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Building a Resilient Tomorrow: Interview with Author Alice Hill

Flooding in downtown Memphis, TN; part of the 2011 Mississippi River floods (by Thegreenj)

By Maya Saidel

This interview is part of a series in which Council on Strategic Risks (CSR)  & Center for Climate and Security (CCS) interns interview members of the CSR and CCS Advisory Boards along with other key voices in the security field. Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption, co-authored by Alice Hill and Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, is a book that offers inspiring examples of environmental risk management and recommendations to strengthen climate resilience. Maya Saidel interviewed Alice Hill about her new book, her career, and the climate crisis. Alice Hill is a member of both the CSR Board of Directors and the CCS Advisory Board, and is the Senior Fellow for Climate Change Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. She previously served as a special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council staff. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Maya Saidel (MS): Paralysis and despair about climate change and a changing world, or “climate grief” as some psychologists are calling it, seems to be affecting an increasing number of people. I was struck by how hopeful and pragmatic Building a Resilient Tomorrow was, especially when it went into the stories of how individual actors are making real strides. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if you encountered any “climate grief” or denial in professionals during your time working either in the Department of Homeland Security or for the National Security Council? 

Alice Hill (AH): I’ve encountered optimism, bias, and denial at both the Department of Homeland Security and at the National Security Council. Since I began working on climate change in 2009, I believe the number of denialists has decreased. However, I also think that people still tend to believe that climate change won’t strike them. One thing that I have observed during the COVID-19 pandemic is that even though the pandemic dominates the media, there is growing interest in climate change. COVID-19, although it is an acute event, has given us a greater understanding of what catastrophic risk could look like. There has been an influx of recent reporting on the need to adapt to climate change which wasn’t there when I began working on climate change resiliency. It is gratifying to know there is more information out there to help me in my quest to get others interested in climate change resiliency.

MS: In your discussion of what the United States and the world can do to find better ways to pay for climate resilience, you describe how the Paris Agreement ensures that rich countries with strong economies can channel money into poorer countries’ resilience efforts, but that “slow domestic and international bureaucracies and cumbersome requirements” make accessing this money very difficult. Do you think there is anything the world can do to cut down on red tape, or is it necessary and part of the nature of international climate finance? 

AH: I think it’s part of the nature of giving out large sums of money that there are restrictions to avoid corruption, fraud, or any suggestion that a particular group receiving money is being favored. We’re seeing some of this right now in reports about fraud or shady dealings with the COVID-19 bailouts that the U.S. government has had to issue very quickly. When you’re looking on a global scale, you must do a lot of work to analyze who should get money, what is a deserving project, and how to implement it. This assessment process inherently creates delay. Do we need to do better? Yes, we need to do better immediately.

We also need to get nations back on track to giving the amounts originally contemplated as part of the Green Climate Fund. Far, far more than that, even. Inequity between rich and poor countries is worsening with climate change. Morally, this is problematic since the poorest countries have had little to do with causing climate change. But it’s also not in the self-interest of the United States to refuse to provide additional aid for climate adaptation because as those nations get poorer, their populations get more desperate, which threatens global security and stability.

MS: It seems that when catastrophic climate events occur, the elderly and disabled, along with the poor, tend to be the hardest hit. In an article by Forbes, the writer argues that the exclusion of the voices of these marginalized groups of people in decisions regarding equitable, ethical steps towards sustainability and security constitutes “climate darwinism.” If you took into account where our federal government and the private sector seems to be headed, do you envision a future where climate ableism is addressed? 

AH: Climate change has revealed that many groups suffer disproportionately, and they are often ones that we know are more vulnerable to climate change. I would add children to the list you just gave. Many children under 5 are malnourished, and with climate change, and with the pandemic, that is likely to increase. The lack of nourishment causes stunting, which has very bad outcomes for the child: cognitive delays, and a reduction in cognitive development of the child. Stunting occurs more frequently in certain countries and has long term impacts on their populations. In my new book I am exploring the need to include the disabled in planning for climate change as well as ways to address these added challenges for vulnerable populations.

I’ll never forget meeting a woman who led planning efforts for the disabled for FEMA. She described that in beach communities, housing planners are lifting houses up to be twelve feet above flood water levels, which will protect homes from flooding. But she said that lifting the homes destroys the social cohesion of the community because the elderly and disabled can’t get up the steps. So, they’re either stuck in their homes or just can’t live there because no one has the money to put in elevators or ramps. Plus, elevators wouldn’t work with floodwaters washing through. What this story shows us is that there is a lot to be done and there are no quick answers or sufficient funds available. The best of programs can end up having unintended consequences.

I was looking at a program today designed to give insurance to small farmers. A lot of farming occurs on small plots. If there’s a drought, or the farmers are going to lose livestock, the programs give money in advance so they don’t sell their assets and they can recover. But we have over a billion people who are poor agricultural workers, and how do we give them protections against future damage? The programs just haven’t scaled up to that level yet. 

MS: In light of the coronavirus pandemic, do you feel that the world has woken up to the importance of implementing resilience measures to guard against biological threats which will surely increase as a result of climate change? 

AH: The one thing I am confident of, at least based off of past patterns of the United States, is that we will have a much stronger public health system coming out of this pandemic. There is no question in my mind. If you look at what happened after 9/11, we couldn’t imagine that terrorists would fly into the World Trade Center. They did, and we redirected six trillion dollars towards anti-terrorism efforts in the aftermath. I think the nation has suffered more deaths from extreme weather events, than it has from terrorist attacks. After a catastrophe, there’s this automatic move by political leaders to address what just has happened, and after this pandemic, to have a stronger public health system will be a good thing.

With climate change, an event might occur in one place and that place will build back better to accommodate for future natural disasters. But the same event will occur in another place that hasn’t been hit before, and they won’t be prepared. So how do we translate some of the learning from experienced places to non-experienced places? That’s difficult. It’s not immediately obvious how you get everyone to suffer a catastrophic “no more” moment to motivate them to rebuild more resiliently when they haven’t actually suffered it yet.

MS: Do you feel that your book has strengthened dialogues and brought more attention to climate resiliency in the national security community and the policy world? 

AH:  That is my dream, but I can’t say it has come true yet. I’ve had very nice messages from people who’ve said they have learned from the book. You mentioned its hopefulness; others have told me “that was so depressing, I had to put it down, I couldn’t get through it.” It’s interesting to see the different reactions and to see what people find compelling about the book. At this moment, I think it has been most gratifying to see how the field is changing and expanding so quickly.

Maya Saidel is an intern with the Council on Strategic Risks and the Center for Climate and Security.

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