Bill Clinton Urges Politicians to Address Disaster Planning

May 7, 2007

Former President Bill Clinton said Friday that disasters such as worldwide famine and an obesity epidemic threaten the country’s stability unless politicians begin to look ahead and cooperate.

Clinton, speaking at a forum sponsored by Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said governments fail to act even when disasters are anticipated because leaders are distracted by fulfilling campaign promises and scrambling to respond to immediate emergencies. Big-picture planning gets “crowded out,” he said.

“This is coming,” Clinton said. “And I know there is no great political constituency for it, but we can avert these disasters for not very much money if they can be put into the public debate and people understand clearly what’s going to happen.”

The Kennedy School is spending $1.5 million over two years to study why governments across the world have failed to act on threats such as heat waves and hurricanes, even when they know they are coming.

From looking back at Hurricane Katrina and forward to the absence of firm plans to cool the planet or stem malaria, some of the school’s top researchers will study the roots of government inaction.

The studies will help Congress, presidential candidates and world leaders learn from past mistakes and prepare for future action, said Christopher Stone, a Kennedy School professor and head of the initiative.

The program was born in the botched response to Katrina — the hurricane that experts had warned for years would ravage New Orleans’ inadequate levies and poorly sheltered coast.

From looking at the failures, the world can better prepare for future disasters, just as the architects of World War II righted the woeful preparation for World War I, Stone said.

“Each of these are threats that we know are going to happen. This is not like saying, ‘What do we do if the president of China is kidnapped tomorrow,”’ Stone said. “It’s not even that there is really technical disagreement about these things. It’s just a matter of figuring how we can get governments to act.”

Clinton warned presidential candidates of both parties — a group that includes his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton — that it will be hard, and likely unpopular, to prepare for foreseeable disasters.

He said the next president should solve the “biggest, baddest problems”; take small action when the whole problem cannot be addressed; never appoint incompetent political allies to positions of disaster response; never let political ideology blur scientific evidence; and cooperate nationally and internationally.

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