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Climate Change-Fueled Hurricanes and Floods Demand Immediate Action

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Climate Change-Fueled Hurricanes and Floods Demand Immediate Action

When Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast nearly two years ago, it hit some of the most heavily populated coastal communities in the U.S., including New York City, causing widespread damage, disruption and dislocation. It cost billions to restore lives and property—work that's still ongoing. And it spotlighted the need for aggressive, proactive risk reduction in an era in which climate change is bringing about more frequent superstorms and flooding, a new report asserts.

Far too many people who live along America’s coasts and rivers are at considerable risk of personal harm from floods and hurricanes. Photo credit: Stockphoto

The report Natural Defenses From Hurricanes and Floods: Protecting America's Communities and Ecosystems in an Era of Extreme Weather was produced by the National Wildlife Federation, Earth Economics and Allied World Assurance.

“We cannot and should not have to wait until the next big storm to protect America’s communities and ecosystems in our new era of extreme weather,” said National Wildlife Federation president and CEO Collin O'Mara. “Our preparedness deficit is the result of years of inaction and underinvestment at the federal, state and local levels. It’s time for our elected officials to reinvest in our natural defenses and this report offers a blueprint for bipartisan, market-based solutions.”

The report notes the attraction of living along water while highlighting the dangers that come with increased development in coastal areas. It points out that risk from flooding has also increased in non-coastal areas such as Boulder, Colorado due to extremely heavy rain.

"Far too many people who live along America’s coasts and rivers are at considerable risk of personal harm from floods and hurricanes, and their properties and economic livelihoods are highly vulnerable as well," it says. "Efforts by policy makers to grapple with and respond to these problems have been inadequate. ... The increasingly devastating and costly destruction caused by floods and hurricanes is a wake-up call policy makers cannot ignore. Improving the resilience of communities to these natural hazards must become a paramount tenet of public policy, recognizing that the risks will increase as the climate changes and that many more people will move into or find themselves in hazard-prone areas in the future."

It goes on to say that even as we grapple with the underlying factors driving climate change, we can develop more effective approaches to dealing with the impacts of the storms it's generating. Those measures would not only protect the lies, jobs and properties of those living in such areas, but would also preserve fish and wildlife habitats, offer more opportunities for tourism and recreation and decrease costs to taxpayers from disaster relief. The study estimates that for every dollar spent on risk reduction, $4 would be saved in after-the-fact disaster relief, resulting in savings to both taxpayers and insurance companies.

Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 cost taxpayers nearly $150 billion with Hurricane Katrina destroying 12 times as many homes as any previous U.S. disaster. Yet the flooding that swamped the city of New Orleans and its environs would likely never have happened if not for poor levy construction and maintenance policies and the constant, ongoing destruction of the protective wetlands. The report cites risk mitigation policies are being undertaken to protect salt marshes in Jamaica Bay, New York; to reduce river flooding in the Puget Sound area surrounding Seattle; and to prevent further wetlands loss in Louisiana.

The measures it urged including reforming the National Flood Insurance program to more accurately assess risks and encourage investment in prevention, restoring wetlands and coastal barriers, and implementing flood control policies and planning that make use of natural infrastructure and preserve ecosystems.

Oceanside property is in demand, but building there brings heightened risks. Photo credit: Stockphoto

If it sounds like the report authors just threw up their hands and said "Climate change is inevitable so let's just deal with it," that's not the case. Among its key recommendations: "The United States must minimize risks by reducing carbon pollution. Congress, the [Obama] administration and the states must confront one of the chief causes of the growth in flood and hurricane risk: climate change. Taking policy action to reduce carbon pollution is a critical step toward safeguarding wildlife and people from climate change impacts."

We can protect people against the storms and flooding, and we can encourage them to move to safer areas, it says, but reducing greenhouse gas pollution and moving to a clean energy economy is the ultimate solution.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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