Why did some of the best prepared countries go off script during the pandemic? Jeff Schlegelmilch—Director of the National Center for Disease Preparedness—explains how disaster plans can end up adrift when they overlook societal behavior.
This transcript has been generated by an AI tool.
00:11 - 00:34
Welcome to On Purpose. I'm your host, Travis Allen, senior investment strategist and national director of Purpose Driven Strategies at Bernstein. Today, I'm thrilled to be joined by Geoffrey Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center of Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, where he's led efforts to cope with and recover from the pandemic and other disasters.
00:34 - 01:17
I first met Jeff a couple of years ago as we started to have conversations about the pandemic and in the summer of 2020, the calls for racial equity and racial justice in the U.S. and even before then met Jeff as AllianceBernstein started to build out its capabilities in terms of the climate curriculum for our research analysts and portfolio managers at the firm. Jeff is the author of Rethinking Readiness A Brief Guide to 21st Century Mega Disasters. And as I said before, some of you will recognize his voice from an episode we aired in the fall of 2020. Jeff, welcome back. It's so great to talk to you again.
01:17 - 01:19
Thanks for having me. Always great to talk with you.
01:19 - 01:42
Well, it's been nearly two years since you published your book, and to say that those years have been eventful is an understatement. We've seen, obviously, wars and famine and humanitarian crisis one after another, not to mention wave after wave of COVID. So I would just want to start, if you were to release an updated edition of your book, what would you add?
01:43 - 02:28
Yeah, it's a it's a great question. It's one that I've been sort of thinking about a bit. You know, it's fair to say I think a lot of the main themes in the main challenges have really held up. But I think that there are a few areas that were maybe noted in the book that I would really spend a lot more time sort of elaborating on. And the first is, is just the sheer importance of better understanding, sort of the sociopolitical context. You know, there was even just this morning, there was a study that came out recently that I was reading, looking at how wrong various pandemic indices were, that basically the countries that by all measures were the most prepared ended up actually performing much, much worse. And so all of these sort of predictions on who would do better were wrong.
02:29 - 02:52
And and one of the big missing elements, of course, is what is the behavioral context? You know, in more individualistic societies, you're going to have a harder time doing things where you're asking people to give up certain individual freedoms were in more community centric, the socio political landscape. So I think the behavioral science needs more of a leading role in our understanding of disasters.
02:52 - 03:24
And then the other piece I would say is equity. Equity that we've really seen throughout the pandemic, throughout. Now, those who enjoy the benefits of civil society before disaster overwhelmingly enjoy them afterwards. But we see those inequities widen for a variety of reasons. And we're seeing that not only with the pandemic, but also with disaster assistance, availability and a lot of kind of racial reckoning going on. That's a long time coming. So these things were mentioned, but I think I certainly pull them much, much more front and center because I think they're really critical to how we move forward.
03:24 - 03:57
Yeah, one of the few silver linings of going through the pandemic and reawakening of calls for racial and social justice in this country has been that equity has now become, you know, a part of these conversations in a way that it wasn't before. But I'm really curious about the research that you mentioned around preparedness, because I think, you know, one of the things to come out of the last sort of ten or 15 years in talking about pandemics and so on, was that you needed to have a preparedness plan.
03:58 - 04:29
And it sounds like what you're saying is that just having a plan isn't good enough, right? That some of the places that may have had the most detailed plans actually performed less well than some other places. And so maybe you can spend just another minute on that, like, why do you think that is, right? Because obviously we're probably talking about the US in that group of countries that, you know, had at least some outlines of of a preparedness plan, but then the crisis hit and things sort of, you know, went sideways.
04:29 - 05:05
Yeah. This is one of the one of the big biases in how we think about disasters and really how we think about the world around us. Right. As we're taught science in a very deterministic way. It's true or false. It's A-B-C or D there's a right and there's a wrong answer. But in practice, when you start overlaying and all these different cultural environments, political environment, social environments, you find that there are all these other factors, like who is more likely to wear a mask than not wear a mask, how it was politicized. And these were, I should say, things that we've seen in prior pandemics. It's just it's been a while since we've had a pandemic of this magnitude. You really have to go back close to a century.
