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by Sera Gearhart and Jennifer A. Horney, PhD, MPH

This week, the American Geophysical Union (AGU)  meets in Washington, D.C., to explore and facilitate discussion of science’s impact on society. The centennial meeting is not only a celebration of 100 years of scientific discovery, but an acknowledgement of future growth in the field and identification of the issues most likely to arise for the researchers of tomorrow. One topic being considered this week as part of the AGU’s annual fall meeting is attribution science. Attribution science seeks to determine whether increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters can be linked to climate change. On Monday, December 10, the AGU issued a report, the second of its kind, which links several of 2017’s most severe natural disasters – heat waves in Southern Europe, floods in South America, and droughts in the upper Midwest of the U.S. – to climate change 

The physical and economic devastation caused by severe weather events is well documented. However, the increasing severity and frequency of these “unprecedented” disasters have impacts beyond the easily quantifiable. Severe natural disasters have impacts across all aspects of society, acting to exacerbate existing social stratifications and power dynamics. Since a 2005 World Health Organization (WHO) report on Interpersonal Violence (IPV) and Disasters , there has been growing evidence of increases in IPV, child abuse, and sexual violence following disasters.  Natural Disasters & Domestic Violence May Have An Alarming Connection. Lending evidence to this finding, qualitative interviews conducted following the 2009 “Black Saturday” bushfires in Australia, demonstrated an increase in IPV among affected families. Women’s experience of violence in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires.  Despite these and many other similar findings, social issues such as IPV tend to be overshadowed by more measurable concerns about the safety of a community within a severely altered built environment. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, the challenge of sheltering hundreds of thousands of Louisiana residents impacted by the storm meant that victims of IPV were more likely to remain with an abusive partner, or even return to an abusive partner out of desperation, and insufficient access to resources. Battered Women, Catastrophe and the Context of their Safety after Hurricane Katrina .  IPV in the disaster context has potentially unique implications for women, children, and families due to a disaster’s impact on access to safe housing and community networks.   

Previously, research into the nature of IPV in the post-disaster context has been based on qualitative studies conducted in communities following a disaster event. Increasingly, research has sought to quantify the scale of the problem through the use of advanced statistical methods and event-based analysis that seeks to attribute increases in IPV to the duration or severity of a disaster event. Increased violence may be quantifiable through analysis of reports of domestic violence and 911 calls in the months immediately following significant community-level destruction The Impact of Natural Disasters on Domestic Violence: An Analysis of Reports of Simple Assault in Florida (1999–2007)  Inherent in these discoveries is the need to use the information gained through scientific inquiry to encourage better policy and more sensitive provision of relief in the post-disaster context. As the frequency and severity of disasters increases globally, disaster planning, response, and recovery programs must recognize the need to operate within this context of increased IPV, adjusting relief and recovery policies and programs to accommodate unsafe living situations and prioritize the voices of victims in the distribution of scarce community-resources.  

As the AGU meeting takes place this week, researchers will be coming together with the goal of exploring both the broader social impacts of science, and the union’s greater obligations to promote ethics and inclusion within the field. With a greater understanding of the science behind climate change, we must now seek to acknowledge applications that move beyond the physical, calling upon policymakers, academics, and civil society not only to embrace the groundings of climate change research and attribution science, but to proactively seek solutions to resultant increases in complex interpersonal issues such as IPV. 

Sera Gearhart is a Senior at Redlands University majoring in public policy and French. Jennifer Horney is the founding director of the program in epidemiology and a core faculty member of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware