Research Highlights

When do disasters spark transformative policy change and why?

CNDS Fellow and Research Coordinator, Daniel Nohrstedt (Department of Government, Uppsala University) has recently published an article on transformative policy change as a result of disasters. We have asked him some questions about the article and the need for this topic of research and his answers can be found below.

The article is available on Bristol University Press Digital's website.

1. Why is the study of hazards as turning points for transformation toward more sustainable and resilient societies important?

This has significant practical and scientific relevance. First, in the climate change discourse there is a strong focus on disasters as a potential springboard for decisive policy action. Generally, the popular expectation is that disasters will serve as eye-openers that provide momentum for political action to reduce emissions and build more sustainable and resilient communities. Here we thus expect responsible political actors to take the lead and draw the necessary lessons to ensure we are better prepared for the next disaster. Second, many scholars make the same assumption, arguing that disasters will lower or remove psychological, institutional, and political barriers to substantial societal change. Meanwhile there is still relatively limited systematic empirical research on this topic and most prior research builds from studies of single countries, communities or disasters with little comparison across cases. The paper summarizes the main streams in the literature and outlines simplified scenarios linking disasters with transformation.

2. What are the main factors influencing the way we think about disasters?

One key dimension is the prehistory of earlier disaster events and the uniqueness of events. Novel events – i.e. disasters that represent some new or underestimated threat, or where the magnitude exceeds popular imagination – are likely to pave the way for widespread debate about societal preparedness. This is something that we witness right now, where the scale of some climate disasters have triggered discussions about the ability of communities to withstand future shocks. Another factor is timing. It matters a great deal if policy and political agendas are dominated by other pressing societal problems when disasters strike. Hereby disasters may not have the same agenda-setting effect as they would if agendas were less crowded.

3. When can disasters spark transformative change and how?

Different factors and dynamics explain why disasters become focusing events for policy action. One aspect is how disasters are framed by various stakeholders and actors. Are they portrayed as policy failures or successes? Do they spark blame-games and finger-pointing? Do they expose poor planning and lack of preparedness? These questions are likely to shape whether post-disaster debates focus on constructive, evidence-based policy learning or if accountability dominates. Also, it matters a great deal if these narratives are backed by influential pro-change groups. Another factor to keep in mind is that public attention to disasters and disaster management fluctuates. Attention always spikes in the immediate wake of disruptive events but fades as other events occur. This means that efforts to actually carry out changes usually do not attract much interest but us orchestrated by bureaucrats and other professionals away from the public spotlight. Lastly context matters, which includes repeated exposure to major disaster events (that shifts focus from long-term policy renewal for sustainability and resilience to short-term response and recovery) and governance capacity (individual, organizational, and community resources shaping the ability of policy actors to draw lessons and craft policy changes). Finally, it should be pointed out that transformation involves a broad assembly of substantial societal changes, which are unlikely triggered by single disaster events.

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Last modified: 2023-03-07