05:06 - 05:34
But getting back to sort of how we look at these complex problems, you know, these simple answers are very. Proactive. Let's build a stockpile. Let's write a bunch of plans now for those plans to be effective. They have to have two additional steps. They have to be used first and foremost, and they have to be correct. They have to be inclusive of sort of the whole sort of ecosystem. And I would argue that they also have to be adaptive as more information becomes present, as you start to see trends, as you start to see things you didn't think of, they have to be much more adaptive in how they're written.
05:34 - 06:01
And so I think regardless of the profession that we're in, there's always this tendency to try and gravitate towards a simple answer, a very discrete answer, an action that can be taken when a lot of times there are benefits from community building activities like a block party likes, you know, different types of kind of public civic engagement that can be really, really important contributors to how we're able to come together and trust one another and be there for one another during and in the aftermath of a disaster.
06:01 - 06:25
One of the other debates that we've seen unfold is this tradeoff between resilience versus efficiency and redundancy. I was wondering if you could speak to that and maybe also explain how it relates to the hazards index and for our audience, maybe define the hazards index and talk about it in the context of that resiliency versus efficiency and redundancy tradeoff.
06:25 - 07:00
Yeah, our center many years ago developed this natural hazards index and essentially looking across the country and looking at different counties and creating scores based on different hazards, based on publicly available data and with the support of AllianceBernstein, we're revamping it, updating the data, and also looking at how we can do things like integrate climate change projections and things like that. But it does ultimately come down to this, right? We can get 100 people around the table and say the words, Hey, preparedness is a good investment. Preparedness saves and everyone's going to not their head and the abstract. It's a very agreeable concept.
07:01 - 07:44
But then comes the question of, okay, now I want you to spend more than your competitors on something that is probably not going to show value by the next reporting period, but will in the long run, for sure. Okay, well, how much should I invest? Well, you know, the precision is what's really lacking, as well as the uncertainty for the context of that. And then in the meantime, we have to work in these competitive environments without a strong enough empirical foundation for kind of gauging those decisions and how much should be spent. There are few numbers that are out there. Real famous one is $1 saves six. And the response and recovery that comes from a very, very specific study that FEMA did with the National Institute for Building Sciences, looking at a specific mitigation program.
07:44 - 07:54
So was the idea there that $1 spent in preparation or mitigation of the risk ahead of time will save six in terms of. Right. Okay. Got it.
07:54 - 08:44
Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. So, so for every dollar spent and under different programs, it would be different amounts. I should note too that the majority of the savings came from offsetting health care costs, health and mental health costs, in addition to property and other costs like that. So when we talk about dollars, we're thinking a lot of things, but really it's about people's lives and livelihoods and their health and their mental health. But yeah, so it was a very specific analysis of a program of a very specific mitigation program. But I think what it shows is it shows that it is possible to measure these things, at least in a way that's useful for guiding investments. It's a complex world. There's always going to be uncertainty wrapped around this. But I think the next step is to get from this agreeable concept that preparedness saves us to actually get it to a way that's relevant in the minds of of those who have to put up the money for it.
08:45 - 09:27
Yeah. I think one of the things that touches on is the idea of having financial incentives to do the work ahead of time. Right. To make the investments so that we're not as susceptible to the next disaster. But I just wonder, is there evidence that or other fields we can pull from where providing that type of incentivization has actually helped drive decision making right prior to a disaster? And in other words, how do we improve the way that we process decision making both before and during a disaster or pandemic or some other huge societal challenge?
09:27 - 09:33
Yeah, how do we sort of counteract sort of this deterministic nature where we're trying to come up with a very clean answer?
09:33 - 10:31
We've pulled from a couple of different fields and some of the work that we've done. One is the military. So a colleague I used to work with was a former medical intelligence officer with the Department of Defense. And there are some frameworks, these synchronization matrices. So essentially how they work is, rather than creating a checklist, if this, then you do this, this, this, and this is saying here's the decision that needs to be made. Here's the information that can support that decision. And even that's broken up into two categories. The more objective information, we call it the threat information. What's the infection rate of the pandemic? What's the winds? To the hurricane, those kinds of things. And then the critical information, which is where you put all the political stuff. Is there a a declaration of emergency? Are there social distancing measures being put in place? So what it does is it doesn't try to pre make the decision for you, but tries to arrange the information to support the decision when it needs to be made.
