Author: Loretta Hieber Girardet

Dealing with climate emergency and disaster risks: How can we make climate and risk knowledge accessible to those who need them the most?

Source(s): UN SDG: Learn
SDG Learncast Podcast

There is a tangible gap between the current climate science on the one hand and policymaking and practice on the other hand. How can we make climate and risk knowledge accessible to those who need them the most? In this episode, we speak with Loretta Hieber Girardet of UNDRR to learn more.

There is a tangible gap between the current climate science on the one hand and policymaking and practice on the other hand. There is also an evident need for user-driven and decision-driven co-produced knowledge on climate change and disaster risks. Science-stakeholder collaboration is becoming an increasingly common way to address mismatches between the knowledge needs of stakeholders and the research being done by both physical and social scientists. Dealing with climate emergency and disaster risks requires that we make climate and risk knowledge accessible to those who need them the most. But how?

In this episode, we speak with Ms. Loretta Hieber Girardet, Chief of the Support and Monitoring of Sendai Framework Implementation Branch at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) where she shares her expertise and experience in bridging the gap between science, policymaking, and practice and the communities who need to use the knowledge in their context. She also shares an important source of climate and risk knowledge, the Prevention Web platform where different actors and stakeholders can get contextualized knowledge in usable formats.

Want to learn more about sustainable development and learning? Subscribe to SDG Learncast. Visit UN SDG:Learn website at to get the latest learning offers on the 2030 Agenda and SDGs. The transcript of the podcast is available at 

The opinions expressed in the SDG Learncast podcasts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UN SDG:Learn, its Joint Secretariat, and partners.

[Transcript of the podcast]

Paulyn Duman: Welcome to the SDG Learncast with me, Paulyn Duman. In every episode, I bring you insightful conversations around the subject of sustainable development and learning, helping us all to achieve a sustainable feature. Our guest for today in this SDG Learncast episode is Ms. Loretta Hieber Girardet, the Chief risk knowledge monitoring, and capacity development Head at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction or UNDRR. Welcome to SDG Learncast, Lori! 

Loretta Hieber Girardet: Thank you. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here. 

Paulyn Duman: Lori, can you introduce yourself to our listeners and tell us a bit more about your work at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction? 

Loretta Hieber Girardet: With pleasure. So, my name is Loretta Hieber Girardet, and I am the Chief of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction work on risk knowledge, monitoring, capacity development, but this is a branch that really covers a multitude of issues. We have teams in Geneva, in Bonn, Germany, and also in Incheon. And also under this portfolio is climate change as well as local action. So, it’s really the heart of the technical work of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. And it’s all about helping people implement this global framework known as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. And this was a framework that was released in 2015 is part of the 2030 agenda. It’s very much linked to the sustainable development goals. And it’s about averting risk in a world, which is seeking to enhance development and trying to do a better job of identifying risk and managing and mitigating risks, so that we’re able to achieve our development objectives. Prior to taking on this position, I was the Chief of the regional office in the Asia Pacific. And these are the countries that are really on the frontline of climate change and disaster risks. But it’s probably, my background is in humanitarian. That played the most pivotal role in how I approached my work. I was for more than 20 years in the humanitarian sector. So that brought to the job, the first-hand experience of working in countries impacted by disasters and with that a really fervent desire to do a better job at preventing disasters. 

Paulyn Duman: You have been working with the United Nations in different roles and functions, and recently you have been focusing on resilient recovery. And can you share a bit more information about the work that you do around resilient recovery? What does that mean?  

Loretta Hieber Girardet: Absolutely. Resilience recovery is very much at the core of what UNDRR has been doing because many countries are today in a constant cycle of recovery because of climate change. Many countries, especially at the local level are experiencing high frequency, but relatively low-level climate impacts such as increased flooding and storms and landslide. So, it’s a constant recovery mode. In every crisis, there is an opportunity and this is really relevant when it comes to disaster and disaster risk reduction. It’s after a big crisis occurs that people are more aware than ever of the need to change their practices and to focus more on prevention. And I would have to say in my entire career, I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much attention on prevention and resilience as I’m seeing right now. When it comes to recovery with the COVID pandemic. And it’s really not very surprising because there is not a country or a community anywhere in the world that has been left untouched by this pandemic. And at the same time, there’s not a country that is not affected by climate change. So, what we’re beginning to see is recovery processes that are really much greener, taking much more climate change into account, but also looking at the range of hazards that a country face and really trying to get to the heart of what’s needed for resilient recovery. And that includes things such as reducing the vulnerability of populations. And we’ve certainly seen with COVID, but we see it with every emergency that it is the most vulnerable groups that suffer the most. And so, it’s really good that there’s so much emphasis right now on, for example, vulnerability reduction through a scaling up of social protection.  

