Extreme Weather is Getting Worse. How Do We Learn to Live With It?

Remember when talking about the weather was boring? Not so anymore. Extreme weather events are becoming more common, and more extreme, with no sign of letting up. 

On this episode Sarah Baldwin ’87 talks with homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem about what these changes mean for humans: Where should we live? How should we live? How should we think about our place on this planet? 

Juliette Kayyem served under President Obama as an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and is currently a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she teaches crisis management and homeland security. Her upcoming book, The Devil Never Sleeps, reframes how to think about crisis management in an age of disasters, from the level of the individual up through the federal government. And if a conversation with an expert like this sounds too depressing, don’t worry: talking with Juliette is anything but. 

Learn more about Juliette’s upcoming book The Devil Never Sleeps: Managing Disasters in an Age of Catastrophes

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts.


[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. Remember when talking about the weather was boring, not so anymore.


SPEAKER 1: We move on now to the Dixie fire in northern California.

SPEAKER 2: We start with these catastrophic floods in Europe.

SPEAKER 3: An unending deluge tore through communities in Middle Tennessee.

SPEAKER 4: Heat warning for 23 million people.


SARAH BALDWIN: Maybe some of the change is just in our perception. But we also know this, climate change is making extreme weather events more common and more extreme.


SPEAKER 2: The deadliest floods in living memory.

SPEAKER 1: Raging right into the record books.

SPEAKER 4: There'll be three days in a row of breaking that previous all time high. This is unprecedented.


SARAH BALDWIN: So what do these changes mean for us? Where we live, how we live, and how we think about our place on this planet.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Good is not our standard anymore, less bad is our standard.

SARAH BALDWIN: That's Juliette Kayyem. And if this all sounds a little depressing, trust us, talking with Juliette is anything but. She's a senior lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and she's been involved with managing just about every type of disaster and security threat you can imagine. Her upcoming book, The Devil Never Sleeps, explores what all disasters have in common and how changing our mindset might be the most important way to prepare for crises to come.

She makes this huge terrifying subject, something we can all learn to wrap our heads around. And she shows us why despite how you might feel, there's room for both realism and optimism as we enter into this new normal.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: It's not a happy message, but it's not a fatalistic message either.

SARAH BALDWIN: On this episode, Juliette Kayyem and how to live in an age of disasters.


Juliette's career didn't start in disaster management. Or maybe it did, but not in the way you're thinking.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: So my career didn't start off this way. So it started off in counterterrorism, and I was a lawyer.

SARAH BALDWIN: She worked under President Obama in the Department of Homeland Security. But in Two Thousand and Five, her interests started to change.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: With Hurricane Katrina. When those of us who sort of had been focused on Homeland Security realized, OK, we've stopped 19 guys from getting on four airplanes, but you can't save an American city from drowning. And I think at the same time the other risks that America face. We're starting to see cyber, pandemics, which we had been worried about. And of course, the climate issues, of course, which are really the big issues for the future of this country. All of them being sort of these borderless threats that were going to impact Homeland Security really became more intellectually and then pragmatically interesting to me.

SARAH BALDWIN: Juliette found herself drawn to the particular challenges of managing disasters on the ground.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: It's complicated. It's private sector of state, local, federal. It's not like war where you sort of have some sense of who's in charge. This is much more complicated as we're seeing with COVID response.

SARAH BALDWIN: Even more specifically, she likes thinking about a disaster's aftermath.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: We spend a lot of time and resources trying to convince ourselves or investing in things that we think will keep us safe and that's misleading. We do that to keep us safer, but there's always going to be an element of risk and trauma in crisis and disaster, and that sort of interests me more. I think after realizing the limitations with just focusing on left side of boom investments, that it just became more interesting to do right side of boom stuff.

SARAH BALDWIN: Left and right side of boom, meaning envision a timeline. It goes left to right. At some point, there's a disaster, a boom. The left side of the boom is when you're trying to stop the boom. The right side is when you're trying to manage the boom. Anyway, according to Juliette, it's not just governments and agencies that need to invest more in after the boom. It's something we should all do.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: We have to actually just conceive of disasters as imminent and not a surprise so that you view them more cyclical rather than random and rare. I mean it's obvious, right? But then the next question, OK, what am I doing because of that? How do I rethink how I'm preparing and where I'm putting my resources? And that then became the focus of my work now, which is sort of I call it boom minus 1, which is the minute before the inevitable bad thing. What are the 8, 9, 10 things that you wish you had done?

Our measure of success has to be what I call consequence minimization rather than binary, rather than, yes, no, did it happen? Did it not happen? It should be-- look at COVID. You know, 60,000 dead is better than 600,000 dead, right? And that's your standard of success. And that's not have a parade for only 60,000 dead, but boy, would I be happier with that number.