10:31 - 11:29
Another area is actually in the private sector. So as you know, right, the markets are not always predictable, but there are different measures for sort of managing that uncertainty. One of my favorite books that I recommend to colleagues that has nothing to do with disaster management who are in disaster management is a book called The Strategy Paradox by Michael Raynor. And it's actually he's from business and he talks about how businesses often have to make investments or make commitments before there's enough information in order to do so. And what I appreciate what that is. It breaks down different processes for rather than trying to make commitments, you create and preserve options. You frame your uncertainty. And once you frame your uncertainty, you know what the field of options you may need is. So it's a different kind of strategy. It's not as satisfying as picking one thing and diving into it, but it certainly in practice sets you up for the type of uncertainty and the type of chaotic nature of disasters and really the future we're heading into.
11:29 - 12:06
Yeah. And I think one of the things about what's happened since our first conversation back in the summer of 2020 and it's, you know, I think back now and it's amazing how much we didn't know still, right, even a few months into the pandemic. But one of the things that's happened is that investors have also really started to focus on environmental, social and governance issues in the way that they manage their portfolios. That's one of the reasons why we have this conversation, is to talk about ways that people can do that and what sort of information they need to have in order to do that successfully.
12:07 - 12:42
And it's really sort of reached becoming mainstream, right? Which is something I've been talking about for many, many years. But if you look back historically, very often, this idea of equity, which we touched on before, has been really missing from the discussion around advocacy. And that's something that I know you have talked about before. And so maybe you can spend some time just talking about that challenge, right, of equity advocacy and maybe provide an example or two of what we've experienced in the past and what we might be able to do better in the future.
12:42 - 13:34
I would say that in general, we tend to bias towards problems and value propositions that we can articulate, right, that we can draw out on a board and measure. But then there's there's the saying, right, that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And and that's what we're sort of seeing. Right, is there's this inherent unpredictability. And as I mentioned, with a lot of the pandemic indices, it's not that the information that they had was fundamentally wrong. It's that it was incomplete. I'm actually reading through a number of proposals for a foundation right now, and that's one thing that I'm seeing, is these trying to make a grand unified theory of disaster resilience and create a scorecard for policy. And I don't know that we know enough to suggest that we can bring it all down to one number. But we do know the areas, right? We do know the profiles. There's a physical aspect to it. There are the built environment, there's an economic aspect and there's a social and a behavioral aspect.
13:35 - 13:57
To get to your question more directly on equity, so, you know, I think a good example is the clean energy industry and solar panels, right? We look at, oh, good. You know, a lot of people are buying solar panels and electric vehicles and the markets are starting to produce companies that can sustain themselves and are investable. And it's a good thing. And it's a product of things like tax incentives and subsidies.
13:57 - 14:35
But then you step back and you start looking at who has access to this. And California is a great example because they have really good data on this. I'm not picking on California. And if you look at solar panels, you look at where is the grid actually able to receive input from these variable energy resources? And it tends to be in wealthier areas and along racial lines, wider neighborhoods, access to electric vehicle charging. So what you end up doing is you end up creating this benefit that only part of the world is experiencing. And in aggregate, it looks like you're moving in the right direction. But in actuality, you're you're really driving these wedges even further and driving these inequities even further.
14:35 - 15:19
You know, some of our primary incentive structure is tax credits. Tax credits are great if you have enough of a tax burden that you can save money off of it. And if you have enough money to put up front to be able to pay for it. So there's some novel ideas out there, utilities working with low income areas to actually, you know, amortize it over a longer period of time and then they pay the upfront. But I think it's really important that it's okay to be really excited at the possibilities of these innovations. But we do have to dig deeper and really disaggregate the data and really look at particularly historically marginalized people. Relations and make sure that they are realizing the benefit of these advances. Otherwise, we're just going to see the distance between the haves and the have nots grow even further.
15:19 - 16:14
Yeah, I'm so glad to hear you mention that. I think we've made some progress along those lines, that it's more likely today that people will ask who's benefiting from this and why than they have in the past. And as you said, very often it's the haves that tend to benefit from some of these interventions, much more so and still a lot of work to do to make sure that we are paying attention to people who live in low income areas, who are dealing with more pollution or who don't have tree canopies to cool down there. It's just all of these things that that have been inequities in and how investments have been made in the past, I think are becoming more obvious to us. And and hopefully people will will seek to address them as we go forward. That's that's one of the things that I think ESG, environmental, social and governance as a movement in investing.
