Q&A: Robert Glasser on advocacy inside and outside the UN

Robert Glasser, former head of the U.N. Office of Disaster Risk Reduction. Photo by: UNISDR / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — Robert Glasser served two years as the head of the United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, before being succeeded in January by Mami Mizutori. Now that he is working from outside the U.N. system, he is taking off the gloves when discussing climate issues.

“You can’t say how ridiculous some of the Trump policies are — you can say, ‘we would prefer the Americans to consider rejoining the Paris Agreement.’”

— Robert Glasser, former head of the U.N. Office of Disaster Risk Reduction

Glasser is back in Australia supporting grassroots action in the fight against climate, assisting disaster risk reduction programs and sharing his knowledge as honorary associate professor with the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific.

At the recent Australian Council for International Development annual conference in Sydney, Glasser spoke to Devex about life within and outside the U.N. — and how he still plans to make a difference.

Climate, he says, is the biggest enemy to face in the fight against natural disasters. He feels he can now be frank in providing a real picture of the risks of climate change and the need for the world to do more.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Now that you are working outside of the United Nations, how has that changed your role in advocating on disaster risk reduction?

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The U.N. is an intergovernmental organization, and this means you need to be very diplomatic and cautious in what you say. You can’t say how ridiculous some of the Trump policies are — you can say, “we would prefer the Americans to consider rejoining the Paris Agreement.” Just like a public servant, you are not meant to convey your own views — you have to take on the views of government whether we like it or not.

So it is a feeling of freedom to be able to say what I am thinking on issues, and the way I feel.

With natural disasters, climate change plays a major factor, but some countries, including Australia, see leaders still in denial. When discussing climate change on behalf of UNISDR, how did you work around this issue?

Generally I didn’t need to — at least in the job I had. It was essentially advocating for action to reduce disaster risk of which climate risk accounts for something like 90 percent of natural disasters. So I felt — at least in that narrow topic — able to comment on the need for urgent action by bringing the latest science into the discussion when I met with ministers and heads of state.

All you really need to do is reflect what the science says is happening. It doesn’t need any embellishment — climate scientists are quite cautious. They have a conservative process and deliver predictions at a lower end of impact. Despite this, those results are still deeply disturbing.

In communicating the needs and challenges for disaster risk reduction, what were the greatest barriers you faced?

The biggest challenge with this topic is that countries need to invest now for the uncertain events that will happen in the future. And you have to deal with conflicting priorities – from re-election promises, corruption in governments to responding to health issues such as malaria.

So the idea that you need to prepare now for something that might happen in 10 years or an earthquake that may happen every 100 years is a difficult argument to make. But even if there is uncertain prospect, it doesn’t mean you don’t start investing. Uncertainty doesn’t mean it will not happen.

“The biggest challenge with this topic [disaster risk reduction]  is that countries need to invest now for the uncertain events that will happen in the future.”

I found that the best time to get action on climate and disaster risk, unfortunately, is right after a disaster. The public is angry, governments are embarrassed and they are looking at ways of responding. There is energy for action. That was always an interesting time to suggest new legislation to put in place, policies for building codes and standards to improve resilience.

But it shouldn’t take a disaster to create action.

As some Pacific nations facing the risk of disappearing with rising sea levels, and the need for people to evacuate their homes, is there a role for risk mitigation programs in maintaining culture and knowledge for future generations?

That reminds me of an experience I had in AusAID [now Australian Aid] when I was working in Vietnam. There was a World Bank project building a wall to protect a town from rising water. They determined the optimal spot and consulted the community for a reality check. The community asked them to move it and instead build the wall to protect their cemetery. For them, it was much more important to protect their ancestors and history.

It is hard to make this argument to the World Bank board for funding, but we really do need to ask, “how do we preserve culture when the home of people’s ancestors are disappearing or they have to move to a new country that has pressure on land access?”

It is an overwhelming issue to address, but it is happening — even in Venice, Italy, where it is likely engineering will not stay ahead of rising water levels.

In reality, we have to address the rising greenhouse gasses to combat climate change to preserve cultures.

In your handover to Mami Mizutori, what were the key messages you shared about the challenges to expect?

For me, the most important issue in disaster risk reduction is climate change. It is changing hazards itself, and this will create new issues for preparing and responding to disasters for both UNISDR and the world. This is what I communicated.

There is only a small window to act — what we are seeing is reversible, but only for a short time.

To encourage change, there needs to be consistency in messaging and work throughout the U.N. and across areas and programs. There is a lot of work to be done on this, urgently.

What is your role now outside the U.N.? And how are you using your experience to continue encouraging countries to address climate change more?

I’m trying to take a two-pronged approach.

One is to still focus on the big picture of climate and what is happening. [And] it is important when doing this to highlight that despite projections sounding bad, they are [actually] being underestimated.

The science analyzes independent variables such as weather but is not considering the increase of pest, changing ecosystems around them, increased frequency of droughts, saltwater incursion, people movements, and more. These are factors that all interact with the independent variable scientists analyze and create a greater risk.

The second approach I am taking is grassroots advocacy — including Canberra community groups. I am also working with the Queensland Reconstruction Authority to look at how local and regional councils are responding to disasters — which is commonly seeing people affected moving back to the same areas which were impacted by disasters. Risks still exist and there needs to be consideration [of] whether communities should be moved to safer locations.

This is a very political issue — but one all governments need to take a lead on.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.