So thinking about how can we reduce the damage, the dead, the destruction, and think about ways in which once the boom happens, OK, I'm accepting that, bad will come and my measure of success is going to be can I lessen that?

SARAH BALDWIN: As Juliette once put it, managing chaos is her yoga.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: In some weird way, I think my personality fits this role because I just I'm not fatalist. I'm like California. I was like lots of people are on air and stuff that can make you want to put your head underneath the bed. And so I think for me maybe just being a mom or just being a little bit sunnier I guess in some way, it's like-- because it's not a happy message, but it's not a fatalistic message either.

SARAH BALDWIN: So let's get into it. According to Juliette, one issue that we as a society and many of us as individuals face is that we spend too much time thinking about and preparing for the last disaster. But at the same time, we want to learn from our mistakes, right? Yes and no.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: They also can be blinding.

SARAH BALDWIN: No two disasters are the same. And the question Juliette wants us to spend more time on is this, what lessons from past events do we take? Here's an example.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: The BP oil spill, one of the reasons why the entire system seemed off was because all oil spill response had been based on the Exxon Valdez.

SARAH BALDWIN: The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker that spilled 11 million gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska in Nineteen-Eighty-Nine.


SPEAKER 5: It's not only the worst oil spill in US history, it's by far the largest. Officials say a small amount of oil still seeps from the holes in the ship and containment booms around the vessel are not stopping it completely.


JULIETTE KAYYEM: You had a ship. You had a limited amount of oil. You had one state. You had no population barely in that state.

SARAH BALDWIN: The BP oil spill wasn't from a tanker though. It was from an offshore drilling rig, an open spigot of oil. And it spewed 200 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean for almost three months as BP worked to seal the ruptured wellhead.


SPEAKER 6: At this point, is that oil in danger now of escaping into the sea?

SPEAKER 7: That is correct. That oil will be released into the water now.


JULIETTE KAYYEM: They just basically transferred oil spill response as if offshore drilling the same well it's not.

SARAH BALDWIN: Ultimately, 210 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. That's almost 20 times as much oil as from the Exxon Valdez. Officials had learned a lot over the decades about how to plug a leaking boat, but Juliette thinks it might have been at the expense of imagining other ways the oil industry could cause disasters in our oceans. Ultimately, sometimes the most important lessons are staring us in the face if we ask the right questions.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: So the example that I often use is in the tsunamis of in Thailand and the Indian Ocean elsewhere about-- gosh, just like COVID, about 700,000 people died between the tsunami and then the resulting health things. And I didn't know much about tsunamis. So if you ask someone like me, who died and-- how people die matters in disasters. That's the point is-- I would say, well, if you were by the ocean, you died. And if you weren't by the ocean, you didn't die. And it turns out that it was a little bit more complicated than that.

That there were populations that understood, older populations, people who lived by the sea-- so compared to tourists and others who got eviscerated or new immigrants who got eviscerated-- who had told each other the lessons of tsunamis, which is when the water recedes, run for the hills.

So if you and I were in Thailand or maybe you knew this-- I wondered this, if I were in Thailand vacationing and the water receded, I don't know if I would have known. And there's no siren system and there's no alert system. That has all changed because the lesson isn't you're doomed if you were by the water. In other words, you would have had time and lots of people survived. It was the people who either stayed or went deeper in.

SARAH BALDWIN: Juliette has put together eight principles of disaster management that she says apply across all types of disasters, biological, natural, cyber, and they apply at all levels from individuals up to the UN. Principles like--

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Do you have systems for situational awareness? This is no different than as parents having some transparency over what our kids are doing. So can you set up systems now that will tell you what's happening in real time so you can respond? Controlling the cascading losses. That's another one, which is where something goes from a disaster to a catastrophe is not inevitable.

There is a moment after the boom when the disaster probably could have been contained. So we call them fail-safe systems. Like do you have a fail-safe system so that you're accepting that you're on the right side of the boom? I get it. It's just the world we live in now. Like let's stop pretending that we can stop all bad things from happening, but I can stop the cascading losses.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, speaking of cascading losses, I wanted to ask you about the disaster we've all been living through, the pandemic. What lesson should we be taking from this disaster?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Yeah. There are no good decisions, only less bad ones. And then I believe a really bad decision is a good decision made too late. And I think that is essentially what happened. If you think about January through March-- I remember this even though I was yelling from the rooftops in January and February just because I follow-- I'm not a genius. I just follow the right people who were starting to panic, right?

And so girlfriends of mine would be like, Oh my God, did you see what happened-- what's happening in Italy? Isn't it horrible? And I'm like, it's a pandemic. I snap my fingers. I was like it's a pandemic. It's coming here and sort of like could we have gotten better ready? Masking, all of the systems that should have been nurtured, but everything was too late. And now honestly so that this will be nonpartisan or bipartisan criticism, what took so long for Biden to do these mandates? I don't understand it.