16:14 - 16:36
. One of the things that's been important is that it's caused companies to change their mindset around from a, you know, shareholder first and only mindset to a broader stakeholder mindset that includes communities, right? That may not even buy their products, but they live next to their factories. Right. Or folks in the supply chain.
16:36 - 17:25
And so this is really hard. You know, again, we're having some, you know, positive impact from ESG. But one of the things that I wanted to get your your thoughts on is that it's almost like there's been a backlash against ESG right now that it's becoming more mainstream. I'm seeing more and more articles that say that it's mostly greenwashing and it's just, you know, creating ESG product because it's good for the investment companies, but not actually doing any good. And so I wanted to get maybe get your take on, you know, how you would respond to the concerns about greenwashing and the creation of ESG products and whether or not net it's doing positive. My view is that it is, but I'd love to hear from you on, you know, where you think ESG fits today. And is it is it really a net positive?
17:25 - 17:54
? It's a good question. Let me start by saying I have no idea the impact that it's having, but I hope that it's having a good run. And I'm glad that the conversation is happening because I think it really is. I mean, here you have right, you have individuals, you have organizations that are really demanding more of their investments and they see the power in that and the power and what that fuels and really demanding new ways of looking at it. And I think it's a very healthy thing to create new investment vehicles and to create sort of new paradigms for looking at these things.
17:54 - 18:41
Now, to your point that the backlash, there's there's a lot of anger right now. I don't have any other way of putting that. There's a lot of advocacy that really polarizes into very, very specific camps. And it's not helped by the fact that it's it's hard to spot the difference on the surface from an organization that's really doing it well with the S and G and one that is putting the right words on the page. It also isn't helped by the fact that we don't necessarily have very precise ways of measuring impacts and things like that. Some of this is a little bit on faith that, you know, if we invest in communities and we look at things like equity, that it will pay off. There is some data pointing in that direction, but not to the level of precision that is usually required of of different products.
18:41 - 19:08
So at the end of the day, I think the movement is a good thing. I think there's going to be good actors and I think the majority are going to be good actors. I think there's going to be pressure to put ESG like language in a lot of things, and we have to be vigilant that it's not diluting what's essentially a really good movement because of a couple of bad decisions and bad actors. So but yeah, I'm, I'm really glad to see because it also starts to reconcile the vocabulary.
19:09 - 19:47
Working in an academic center and having worked a lot in government, I've always seen the power of the private sector in terms of being able to nudge behavior and nudge policy and nudge economies to be either more resilient or less resilient. But we've always sort of worked in our camp, in the private sector's worked in there is through relationships like this, like we're talking on today and through S and G, we start to see sort of the way we look at things and the way we value things come closer and closer together. And I'd say it's ultimately to make it work. It's a shared responsibility not only of the organizations issuing these investment vehicles, but of the advocacy groups of the universities, of the researchers to also help provide better data and better information to help inform that.
19:47 - 20:09
Yeah, and I think it's interesting in the context of, you know, where we started the conversation talking about your field of expertise and your research on disaster management, which is another place where there's a lot of uncertainty and, you know, getting buy in is hard up front, right? Because the risks aren't always immediate, intangible. Right. That's one of the.
20:10 - 20:46
Challenges of talking about climate change 20 years ago is that people just simply said it's not it doesn't seem to be affecting me day to day. And and it was just hard to get people to change their behaviour in that way. And I do think that ESG is not going to get everything right, but I think you're absolutely right on that. Having the discussions and encouraging companies to be more transparent and accountable will ultimately lead hopefully to better decisions down the road, more equitable decisions, and actually better financial performance.
20:46 - 21:23
Right, as companies become better run and just more aware of some of the non-financial risks to their businesses. So I do think there's some similarities. And it's also, I think another similarity that consumer behaviour is really, really important to ESG, right? If you don't have consumers and shareholders saying that this is really important to us, then you wouldn't have, you know, ESG investment products because there'd be no one to buy them. And in the same way, we need voters and advocacy groups to be part of the groundswell to get, you know, those people who are in the position to make decisions on policy to to take the lead.