Paulyn Duman: Because of the pandemic everyone is aware of the risks. Every single country, every single community is affected. And that is also the same with climate. Everyone is affected by it.  Not the single country is out of the crisis or the effects of climate change. It’s also important to focus on the climate and risk knowledge because of course, we are all experiencing it, but it seems like the knowledge for a resilient recovery. It’s not shared among all of the people equally. As we know, climate and risk projections have become sophisticated. But they’re not generally translated into decisions and actions, especially that can be used by the people on the ground or the vulnerable groups, the information derived from science it’s often supply based and often framed in inaccessible and big scientific terms. And so of course not a lot of people can understand. So, there is a tangible gap between the current climate and risk science and policymaking and practice on the other hand. Is this just an issue of communication or communicating of information or knowledge and, or is this something bigger? I would really love to hear what you think about this. 

Loretta Hieber Girardet: Well, I think it’s really an excellent question because I believe that there is a gap between the producers of science and the users of science, and we need to close that gap. In one of my previous positions, I was a behaviour change communications specialist with the World Health Organization. And that’s because I’m a former journalist and so communication and how we communicate is so critical to engendering change and we cannot achieve that change unless the communication is a two-way channel. And unfortunately, what we have seen in the fields of climate change, but also disaster risk reduction is that there is often this tendency to use language and to use terminology that is really inaccessible to the populations. And of course, there is an audience of academia that needs to be served, but ultimately what we really want is to see policy changes at the country level and at the national level. And we will not be able to do that unless we actively engage and work with the populations who are on the front line of these issues of climate change, of disaster risk reduction. So, there is little doubt that we have seen, and this has been studied that when we talk to populations, as opposed to with populations around climate change, and we talked to them about things like negative emissions or feedback loops or tipping points, they’re not feeling that they are able to take any action to change. But when we approach the issue from the context of how communities wish to see their future and what is their hope for their children or their grandchildren, and we start to talk about climate change and disaster risk from a values perspective, what do they value and how do they preserve what they value. There really does start to be much more, I would say, engagement from the communities and ownership of these issues. I mean we do know that there are mismatches between the knowledge that research has generated and what practitioners require and their decision-making and practice. And so, we are trying to take steps to lessen that, and we’re doing a few things. 

One is to try to hone in some of that science at the local level. And I’ve seen this from my own experience and behavior change is that talk about things that are actually making a difference in people’s day to day life. That’s very different than talking about broad national-level issues that people cannot connect to. But also, we’ve learned a lot when it comes to risk communication. We certainly have had disasters such as Tacloban, typhoon in the Philippines where risk communication was a major factor in the high casualty rates. And we’ve learned how to talk differently about disasters so that it really is able to have an impact on people. I think one of the best examples. Somehow there was a disconnect between science and practice was recently with COVID, in which there was a lot of messaging going out about calling on people to wash their hands. But what percentage of the population doesn’t have access to water? And so, there were good examples in the specific. For example, abusing community activists to bridge the gap between the science and turning it into translatable and actionable practice by the local people, and then having these feedback loops. And so, it’s not enough, obviously for scientists or DRR specialists to make big pronouncements. We really need this two-way communication and we need to engage with communities and hear what’s important to them and to design the science research around their needs and not just around academic agenda. 

Paulyn Duman: Let me just zoom in on what you said about the importance of the role of the community activists and risk communications at the local level. So really not just providing information for, but also creating information with, so I’ve been following your discussions around accelerating resilience building or what you say building back better. You have been advocating and the increased importance of the role of local communities, local activists, communities in climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction.  Is this a shift or is this just an increased role from the national governments to local communities? What change and what do you think is the role of the local communities, and, climate emergencies and disasters? 

