Climate Change and Emergency Management

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

At the 2007 National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) Annual Forum, I persuaded the Chair of the Preparedness Committee to allow a presentation on climate change at the Committee’s meeting. The expert speaker, Bob Freitag, a former FEMA official turned academician, proved uniquely qualified to describe the looming threat from the perspective of an experienced emergency manager turned academician.

Freitag’s message was sobering. The ensuing discussion was the first of its kind within NEMA and very likely any emergency management gathering. Potential consequences that in 2019 seem apparent to all but the most moronic and ignorant public officials were presented as examples of “likely” problems. Afterward, several state directors complained to me that there was “nothing they could do about it even if it was true” and cited vague references to “divided” scientific opinions. One critic angrily advised me that “directors can’t get too far ahead of their governors” on such issues.

Years later, similar discussions among directors were oriented to finding a substitute phrase for climate change because, NO KIDDING, many were not permitted to utter those two words in tandem on the public record for fear of being fired. Seeing them search their vocabularies to find a way to speak of “climate change” was at once hilarious and troubling.

Mindful of that Shakespearean line “he jests at scars that never felt a wound”- I can’t judge those colleagues who worked in less scientifically astute (or deliberately ignorant?) administrations. In Seattle a forward- thinking environmental champion, Greg Nickels, was Mayor during my final years there. As Washington’s Director of Emergency Management, I served under an environmentally savvy Governor, Christine Gregoire. The incoming Governor during my final six weeks, Jay Inslee, has selected climate change as the issue for his presidential run! The point: I never once had to fear for my job when discussing climate change in public or private conversation. Some of my state director colleagues were not that fortunate.

Emergency managers dislike being in the center of political debates, understandably wary of the motives of some of the politicians under whom they serve. That said, no profession may be more impacted by rising sea levels (potentially causing massive relocation here and elsewhere), and increased disruptive and destructive extreme weather events hastened by mankind’s foolish disregard for its future. Whether serving an enlightened or ignorant political administration, emergency managers must become more conversant with and outspoken on climate change matters.

Emergency managers ARE the subject matter experts when it comes to dealing with looming disaster threats. Whether the subject is earthquakes, wildfires, or wind events who better to point out vulnerabilities and to propose measures for predictable events that could be very devastating? Senators, Congressmen, Governors and Mayors should accept that the times (and the climate) are a-changing. Emergency managers throughout the nation need to be on the front lines, advocating for measures to minimize the consequences, and their political overseers need to stand squarely behind them.

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