21:24 - 22:08
So that brings me to the next thing I wanted to talk to you about is this idea in your your research, something that you've mentioned and I know you're not picking on voters here, but you've highlighted that voters do tend not to reward preparedness, that they reward response. After I heard you say that totally makes sense to me. Right. But obviously, that's not the way we're going to improve our performance in the next pandemic or disaster. So so how do we ultimately persuade people to change their behaviors so that we're not as focused on the response right after we're already in a crisis, but actually focused on doing the preparation ahead of time?
22:08 - 22:46
It's a great question and certainly one we've been trying to crack the code on for a long, long time. You know, it's in disaster preparedness, whether working in local government or in a university or quasi consulting environment. That's sort of been what you say. Oh, if we can, we're going to get the politicians engaged. We've got to get the politicians to understand how important this is. And it was actually and looking at some of the data that you had mentioned and reading some studies that some political scientists do, they realize, well, the politicians are just responding to the incentive of getting reelected and the behavior of voters. So really what we need is that education to shift more to the general public.
22:46 - 23:23
. And then a very brief tangent. But I remember I used to work for a large health care system and we used to always talk about, oh, you know, hospitals need to understand how important preparedness is. And then when I started working with this health care system, it was during the leading up to the Affordable Care Act. But separate from that specific bill, just looking at how unsustainable the health care model was with the increase in health care costs, and that regardless of the bill's passage or not, things would have to change. And then I realized, you know, we had spent ten years saying they don't get it. It turned out we didn't get it. We didn't get that. Actually, the economic conditions were a greater existential threat than a hurricane.
23:23 - 23:59
. And so I tell the story just to say that we have to meet people halfway. We have to meet them where they are. We can provide data, we can provide the science, we can provide the spreadsheets. But at the end of the day, this has to be relevant in the context on how someone lives, their lives, the aspirations they have for themselves, for their family, for their children, and why it's in their interest to do that. And it's a new way of talking about it and a way of educating on it that we're certainly exploring, but I don't think fully exists yet. But absolutely, as we sort of reframe and look at how we get ahead of a lot of these challenges we're facing, we have to reframe how we approach this and who we're engaging and how we're listening.
23:59 - 24:19
So, Jeff, you know, thank you. I am always feel better after talking to you and better knowing that there are folks like you out there doing the research to help policymakers think ahead. Right. To avoid the worst outcomes when we face huge challenges like pandemics and other mega disasters. So thank you for joining us.
24:19 - 24:33
I'm going to ask you one last question, which is very similar to a question I asked you the last time we got together two years ago. If there was one policy change that you could snap your fingers and make happen tomorrow, what would it be and why?
24:34 - 25:29
That's a good question. And it's one I should have an answer for, and I'm not sure that I do, because I think a lot of times we're sort of, you know, looking for that. Let's rearrange the way the federal government is organized or let's put more money into this. That being said, you know, looking forward to on the heels of the pandemic, which is still going on, of course, but there's sort of a light at the end of the tunnel. We now have been through sort of this shared experience. This is no longer theoretical. This is no longer something that we've seen someone else experience on the news. Everyone has experienced some sort of disaster in. Recent history. There's a lot of new data, there's a lot of new information, there's a lot of new voices at the table for this. And I think the single most important thing we can do to chart a way ahead is to to bring those voices to the table, listen to them, and really avoid the trap of assuming that we know everything that we need to know to move forward.
25:30 - 25:57
One of the things I actually really value about this conversation with you, as well as really all of the conversations we've had is here we have folks of very different fields talking about these issues, talking about the ways that it impacts them. And I share the sentiment. I always learn a lot talking with you and engaging with the team at AllianceBernstein, and I'm really, really extraordinarily grateful that these conversations are happening because we don't yet know everything that we don't know. But I think we do know the direction we need to be pointed in in order to get where we need to get.
25:57 - 26:29
Thank you. That's I think especially your point about bringing voices that haven't typically been a part of the conversation into the conversation. All right. So much of community development work has changed its focus, right? To start with talking to people in the communities and and start by asking them what they need instead of that sort of top down development model that I think is is more outdated. Jeff, as I said before, it's always a pleasure. Thank you again for joining us and I look forward to talking to you again in the future.
26:29 - 26:32
Likewise. Always, always appreciate the opportunity to be here.
26:35 - 26:52
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