I don't understand why we don't have a vaccination rule for flying. Not because flying is unsafe-- I'm flying again. I feel pretty safe with the mask and 95%. It's because you simply want to make a statement that there's acceptable and unacceptable behavior. No serious employer isn't going to require 100% vaccine because they can't afford it with their health insurance. They can't afford-- think about airlines that are now-- and this is proof that the mandates are working. United has now 98% or 99% vaccinated. So I say the decisions made too late can also be harmful.

SARAH BALDWIN: So it's kind of another way of saying that is be bold.


SARAH BALDWIN: And unpopular.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Be bold and unpopular because there is a well-paid, well-financed ideological movement in our country to continue COVID. This is no other way of thinking about this right-wing radio, right-wing media, even members of the GOP. So I think it's not just being bold, it is pushing back more aggressively and creating shame and humiliation. Either you fly or you don't fly. Either you have a job or you don't have a job. Either you get to hear Bruce Springsteen or you don't, right?

I have gotten two wedding invitations where you have to upload your vaccine card and it's non-negotiable. I mean, the bride and groom simply say if you're not vaccinated-- they're both from purple states-- if you're not vaccinated, we hope to celebrate with you at another time. It's like not negotiable. I love it.

SARAH BALDWIN: I do want to talk about natural disasters. So when you think about them, forest fires, hurricanes, cyclones, flooding, even drought I guess we could call a natural disaster. Do you think of them differently than the way you think about the pandemic?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: In Homeland Security, we talk about all hazards. So you don't want to get too specialized because these crises tend to have similar things. I mean, I think the cyber attack on Colonial is a perfect example, right? So all the super squirrelly cyber people are talking about ransomware or whatever. And someone like me just says, all I see is a energy distribution system that's not running. You can tell me the reason for it. All I see is a company that-- I don't care what their cyber networks were. It had no options but to turn off. That's not a very sophisticated system. So part of my push to get everyone to start to think about write a boom planning is when do they assume breach.

SARAH BALDWIN: Climate change, however, brings up some different issues. That's because while any given weather event is unpredictable, we do know that we, us, our way of living is going to make more booms happen. We have to be putting all hands on deck on both the right side and the left side of the boom.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: People like me need people who are thinking about mitigation to succeed. But until they do, you need people like me. For a while in the environmental movement-- I don't know if you remember this-- but like in the 80s or 90s, groups strategically would not speak of consequence management or disaster management because they didn't like the defeatism. But we have to view them as simultaneous.

And I think that climate change, whether it's how we build and where we build, to the kind of infrastructure that we're invested in, to layer defenses essentially. So think about Paradise. Who survived in Paradise? It was the people who had built homes that didn't have things around it that could burn. It was because they had built extra lanes to get out of their cul-de-sacs, and also those who had invested in deforestation despite the fact that most of them move there because of the forest, right?

Well, those three things combined were the difference between life and death. You have these moments where you go from an emergency and all these have technical means. You go from an emergency, to a crisis, to a disaster, to a catastrophe in just two or three decisions. Because as I said, we tend to think about disasters as binary. Did they happen or didn't they? It's like they're really much more complicated than that.


SARAH BALDWIN: What do you say to someone who says, I don't live near forests. I don't care, or I don't live near the coast. Why don't people just move? Or why don't people not move there? What is the answer to that?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: So I think in some ways, part of it is when they went there, the challenges were not there. So it is-- I mean part of it is in fairness to them, we as a government, as a society, we have to manage their retreat, right? So it's called managed retreat. How do you help people abandon where they are because of the reality? Right? And I would be much more forceful on this.

So this is where I say policy can really change things. I think our disaster management system in this country is absurd. I think the idea that something bad happens to you and as a government I am sort of obligated to pay you to build exactly the same is absurd, because that's the belief that disasters are random and rare.

SARAH BALDWIN: So there's that idea that the geography of climate threats has changed and we should help people to relocate. But there's another reason this matters for us all. One that isn't based on altruism.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: The other is the crisis of our climate will leave no one untouched at this stage because it's going to impact food supply and water supply. So do you eat? My answer to that person is do you eat? Right? And think about these minor panics that we've had just because of COVID, toilet paper, whatever-- you know, chicken for a little bit. I mean imagine if we cannot grow crops to the extent we thought we could. I mean, we don't have to imagine it, right? So this is going to impact so many aspects of our supply chain, that it is relevant to everyone.

