Fight Corruption, Save The Planet

As the climate change community gathers this week in Marrakesh for the first Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ("COP 22") since the ratification of the Paris Protocol, the international community once again commits to limit and combat the effects of greenhouse gases. In addition, the Convention mandates that countries "prepare and adapt" to climate change. Preparation and adaptation includes advances in science and technology, emissions caps, and financing programs that aim to prevent global warming.

These are necessary but insufficient steps in an era of climate change. An exclusive focus on technology and finance ignores the corruption, graft and mismanagement that will proliferate in an era of climate change.

At COP 22, I will be speaking, along with colleagues from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and the Moroccan Anti-Corruption Authority, on corruption's inextricable link to climate change. The event is being advertised with the slogan, "Fight Corruption, Save the Planet." That sounds hyperbolic, but it's not.

As I described in this post a year ago, extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina trigger an influx of federal funds and pressure to rebuild quickly. In the chaos of reconstruction, opportunities for bribery and embezzlement abound. Contractors, engineers and builders can pass bribes undetected to public officials in exchange for lucrative contracts to rebuild, irrespective of the quality of the proposed reconstruction. In an era of climate change and increased frequency of natural disasters, the correlation between corruption and natural disaster leads to a vicious circle that will only shrink as the earth's temperature rises.

The recent natural disasters in Italy and Haiti are but two examples of the opportunities for corruption in the wake of an extreme weather event. During the August earthquake in Italy, an elementary school in the town of Amatrice crumbled despite being renovated in 2012 to resist earthquakes at a cost of $785,000. Similarly, a bell tower in Accumoli collapsed and killed a family of four sleeping in a neighboring house, although it had been recently restored with special funds allocated after Italy's last major earthquake, in 2009. Investigations into these two sites are ongoing, but Italy's chief anti-Mafia prosecutor, Franco Roberti, told Italian newspaper La Repubblica that "post-earthquake reconstruction is historically a tempting morsel for criminal groups and colluding business interests."

As for Haiti, notwithstanding well-established building codes that account for extreme weather, the country lacks a building code altogether. Instead, according to a 2010 report by the American Institute of Architects prepared after the earthquake that devastated the country, engineers often use standards from other countries that do not account for the country's own context, that is, a Caribbean island on the hurricane path. Haiti's corruption - it ranks 158 out of 168 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index- was partially reflected in the inefficiency and waste that characterized the country's response to its 2010 earthquake. The country's structural decimation and slow recovery after last month's Hurricane Matthew is tragic- and not surprising.

Nonetheless, there are signs that individual countries and public international organizations are awakening to the need to incorporation anti-corruption policies into their disaster preparedness. Earlier this year, the Italian government finally reformed the country's public procurement code to reflect best practices of transparency and accountability. It further placed the country's National Anti-Corruption Authority ("ANAC") at the center of the reforms by strengthening its supervisory function. ANAC is also empowered to monitor the ongoing post-earthquake reconstruction.

On the international level, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has recently acknowledged the need to stave off corruption as part of planning for climate change, asserting in a guide to disaster risk reduction that "disaster reduction science and its applications should include enhanced awareness of corruption, and of its origins, causes, sources and practices, any of which have the potential to destroy otherwise humanitarian objectives." The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, an effort to globally coordinate disaster preparedness among national, local and private stakeholders, includes the strengthening of disaster risk governance as one of its four priorities.

While there is a growing recognition that anti-corruption policies are an essential part of climate change preparedness and resilience, efforts to install them remain scant. To be sure, we should leverage our collective resources to combat climate change and natural disasters. But unnatural disasters, such as public corruption, are just as insidious and just as preventable. Let's not forget about them.