Urban Floods: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

by | April 16, 2018
Category: Uncategorized

On April 12th and 13th 2018, The Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate hosted Urban Floods: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. This unique two-day event created a space for leading scientists, historians, economists, and social scientists to participate in lively discussions about topics of concern across all sectors. Organized by Anupama Rao (History, Barnard; MESAAS; Associate Director for the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society), Kavita Sivaramakrishnan (Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia; Interim Co-Director of the Columbia Aging Center; History, Columbia), and Adam Sobel (Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia; Director of the Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate), the event drew in over 50 attendees.

Urban Floods’ themes spanned many topics, including some well beyond the nominal theme, and the speakers brought forth a breadth of knowledge from various fields.

Thursday evening consisted of a conversation between Solomon Hsiang, University of California Berkeley, a leading economist who combines data with mathematical models to better understand how society and the environment influence one another, and Saskia Sassen, Columbia University, a leading sociologist who studies cities, immigration and states in the world economy with inequality, gendering and digitization as three constant, key variables in her work. The audience was engaged and asked thoughtful, challenging questions to the participants.

Friday consisted of an all-day workshop with three panels, concluding with a roundtable with all the participants.

The morning panel, moderated by Laura Kurgan of Columbia University, was titled Extreme Weather interventions. Speakers Stephane Hallegate of the World Bank, Ted Shepherd of Reading University and Upmanu Lall of Columbia University discussed flood vulnerability, impacts to African cities, and how to measure disaster impacts on poor people when their losses are not well captured by the typical economic measures; an alternative “storyline” approach to representing uncertainty in climate change; and a provocative consideration of whether flood control measures mitigate or increase risk, respectively.

The midday panel, moderated by Thomas Asher of the Social Science Research Council, titled Climate Inequalities: Lessons from the Field, featured Paige West of Barnard College, Tammy Lewis of Brooklyn College, and Suzana Camargo of Columbia University. West started the panel with an ethnography about the responses of eels and human residents to a “king tide” flood in Papua New Guinea. Lewis followed with a presentation about “green gentrification” in the neighborhood around the Gowanus Canal in which, post-Sandy, government funds spent on environmental cleanup and increased resilience have made the area not only greener, but also richer and whiter, forcing out lower-income residents. Camargo discussed the similarities and differences between Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Harvey, and explained some of the subtleties in linking them to climate change.

The final panel of the day, The Politics of Climate: Marginality and the Public, was moderated by Adam Sobel, and featured J.C. Salyer of Barnard College, Adriana Garriga-Lopez of Kalamazoo College, and Nikhil Anand of the University of Pennsylvania. Salyer discussed the vulnerabilities of displaced people. Garriga-Lopez discussed how Puerto Rico coped and is still coping with the impacts of flooding caused by Hurricane Maria. Anand gave the last presentation of the day about coastal regulations and zones and how urban areas are impacted by changing coast lines and vulnerable to flooding.

The conference closed with a round-table discussion between all the panelists. The discussion ranged widely across questions of method as well as what questions motivate researchers in the broad array of humanist and scientific disciplines represented in this unusually interdisciplinary event.

The overarching theme of the conference, in the end, turned out to be storytelling: how do humanists and scientists use their information, inferences and data to present and tell an engaging story, one that communicates the central questions and choices at issue, and is faithful to the real uncertainties without either exaggerating or underplaying them? Urban floods are both natural and human disasters; they are complex events that cannot be wholly understood from any single perspective. Scholars need to learn to tell, and to hear and understand, the diverse stories that give meaning to these events.

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