisms to overcome these vulnerabilities.”

January 15, 2015 07:33 AM PST

As the idea of resilience has received more attention from policymakers as a guiding principle for climate change response and development, so too has it garnered more criticism, says David Lewis in this week’s podcast. By implying a “natural” return to a previous condition, resilience thinking could inadvertently promote limited policies that don’t go as far as they could in aiding those most at-risk.

“For people who are most vulnerable and the poorest, they don’t want to build back to that previous state; they want to build back better,” says Lewis, a professor of social policy and development at the London School of Economics.

Lewis has been working to better incorporate the perspectives and interests of the most vulnerable as a member of the Global Resilience Academy, a five-year research project sponsored by the Munich Re Foundation, International Center for Climate Change and Development, and United Nations University. In a co-authored paper in Nature Climate Change¬, he and academy colleagues advocate for a closer focus on “livelihood systems,” which encompass all the material, social, and institutional resources that shape the ability of individuals, households, and communities to thrive.

Those resources include not only tangible elements like land and agricultural inputs that adaptation and development programs often target, but also forms of human capital (like health and educational attainment) and a range of social and institutional dynamics, such as governance, political stability, and equity.

For example, firewood and palm leaf collectors in Bangladesh’s Sundarbans mangrove forests are vulnerable to not only to rising sea levels, but also to criminal networks that extort forest entrance fees and take advantage of poor levels of education, which limit forest users’ understanding of their rights.

Considering this perspective may help policymakers avoid falling into what Lewis describes as “top-down trap,” creating programs that are ineffective, ill-suited to address actual needs, or reinforce inequitable status quos.

“It provides a way of linking the micro and the macro,” Lewis says. “It looks at both the small-scale aspects of how households work and how they go about trying to build and maintain and strengthen their livelihoods, but it also looks at the different forces which both act upon them at the institutional level.”

What’s more, a livelihoods framework can showcase the agency and abilities of groups that may otherwise be missed. Interventions that incorporate and augment existing efforts to adapt– like solar-powered floating gardens, schools, and hospitals in the Sundarbans – may be more successful than those that do not.

“If we’re looking at changes to the position of the most vulnerable households, it makes a lot of sense to start with the household perspective and to look at the various types of resources that households are already using to try and improve their position.”

David Lewis spoke at the Wilson Center on December 4.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

January 07, 2015 06:52 AM PST

“Youth in many countries is synonymous to masculinity,” says Chernor Bah in this week’s podcast. “Across governments – and I’ve looked at a lot of youth policies – girls are invisible.”

Bah, chair of the Youth Advocacy Group of the UN’s Global Education First Initiative, says that leaders are increasingly willing to discuss the challenges faced by today’s 1.8 billion young people – the largest generation the world has ever seen – but have yet to come to grips with why those challenges exist in the first place.

For Bah, many problems faced by young people, including persistently high fertility and HIV infection rates and low rates of literacy and school completion, stem from policies that have continually failed to reach vulnerable and marginalized groups, particularly young girls ages 10 to 14.

Most young girls in Sierra Leone, where Bah was born, are far more likely to get pregnant than finish secondary school, he says. However, “it’s not a predetermined, biological outcome. It’s a result of a neglect of policy and programs over time; it’s a systematic neglect.”

Many young girls become “invisible” when they drop out of school and leave home to marry or serve as a domestic worker, he explains. No longer in spaces where government programs or outreach initiatives can easily reach them, these girls aren’t included in data used to plan youth programs or policy.

“We Cherry-Picked the Low-Hanging Fruits”

As a result, says Bah, “youth programs disproportionately benefit males and exclude girls.” For example, efforts to expand education under the Millennium Development Goals appear successful, but when enrollment data is disaggregated, it shows that most of the students added were boys. “We cherry-picked the low-hanging fruits and we left out the people at the bottom,” he says.

Policymakers need to make sure their investments are directly reaching young girls, says Bah, and providing “girl only” spaces. “It costs money, it costs time, and you have to be deliberate about it… but most people think we can continue to do business as usual, while saying that the world has changed.”

Through his own activism, Bah hopes to build a sense of urgency among leaders by stressing the importance not only of young people’s futures, but of their needs today.

“I don’t understand how you can have 1.8 billion people and consider them the future. No – they’re the now.”

December 18, 2014 10:54 AM PST

“Our responsibility is to call attention to the fact that there’s an invisible crisis happening,” says John Welch of Partners in Health in this week’s podcast. “Ebola is a huge issue for women’s health.”

In Liberia, where Welch recently returned from working to strengthen and open new Ebola clinics, the deadly epidemic has decimated a national health system weak from decades of conflict and chronic poverty, he says. As health infrastructure crumbles and doctors are killed, already-limited funding is being diverted to contain the virus, leaving pregnant women with fewer options than any time in recent history.

“Everyone wants to talk about Ebola, but…before this outbreak, only 50 percent of women in Liberia had access to skilled birth attendants,” he says. “The estimate is now that’s down around 30 percent.”

Similarly, says Welch, access to prenatal care and malaria treatment – 40 percent and 50 percent respectively before the crisis – has dropped to 25 percent. The crumbling of these and other services has reversed progress made by Liberia’s Ministry of Health. “All of that advancement is gone,” says Welch.

Given that across the afflicted West African countries 800,000 women are expected to deliver in the next 12 months and an estimated 1.2 million already lack access to family planning, it is essential that clinics recommence the provision of essential services as soon as possible, he says.

Safe Delivery Nearly Impossible

“Seventy percent of Ebola patients are women,” says Welch, “and that’s because they’re the caretakers; they’re the ones who stay by the side of their family member, who provide those traditional burials and try to provide for the dignity of their family.”

Women face a higher likelihood of death not only because Ebola poses serious health risks throughout the course of pregnancy (rather than just in the third trimester like most hemorrhagic fevers), but because it creates such a risk for those who could help them, says Welch.

“Safe delivery is virtually impossible at the moment. The volume of blood and amniotic fluid that a health care worker is exposed to puts them at enormous risk,” he says. That risk has fanned fears among health workers, leading to the shuttering of some clinics and leaving those that remain open severely understaffed.

Several NGOs working in Ebola-affected areas in Liberia estimate the mortality rates of infected pregnant women to be between 96 and 100 percent (the mortality rate nationwide is around 41 percent, according to recent World Health Organization estimates).

Even women who are not infected struggle to deliver safely; the symptoms of miscarriage and complications like eclampsia are nearly identical to those of Ebola, Welch says, and test results to determine if someone is infected take days – far longer than expecting mothers can survive without undergoing Caesarean sections.

There are those working to find a way to test women for Ebola more quickly, he says, but humanitarian groups and the ministries of health should also focus their energies on rebuilding the very fundamentals. “The Ebola response has to be tied to health system strengthening, so we don’t have to see this again.”

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