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‘Less bad is a good standard’: Watson Institute hosts Juliette Kayyem

National security expert, author talks to Professor David Polatty about climate change, disaster management

While serving as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs, Juliette Kayyem was involved with the handling of the H1N1 pandemic and BP Oil Spill response.
While serving as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs, Juliette Kayyem was involved with the handling of the H1N1 pandemic and BP Oil Spill response.

The Watson Institute hosted Juliette Kayyem for a discussion on climate change and disaster management Monday evening. Kayyem talked with Watson Fellow David Polatty about her career, COVID-19, climate change and her upcoming book “The Devil Never Sleeps: How to Prepare When Disasters Are No Longer Random and Rare.”

The event, titled “Managing Disasters in an Age of Climate Change,” was part of Watson’s Distinguished Speaker Series and was hosted in conjunction with the University’s Climate Solutions Lab. The talk began with a conversation between Polatty and Kayyem, who is a professor of international security at the Harvard Kennedy School, later expanding into an open Q&A during which Kayyem fielded questions from students, faculty and members of the University community alike.

Kayyem’s career “really has (focused on) one fundamental thing, which is just risk reduction. It’s just about how societies can reduce risk to themselves,” she said in an interview with The Herald prior to the event. “I like to say I’ve had one career and many jobs.”

Kayyem has held positions in the Obama administration as well as at The Atlantic and CNN. She also founded her own consulting firm.

In both her interview with The Herald and at the event, Kayyem detailed what she believed were the largest crises of our time and how to prepare for them.

“The U.S. is facing two existential crises right now,” Kayyem told The Herald. “One we share with the globe, which is climate change. … Second, I do think that we are in a crisis of democracy here in this country.”

On the climate issue, Kayyem believes the problem is abundantly clear: “Climate change is really going to change the nature of how we live, how we breathe, how we eat, where we live, conflict, everything — and we’re not exactly prepared for it.”

But Kayyem also said she thinks climate disasters can create opportunities to rebuild stronger communities in the wake of disaster. Referring to the example of the devastating tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri in 2011, she said, “the town began to think about things that they didn’t like about themselves the day before the tornado.” The disaster allowed them to begin to address “the segregation (and) the high school that was too small” in their rebuilding efforts.

Kayyem compared climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that the pandemic contains lessons for the way governments and communities prepare themselves for future climate catastrophes. She added that these include the global scale of the disasters and the shared frustration of lost time.

“Those (first months of 2020) were squandered time, and like with climate change, sometimes a bad decision is simply a good decision made too late,” she said.

Ultimately, Kayyem said an era when disasters are frequent and widespread rather than sporadic and isolated means that disaster response must acknowledge that living in certain areas is simply no longer feasible. “There just have to be places where people are no longer allowed to live, where they’re paid to move away, and that means changing our disaster relief system, which is somewhat sacrosanct in this country,” she said. “We need to start not paying people to go back to normal.”

Kayyem added that this managed retreat strategy is especially necessary for areas that are extremely vulnerable to fires and flooding. Referring to the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed much of Paradise, California, she said, people are now asking “how Paradise should be redesigned. I’m convinced that we should not rebuild Paradise.”

The democracy problem, on the other hand, she describes as a little less obvious. “Weirdly, we’re in this place where we still treat (our democratic crisis) as a joke. It’s not a joke,” she said.

Whether it’s the climate, COVID-19 or democracy, Kayyem sees one fundamental problem repeating itself in each of society’s biggest challenges: the way we approach disaster management.

“For a long time, it was really hard to get climate activists to talk about anything other than mitigation,” Kayyem said. “Acknowledgement is a good thing … (but) there’s only so much you can do to mitigate the bad thing happening. You have to prepare for it.”

In practice, this means understanding that problems like climate change have already descended upon us — Kayyem argues that the task currently at hand is figuring out how to contain the damage. Disaster management specialists like Kayyem spend their life’s work doing just that.

“My goal in all the ways I communicate is to make my role less scary,” she said. “There’s lots of experts who elevate their importance by talking to the public in a way that makes them seem really important, saying (things like), ‘You don’t get this,’ or ‘This is really scary and technical.’”

The consequences of this intellectual posturing, she argues, are devastating: “What that has meant for the American public is it has made people either tune out or freak out.” What she sees occurring in the American cultural landscape is an attempt to polarize the public.

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An element of tackling problems in the current political climate, she added, “is not to accept the polarization as fixed.”

“If you watch cable news or Fox News, you would think that this country is split over things like vaccines and mask mandates,” she said. “They want you to believe it’s split. 70% of eligible Americans have now gotten (their first shot). This is not a split. This is not a culture war. This is a very noisy minority (that) wants to set the conditions of what the debate is.”

To deal with the major global problems at hand, Kayyem noted that all hands on deck are needed at every level of the playing field. She urged students passionate about taking action on these problems to jump in and get involved.

“There’s a tendency for students to think that this game is being played at the national and international level,” she said. “My federal jobs were exciting, but my state job was the most satisfying job I have ever had. You got stuff done, you’re working with localities … it’s not all theoretical.”

“For students interested in this,” she added, “don’t think DC or the UN are the places to be. Go home. My guess is your city or town has really fulfilling work.”

When asked what the average citizen could do to aid community response and preparedness efforts, Kayyem recommended attending emergency preparedness trainings and stocking up on necessities to prevent relief systems from being overwhelmed in the wake of a calamity. “Every household that’s better prepared takes pressure off of public safety,” she said.

Anthony Bishop-Gylys ’24 said the event increased his understanding of both the governmental and personal aspects of disaster preparedness and response. He added that he appreciated how Kayyem recognized the dual importance of both human and non-human ecosystems and their inherent interconnectedness.

“The point she made (to me) was that if you do actually focus on relieving the human consequences of disaster, you can help ecosystems at the same time, because a lot of those resources are indeed shared,” he said.

Ultimately, Kayyem’s hope was that, through both her talk and upcoming book, she could shift the public’s perspective on risk and disasters. After all, she predicts the era the global community has entered into will have no shortage of them in store.



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