Understanding decisions and disasters: A retrospective analysis of Hurricane Sandy’s ‘focusing power’ on climate change adaptation policy in New York City

Produced as part of the Climate information for adaptation CCCEP research programme theme

Disasters such as hurricanes can open a window of opportunity when these act as ‘focusing events’ on the policy agenda. This paper explores the ‘focusing power’ of Hurricane Sandy in the context of New York City during 2012 and beyond. To understand this, the authors ask how, and to what extent, Hurricane Sandy served as a focusing event to open a window of opportunity for the city to reevaluate its climate change adaptation policies.

The authors find that the extent to which a ‘focusing event’ prompts action in any policymaking context may depend heavily on pre-planning and organisational capacity. This is in part reinforced by the nature of disaster itself: demands for immediate action – i.e. emergency response – constrain the ability of policymakers to consider a wide range of options, forcing them to draw on plans and resources that are ready to be activated. As a result, that short window may ultimately constrain the options available to policymakers in terms of long-term adaptation. This impacts the ability of decision-makers to plan for the full array of risks that may be posed by climate change.

By focusing on an event that happened some years ago, the paper is able to reveal mechanisms of policy change over time, both in terms of the actors influencing the actions taken, and the policy options themselves that appear viable. These and other findings create a new space to explore the dynamics at play in event-based decision-making, embedded within the literature on disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and policymaking.

Key points for decision-makers

  • The strategic interest in disasters such as hurricanes is in their ability to mobilise political and public support for new policies (or examination of old policies), which may subsequently lead to improvement in society-wide conditions or to individual gain.
  • The focusing power of Hurricane Sandy illustrates a fundamental weakness in disaster risk reduction: when reliant on the experience of events for policy change, emergency response and short-term concerns tend to take precedence.
  • This study contributes to the need for discussion about the adverse effects of focusing or ‘shock’ events on policy creation, and their ability to distract policymakers and the public from the full array of risks.
  • However, the authors find that as time passes and policy conversations widen with the distance gained from disaster itself, knowledge circulates throughout different levels of governance and society, generating different politically feasible policy options for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.
  • The authors argue that framing climate change adaptation as an investment in the face of rising climate risk can help transition cities from a state of reaction to premeditated action, saving money and lives along the way.
  • New York City and other climate hazard hotspots are locations where a better understanding of the connection between disasters, climate change and policymaking is urgently needed.
  • The framework developed and applied in this study can be used to provide insights on the relationship between focus events and policy change within the context of urban environments, the policy domain of climate change adaptation, and beyond.