We need more disaster research

On the EDGE: An opinion column about current issues in Norway and the United States
Join the conversation!

disaster research

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Research can tell us how to live with snow to avoid disaster.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Everywhere is vulnerable to disasters. Norway, too. From the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to the 2011 Oslo and Utøya terrorists attacks, Norwegians should be ready for disasters whether at home or abroad.

The best way to be ready is to prevent disasters. Instead of cleaning up and memorializing afterward, the field of “disaster risk reduction” aims to reduce risks so that disasters do not happen. Norwegian science has much to contribute, yet needs much more support for completing this research.

Disaster risk reduction seeks to identify the deep-seated societal and political reasons why many people cannot, or choose not to, prepare for disasters. Fundamentally, disasters are caused by individual and collective vulnerabilities, stemming from poverty, discrimination, equity, injustice, and other social ills.

Earthquakes, storms, and other environmental phenomena unleash powerful forces. We have the science, technology, knowledge, and wisdom to deal with them. We can live in different places, allocate resources for people to make their own choices, construct robust infrastructure, stop prejudice, and work together as communities to help each other.

We often do not. Understanding why these choices are made by those with power and resources, and what limits exist to enacting change, are ground-breaking and exciting areas of international scientific work.

Norway makes essential and recognized contributions. The University of Agder provides a topical research center. The University of Stavanger contributes to avoiding El Niño impacts. A solid baseline exists for more.

Too often, disaster risk reduction research is distracted by fleeting paradigms of “security,” “resilience,” “transformation,” and other flavor-of-the-decade buzzwords. They can dominate the discourse yet detract from knowledge and action.

Rather than retrogressive jargon, we need to focus on why we do not apply existing knowledge and experience to prevent disasters. We need to ask people their views and perceptions of disasters, their interest in tackling them, and their resources and will available for doing so.

We need to link disaster-related work to people’s day-to-day lives and everyday headline topics such as crime, education, the economy, racism, and sexism. We need to bring in everyone, across abilities, genders, ages, ethnicities, socio-economic status, and other demographics.

Intersections with community development, green energy, urban planning, livelihoods, infrastructure design, international geopolitics, business continuity, and behavioral science are among the vast gamut relevant to disaster risk reduction. Few researchers in Norway forge links across these fields.

Same with linking climate change and disaster risk reduction. Climate change is affecting our weather now. If we do not tackle vulnerabilities, then more disasters could result.

The cause of these disasters is not climate change per se, but our failure to tackle the vulnerabilities. We know how to adapt to the changing climate. We do not always choose this pathway.

Climate change and its impacts have long been important to Norwegian science. A dedicated research program, Klimaforsk, exists to support climate-related research. Isolating climate and forcing researchers to focus on it has harmed the science.

After all, climate change is one environmental process among many. We do not help ourselves if we implement our research results for dealing with climate change only. We then neglect tsunamis, terrorism, earthquakes, traffic crashes, chemical leaks, and other potential inputs into disasters.

Climate-change adaptation is a subset of disaster-risk reduction. Climate and weather are one set of potential environmental hazards among many. No reason exists to separate the topics. Yet Norway has done so for science.

The consequence is climate-change adaptation work that rarely draws lessons from other fields. Due to the separation of topics, policy recommendations are less robust.

Norway has long had opportunities to produce world-class science on dealing with climate change. Despite the investment, adaptation work has thus far fallen short. Instead, a focus on disaster-risk reduction would enfold climate-change adaptation, ensuring that no matter what the environment brings, we can deal with it.

A large cohort of researchers embracing all these subjects simultaneously—a major research center tackling disaster risk reduction—would support saving lives. A Research Council of Norway program on disasters that incorporates, but moves well beyond, climate impacts would apply well-known international lessons from disaster-risk reduction.

This action on disaster science and science for disaster action would cut through boundaries and meld silos. Norway sports a long and rich history of science for the country and for the world. Let’s take this expertise and use it to stop disasters everywhere.

The opinions expressed by opinion writers featured in “On the Edge” are not necessarily those of The Norwegian American, and our publication of those views is not an endorsement of them. Comments, suggestions, and complaints about the opinions expressed by the paper’s editorials should be directed to the editor.

This article originally appeared in the April 20, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Avatar photo

Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.