by Lauren Hubbel, Bard CEP MS ’14 Candidate
The National Council for Science and the Environment’s 13th annual conference, held in the prominent Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., was the largest I have ever attended. The climate was less temperate than the summer I had spent in D.C. as an intern for NCSE in 2003, but there were still countless men and women in suits and the political ambiance that I remember, and there were scientists, educators, professionals, policymakers, and administrators determined to solve environmental problems. “Disasters and Environment: Science, Preparedness, and Resilience” was the agenda for the conference held January 15-17, 2013.
Conference speakers hailing from Louisiana to Bangladesh set the tone. The conference featured keynotes by FEMA Administrator, W. Craig Fugate; TNC President and CEO, Mark Tercek; and UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström; among nine others. The conference comprised eight plenaries on topics from “Aridity and Drought and their Consequences” to “Environmental Changes Driving Environmental Disasters”; two symposia sessions; break-out sessions; and the 13th Annual Chafee Memorial Lecture, given by Dr. Jane Lubchenco.
In her lecture, Dr. Lubchenco, who is the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), celebrated the accuracy of NOAA’s recent forecasts of the track and intensity of Superstorm Sandy. Former speakers of the John H. Chafee Memorial Lecture include Sherry Rowland, Alfred Molina, and E.O. Wilson. Before the lecture, the Honorable Richard Benedick, U.S. Ambassador (ret.) and Founding President of the NCSE, was presented with the NCSE Lifetime Achievement Award.
On Tuesday afternoon, attendees had the option to choose two out of twenty-three symposia on topics ranging from international aid in environmental disasters to the role of women in climate change disaster resilience. I attended Symposium 9 on the 2013 National Climate Assessment draft, currently available for public review. The draft is the third report prepared under the guidelines on the 1990 Global Change Research Act on the science and impacts of climate change in the U.S. The symposium focused on climate-induced challenges and adaptive capacity of urban, rural and coastal communities, specifically the Southeast and the Southwest, and called for new metrics to evaluate the success of adaptation plans.
My second symposium, “Learning from Disasters: Environmental Disasters as Teachable Moments” presented methods for raising environmental awareness around events such as the Deepwater Horizon and the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, through Project Passenger Pigeon.
On Wednesday, twenty-three concurrent breakout sessions drafted policy recommendations (available online) for enhancing disaster preparedness, risk reduction and building resilient communities. I attended a breakout session entitled “Building Resilience in Coastal Communities,” where we discussed ways to enhance resilience in communities threatened with an increased number and intensity of extreme events, superimposed on sea level rise and degraded natural defenses. Common threads that emerged from the breakout workshops were: understanding extreme events paired with slow-onset impacts of climate change; how to assess vulnerability, effectiveness of best management practices and resilience thresholds; and emergency response planning that utilizes governance and social capital. At the heart of the plenary discussions and breakout session were lessons from international disasters: Fukushima in 2011, Hurricane Katrina, drought and wildfire in Australia, flooding in Mozambique and threats to food and water security. Witness to the devastating socio-economic, health and ecological impacts of these events, speakers and participants at the conference recognized the critical evolution of the term “sustainability” to include “resilience:” the adaptive capacity and preparedness of a community for the uncertain climate of tomorrow. Resilience measures the long-term ability of individuals, communities and the natural environment to recover from and respond to natural and human-induced disasters.
When I returned to New York, I began a two-week, January-term in land trusts at Bard CEP. The result was a sea-change for my development as a student of environmental policy. The course taught me about local, regional and international conservation developing through institutions all over the country and with targets ranging from forests, natural resources, biodiversity, public or private lands to historical, recreational or working lands.
Many land trusts are now grappling with the legal meaning of the clause, conservation “in perpetuity,” in relation to ongoing climate change. While some land trusts are beginning to look at mitigation strategies, such as carbon sequestration and renewable energy on agricultural lands, other land trusts are thinking of adaptation to shifting climates with respect to: agricultural “best practices,” spread of disease and invasive species, and developing wildlife corridors for migrant species. The two, conference and course, came together; conservation is more vulnerable and more valuable than ever, as climate change multiplies environmental stressors on land use services and the people who depend on them.
The experience that I had at the conference of the fragility of natural ecosystems and of the overall resilience of the environment, in the face of tremendous climate change, was manifested in the evolving struggles of a grassroots movement of land trusts over the last couple of decades. In fact, no one is removed from climate change and environmental disaster, not even the humble conservationist in me. I am not alarmed by the discovery. The conference pulled together an informed, global community in which I will adapt. Isn’t that the point of attending the conference: to see the world a little differently?
Bard Center for Environmental Policy is a university affiliate of NCSE.
Lauren Hubbell is a graduate student at Bard College’s Center for Environmental Policy in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.