SARAH BALDWIN: I wanted to ask you now more generally how we're doing. Have there been any major innovations in disaster preparedness or relief over the past, say, 30 years? I read this incredible thing. You said that from Two Thousand and Four to Twenty-Fourteen, there were 88 billion dollar disasters, which caused $623 billion in damages. So are we not getting any better or is this just inevitably getting worse?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: No. I think we are getting better. I think there's-- I mean a couple of things I think are acknowledgment of it as an issue has gotten better. We succeeded in getting the next generation to realize this was theirs, right? I mean now this is their Cold War. This is their existential crisis. If you talk to kids today and the polling confirms it, this is the only thing they think about. How will we live? Should we live? Should we have babies? Where should we live?

I also think-- and this is where I'm not public sector good, private sector bad-- I do a lot of work in the corporate world and a lot of advising, but I also do investing in startups and stuff. The green energy economy, the way people are utilizing science for scale to try to be better about both stopping disasters from happening and then responding. I mean we're going to be able to give communities-- I grew up in LA-- some amount of notice of an earthquake.

Well, that was unimaginable 30 years ago, right? So technology is helping in terms of communication and personal preparedness. People I think are more cognizant of the need to sort of take care of themselves and stuff like that. But yeah, the damage will continue. So here's the thing though is like 10 category 5 hurricanes in a row is of course bad news. But if you just look at what happened to New Orleans this hurricane season, the levees held. That means we did something right between Two Thousand and Five and now. So we have the capacity to do it.

SARAH BALDWIN: Even in her way of being, Juliette is modeling an innovation. A change in how people in her field communicate with the public.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: I think my industry, especially in counterterrorism when I started off in that, got their kicks out of being gloom and doom. I'm special, and I'm scary, and I deal in a scary world and you don't want have to deal with that. But the other is I think that they sort of liked-- you sort of protect your expertise-- and it just seems to me like just given the way disasters are now, that you just really can't do that anymore because each of us has the capacity to protect ourselves and to think about how we can minimize the consequences.

So yeah. Well, it's meant to be empowering. Because what's the other alternative? You're either a denialist, which I'm clearly not, or you have no hope.

SARAH BALDWIN: So I want to end with a question that's a little smaller in scale. What can I do as an individual to be better prepared for the next disaster?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: So it's a great question. And so, I mean first of all, you may already be halfway there, which is the first chapter is called get your head around it. I mean so part of it is getting people to get to the right side of the boom so they sort of understand what the consequences are. So the main things are communication or communication. So if you're thinking about your home, and I know this in terms of family unification after disasters, it's the only thing that really animates people is where are my kids? It's all that matters. Where are my kids? Is do you have in place the means to communicate or to figure out what's going on with your family if the means of communication are down?

SARAH BALDWIN: So and you can use kids anyway like your people, right? Your people--

JULIETTE KAYYEM: That's a great-- or dogs and pets are key. So if the dog or cat is essential to your well-being, have a plan for it, right? Do you have a crate ready? Do you have food ready? All the things. So then the second is the sort of personal preparedness, which is what does it mean to be personally prepared? So here's the numbers that you care about. So if you have a family of five, one gallon water per person per day for three days.

So 15 gallons of water. Right now I've just told you something you don't know. Let me assume the water goes down. It's not going to-- likely not going to go down for longer than three days. And if it did, there would be a backup system that comes into place. But let's say for three days I want my life to be comfortable. I don't want to be begging. I want to relieve public resources. So that's one translation is if so if you have a family of five, do you have 15 gallons of water in your basement? That's one run to Target, right? Or 7/11.

I mean 15 gallons is three big ones or-- it's not a lot. You can survive pretty far on water. Another area that I think that people should focus on is what I call single points of failure. Is there something in your system or with your people that if that thing goes down, all else falters. Because when we build systems, we want to avoid single points of failure. If you have a single point of failure, make a redundancy of it.

So I mean, think about it in terms of you don't have a single key to your house door. There are things like that and which you want to make sure that if the system goes down, right? Or if something doesn't work, you don't want everything to be dependent on just one thing. But you want to sort of have it layered. So think through your planning.

Well, what if-- so one of the tabletops that we often do-- tabletops are exercises that people in my space do-- is we'll bring a governor's office in, and they'll all think that they're already, whatever. And in one instance, just given the nature of politics, they had not invited lieutenant governor. So we killed, in quotes, the "governor" within the first four minutes of the tabletop. And then his whole staff is looking around and like saying, where's the lieutenant governor? I was like, that was your single point of failure.

But we had a redundancy, right? It's lieutenant governor who's got to bring me to make sure you're redundancy. So things like that that I've learned over the years.

SARAH BALDWIN: Juliette, it has been fascinating and strangely uplifting talking with you. Thank you so much for talking to us.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Thank you so much. It was great.


SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Kate Dario. Our theme music was composed by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin. You can listen to all our episodes anytime, anywhere, by subscribing to Trending Globally wherever you listen to podcasts. We'll be back soon with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks for listening.


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Dan Richards

Host and Senior Producer, Trending Globally