Corruption in an Era of Climate Change: An Ever-Closing Circle?

A decade ago, as New Orleans commenced its long, slow recovery from Hurricane Katrina, pundits warned against sweetheart deals and no-bid contracts to rebuild the city obtained with bribery and kickbacks. Indeed, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in post-Katrina corruption. Nonetheless, as the international community prepares for back-to-back conferences on corruption and climate change, the intimate relationship between these topics is largely ignored.

In the wake of a natural disaster, with an influx of funds and pressure to rebuild quickly, opportunities for bribery and embezzlement abound. This is particularly true because reconstruction funds after a flood or earthquake focus on roads and residential buildings, two areas that present opportunities for contractors, engineers and builders to pass bribes undetected to public officials in exchange for lucrative contracts, irrespective of the quality of the proposed reconstruction.

The correlation between corruption and natural disasters has been documented by economists and scientists. In 2011, seismologists Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham published a study in Nature in which they examined the death toll from all earthquakes from 1980 to 2010 and concluded that "corruption kills." Some 83 percent of all deaths from earthquakes during the period were, they found, in countries where the level of corruption significantly exceeded its level of development. The authors hypothesized that public sector corruption results in the construction of inferior public infrastructure around the world.

Unlike battered homes and flooded roads, corruption isn't documented by television news, but is extraordinarily costly; less than a year after Katrina, The New York Times estimated that two billion tax dollars were frittered away on fraud, corruption and waste.

In an era of climate change and increased frequency of natural disasters, the correlation between corruption and natural disaster leads to a shrinking vicious circle. Subpar buildings are built; natural disaster strikes; the damage is greater than it otherwise would have been had there been no corruption; the city needs to be rebuilt, which presents new opportunities for corruption and the construction of subpar buildings. The cycle's rate of frequency will increase over time in an era of climate change and extreme weather.

Existing criminal laws in the United States and around the world address bribery and embezzlement. Still, it is necessary to martial additional resources to deter and address corruption in an era of climate change. The Department of Justice recognized this in 2005 when it established the Disaster Fraud Task Force to detect and prosecute fraud related to Hurricane Katrina. As multiple disasters occurred in subsequent years, the Task Force continued its work around the country, investigating charity fraud, emergency-benefit fraud, identity theft, insurance fraud, and procurement fraud. Now is the time for the legal framework to be supported by effective policy.

A new international climate change agreement will be adopted at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris this December. The "Paris Protocol" focuses on emissions but also aims to address resilience. An example of a policy of resilience that will save lives and prevent corruption is the European Commission's recently established Emergency Response Coordination Centre, equipped with a fully staffed and trained 24/7 duty system and real time monitoring of potential disasters around the globe. Maximizing impact and efficiency, the ERCC employs a deliberate approach that reduces the opportunities for corruption and cutting corners.

To be sure, levees and emergency funds are necessary for disaster resilience, but an additional aspect of resilience in an era of climate change is anticipation and prevention of opportunities for corruption to flourish. Preparedness in an era of climate change must address all consequences of a natural disaster, including opportunities for corruption. Public safety demands no less.

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