Loretta Hieber Girardet: I think there is no doubt that the local communities are not only on the frontline when emergencies occur by the very nature that they are the ones living in their communities and they’re the first responders, but also very much need to be on the frontline when it comes to identifying the solutions and the way forward to mitigate the impact of climate change and to reduce disaster risk. And we have seen an emergency after emergency again, I point to COVID that those local communities, where they had strong local leadership, where they had pre-disaster planning in place, where they knew the types of coordination mechanisms that were needed cutting across sectors to respond to, in this case, COVID, but it could be other types of emergencies, how they were able to much faster and more effectively respond to the crisis. So definitely we are seeing much more emphasis, I would say the need to support local communities and support local governments to have the capacity, but also the resources they need to put in place, local resilience strategies and these local resilience strategies need to integrate both DRR and climate change. So, in other words, climate and non-climate related risks, now you ask, is this a shift? It’s not a shift because actually both are needed. You need the national strategies, the policies, the legislation, in particular, that’s going to allow more local action. And often this can be a case, for example, of ensuring that local governments have access to resources through the budgets or the national budget allocation, to allow them to take action, to build resilience to climate and disaster risks, both are needed. One of the things that I would say greater local action allows for is more engagement of a wide range of stakeholders, including, for example, the private sector, which has a tremendous interest in ensuring that their communities are kept safe from climate-related disasters and other types of risks. And so, we really do see an opportunity to mobilize this whole of society, multi-stakeholder holder approach by focusing on the local level and really promoting that ownership. And here is where I also see an important role for young people to play. They’re so critical for this, and it may be difficult to access national-level structures, much easier to work at the local level.  

Paulyn Duman: So, there is really like a balance between the role of the national governments, but also the local leaders. And I think we all agree that’s important to have access to this important information and knowledge and that this is fundamental and very essential in dealing with climate and non-climate risks, as you mentioned.  What is your experience in the uptake of the gamut of scientific evidence, data, knowledge, evidence-based research the uptake of these types of information by the local communities from the scientific community? What lessons did you learn from the years of experience that you have in working in this area of climate and disaster risk knowledge? 

Loretta Hieber Girardet: Yeah. It’s a great question. I remember the Nobel Prize winner, Sherwood Rowland who was involved with identifying components of the ozone hole once said, what’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions. If in the end, all we’re willing to do is to stand around and wait for them to come true. And I think that’s a really interesting reflection because I think at some point there was a sense that what communities were lacking was information. So, we needed to build the information deficit, but we know now that understanding the problem does not necessarily mean that we can agree on how to implement measures to address the problem. And this is why I think relooking at that science-policy interface is really important because the worst-case scenario is that we advance in terms of scientific knowledge, but the communities, in particular, do not have access to what they need to actually make changes in their lives based on that science. So, what do we really want to see? I think as I’ve mentioned previously, we really do need to make the science more locally based and make it more relevant to communities. One of the ways to do it is to focus on the co-benefits, but for those types of research programs to be designed, you need to have interaction and engagement with the communities. So, we need to put in place. And in some cases, they do exist really this engagement mechanism with stakeholders and decision-makers so that we can ensure the relevance of research for potential solutions that impact the daily lives of people. I also think that we need to see greater engagement between the physical and the social sciences and we just talked about risk communication. I think that’s a very good example of if you have a disconnect between those setting, the physical science and those engaged in social science, that ability to translate results into very practical solutions is limited. What I really see is the critical importance of good communication plays, but also this linkage between science communication and community engagement. I think it’s that combination that really makes a difference. And we do, we are seeing examples of take-up of the community level. Science-based approaches, but they need to be translated into the realities of local communities. And I think one of the challenges that I have seen, especially in my previous position in Asia Pacific were countries that were far advanced in terms of either DRR or it could be artificial intelligence use for early warning systems, trying to share that type of knowledge with a country that could be still in a very early stage of development. It may even have IT connectivity. So, in a way, I think, we need to do a better job of taking these high-tech solutions and making them applicable and low tech and resource-constrained environments, because those are the communities that really risk being left behind. 

