Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE  August 1998 

The Case for a Natural Hazards Caucus

by David Applegate

A recent New York Times Magazine profile of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt commented that his geologic training would appear to be at odds with a career in politics -- the former focusing on the longest view imaginable and the latter on the immediacy of the here and now. On the face of it, the contrast is indeed striking, and perhaps geoscientists are quicker to complain than most about the attention-deficit disorder of modern politics that fails to consider issues beyond the next election.

Although it's true that the slow uniformitarian processes of erosion and the centimeter-per-year pace of tectonic plates take place in "deep time," to use John McPhee's apt phrase, geology is also about catastrophes. Thundering floods (albeit not The Flood) carved the Grand Canyon and the badlands of eastern Washington, and earthquakes spasmodically jolt coastal California southward. These sudden events are forceful reminders that geology can operate on time scales that even politics cannot match for swiftness -- that most feared of political phenomena, an electoral defeat, is a tortuously slow ordeal compared to a volcano's explosion.

Indeed, these geologic events may take place too fast, failing to stay on the political radar long enough for geologists to use them effectively to underscore the relevance of their work to society. And yet it is important that we find ways to do that. Communicating geology's contributions in the natural hazards arena can go a long way toward improving the general awareness and positive perception of the geosciences among policy-makers and the public at large. Moreover, programs to reduce losses from natural hazards do not engender the partisan strife that complicates other resource and environmental issues.

Creating a caucus
One way to improve our ability to provide information about hazards when they arise is to support the establishment of a congressional natural hazards caucus. Such an entity could provide both a mechanism for greater continuity of focus on natural hazard issues and an infrastructure for providing information to members of Congress. That is the purpose of caucuses. They are informal organizations consisting of like-minded senators and/or representatives who seek to increase awareness of a particular issue among their colleagues and to provide forums for discussion. Caucuses have been formed to discuss everything from Irish-American relations to hog farming to minor-league baseball.

Successful caucuses often rely on outside interests that can provide logistical and financial support for briefings and other events. A natural hazards caucus could be supported by scientific and engineering societies, the insurance industry, emergency management groups, and other entities committed to reducing losses from natural hazards. A number of prominent lawmakers have taken leadership roles on natural hazards issues and could be potential leaders of such a caucus. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has secured Federal Aviation Administration funds for monitoring volcanic ash hazards for the commercial airline polar routes that pass over the Aleutian Islands. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) oversaw passage of reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP). In the House, George Brown (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the Science Committee, has been a long-time leader on NEHRP and other hazards issues, and Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) has taken a strong interest as well. Natural disasters strike every state and congressional district, creating a strong potential for broad interest.

Broader benefits
Placing this emphasis on natural hazards is not intended to disregard the contributions made by the geosciences to other issues important to society, and it is imperative that we beat the drum for them as well. There are a number of existing congressional caucuses in areas important to geoscientists. For example, both the House and Senate now have a science and technology (S&T) caucus. With interest in asteroids running high recently, the American Geophysical Union hosted a well-attended luncheon briefing about near-Earth objects for the House S&T caucus. There is a Congressional Oil and Gas Forum for which geoscience-related topics could be identified, as well as a newly formed Congressional Mining Caucus, co-chaired by Rep. Jim Gibbons (R- Nev.), himself a former mining geologist.

The advantage of using hazards issues for outreach is that there is first-order agreement that saving lives and reducing property losses from natural disasters is a public good. Before a discussion can take place on the contributions of the geosciences to resource development, one must first engage in a debate over whether the resources should be developed in the first place. The same is true for most environmental issues. In order to get to a discussion of the geoscience contributions to understanding climate, one must first debate whether global warming is taking place, whether it will have drastic effects, and whether it is a bad thing or a good thing. This is not to say that hazards lack contention. When one gets to the specifics of land-use restrictions and insurance premiums, the issues may be just as intractable. But simply being able to get down to the specifics at all is an accomplishment in the political arena.

For geoscientists involved in environmental or resource activities or in fundamental research, a natural hazards focus for outreach may seem unrelated to their interests. Scientists are good at splitting themselves up into disciplines, subdisciplines, and even smaller niches to the extent that the activities of one area seem distant from those of another. When it comes to outreach efforts, however, geoscientists will sink or swim as a group. Disciplinary distinctions tend to fall away when it comes to perception by policy-makers and the public. If we as a community can communicate the value of the geosciences in natural hazards or other issues, the benefits will accrue to our profession as a whole. Goodwill goes a long way in a town like Washington, and we must seize every chance we get to win it.

David Applegate
AGI Director of Government Affairs
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program, at
govt@agiweb.org .
For more information on this topic and other issues, go to the GAP home page.


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