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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter March 17, 2007

Risk, Fairness, and the Geography of Disaster

Robert R.M. Verchick

This article examines risk and distributional fairness as they relate the Hurricane Katrina disaster and climate change. To be sure, these catastrophes are different. Katrina was regional, not global, and was fast-acting. Climate change is global, slow-moving and will come in multiple stages in a series of sudden and incremental changes throughout the world. Yet both present challenges for policy makers concerned with managing risk and protecting the most vulnerable members of society. The issues of risk management and social vulnerability are both tied to geography, an additional theme that helps shed light on the interconnection between the Katrina tragedy and climate change.

An overly narrow focus on cost-benefit studies kept the United States from adequately appreciating the destructive force of Gulf hurricanes and the vulnerability of its levees and land-use policies. This same attention to cost-benefit analysis is similarly distorting the threats that global warming now poses. A lack of attention to America's social safety net also insured that the destruction of Hurricane Katrina would place an enormously disproportionate burden on minorities, women, the poor, and other vulnerable groups. Today's predictions of climate disruption envision a similarly disproportionate burden on the world's poor, women, and people of color. Yet without aggressive efforts to strengthen the physical and economic infrastructures of developing countries, particularly those in Africa and southern Asia, the world's weakest (and least culpable) peoples will bear the brunt of global catastrophe.

This article argues that the same ideas now recommended for New Orleans—a more precautionary risk-management approach and a strengthening of the social safety net—are the same prescriptions for the international community as it faces the prospects of global warming. In keeping with the theme of geography, the article includes a series of thought-provoking, full-color maps to suggest that what we see is unavoidably linked to how we see it.

Published Online: 2007-3-17

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