Paulyn Duman: A lot of our listeners are actually coming from young people. What message do you have for young people?  

Loretta Hieber Girardet: First of all, I am so encouraged by the engagement of young people in climate change. And I think they are going to be the agent of change. That’s essentially going to propel action at the global level and at the national level and at the local level, because their voices are being heard. And I have seen, I’ve seen this myself in, for example, a conference I went to last year in the Pacific where youth were at every single panel and very passionately about their future. So, I’m incredibly encouraged by this. And so, my message to young people is getting engaged and staying engaged. You are the change-makers and the way that you can make that change is by not only being educated yourself, learning what you can learn about not only climate change, but the whole range of risks that are out there. Biological hazards such as the pandemic, which has uprooted you over the last couple of years. I see that with my own son, a university student who has spent the last two years in front of the computer, rather than following his courses, all sorts of risks are really needing to be addressed. Climate change is incredibly important, but don’t forget the other risks as well, such as the biological risks and the geological risks. There is action that can be taken to reduce disaster risk to mitigate climate change. But the political will is often not there. And this is something that only people can do themselves. The voters, the young people themselves really have a role in changing the way our political leaders address these issues. So, I really encourage you to stay with it and to share what you learned. We have seen in disasters very often that young people learn about disaster risk reduction and they share that information with their families. And sometimes it has had a life-saving impact on family members. So, you are an agent of change and you are a tremendous communication channel. 

Paulyn Duman: Could you guide our listeners to where to start if they’re interested in understanding and perhaps contributing to the work of UNDRR? 

Loretta Hieber Girardet: Absolutely. And you’re absolutely right. We have really a tremendous number of resources, including guidance on how to engage young people in DRR and how to integrate DRR in climate change and, lots of issues. So, the best place for anyone to go, it is the absolute number one portal of information is called Prevention Web. And I just invite you to type those two words into your Google search engine. And you will enter into a space of knowledge and research and practical tools and links with many different types of communities that are working on these issues. It is the number one source of information for all things related to disaster risk reduction. And you will obviously find links there as well to many other organizations. 

Paulyn Duman: Lori, it has been such a pleasure to have you at the SDG Learncast. Thank you so much for your time and for your inspirational message to our listeners. Thank you so much. 

Loretta Hieber Girardet: Thank you, Paulyn. And of course, I’d be very happy to hear from any of your listeners directly and see how we could engage or direct them in a place where they will be able to contribute their talents. 

Paulyn Duman: And that was Loretta Hieber Girardet of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. What are our key takeaways from this conversation, which focused on how we can make climate and risk knowledge accessible to the people who need them? The lesson that I learned from Loretta or Lori is that there is not a single country that is not affected by climate change.  

With the recovery processes from the current pandemic, we are beginning to see a recovery that takes into account a greener approach. We see more climate action being considered and steps are being taken to reduce the vulnerability of populations. For example, through scaling up of social protection related to the accessibility of climate and risk. 

What I also learned from Lori is that there is still a gap between the producers of science and the users of science and we really need to close that gap. What helps is to use language and terminology that are accessible to the populations that need the information, because ultimately. What we really want to do and what we want to see are policy changes at the country level and at the national level. And we will not be able to do that unless we actively engage and work with the populations who are at the front lines of these issues of climate change and disaster risk reduction. Lori highlighted that we need to actively engage community leaders and activists to bridge that gap between science and practice. 

By turning the message in through translatable and actionable practice by the local people, but also to listen to their feedback, listen to the feedback from the communities and decide the science around their needs and not just the academic agenda.  

Lastly, I learned from Lori that it is critically important to connect physical science with social science and those working in these fields. Good communication plays an important role to communicate science and is linked to community engagement. We need good communication that captures the realities of local communities.  

You can find more of the SDG Learncast on the UN SDG:Learn website for now. I’m Paulyn Duman. Thanks for listening. 

Paulyn Duman is the Knowledge Management, Communications, and Reporting Officer at the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development and is a coordinator for the Joint Secretariat of UN SDG:Learn, together with UNITAR.  

The opinions expressed in the SDG Learncast podcasts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UN SDG:Learn, its Joint Secretariat, and partners. 

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