The dynamics of disaster response: how to ensure policy learning in the aftermath?

Environmental disasters can become important events in our individual lives and in the collective memory of a nation. Even eras can be named after them as we may refer to a time before and after the Chernobyl accident. At some point of our lives, almost all of us can expect to be directly or indirectly affected some way by a natural disaster, major industrial or technological accident. Such events often also become landmark cases in environmental policy.

Big environmental disasters have the potency to cause significant changes in existing governmental policies and practices. Some evident examples are the Three Mile Island and the more recent Fukushima nuclear accidents, which induced major shift in several states’ energy policies. In Finland, Talvivaara clearly stands out as an event that changed how the country has viewed mining ever since. These so-called focusing events cause many people – bureaucrats, media, elected officials, and the public – to pay greater attention to the problems revealed by the incident.

Furthermore, people tend to react differently depending on the perceived cause and the characteristics of the disaster. Whereas natural disasters have been found to produce therapeutic response in which communities unite, technologically induced disasters have a corrosive effect on community life. Indeed, if the disaster is seen as an “act of God” or a freak accident, our attention turns to what we can do to help the victims. However, if the disaster is seen as a result of human failings – poor design, operator error, “corporate greed”, or “governmental neglect” – our attention turns to the voluntary acceptance of responsibility or to the more coercive process of fixing blame. Either way, the public is likely to demand safer and more sustainable policies from the decision-makers.

This creates a window of opportunity for change. Action is taken, all in hopes of “learning something from this incident” to ensure that something similar does not happen again. However, there are no guarantees that this will lead to a positive and sustainable outcome. Action may be taken in a rush, in an attempt to please the public, without sufficient learning behind it. The question then becomes, how to ensure that the decisions and the policies made after disasters are a consequence of learning and not a knee jerk reaction to the public pressure? Sometimes it can be quite difficult to see the extent to which governments learn after critical events.

Thomas A. Birkland develops a model for event-related policy change in his excellent book Lessons of Disaster (2006), offering one way to examine these processes. According to him, there are several key steps that must occur for learning based policies to be created. The first crucial step for the event is to gain attention. The size and importance of the event are socially constructed but the event must come first, and it must be large enough to gain attention. The second step is group mobilization. If mobilization does not occur, it restraints learning, because learning requires competition between advocacy coalitions, as each side tries to gather evidence and knowledge about the policy process and political tactics to advance its goals.

The third, and perhaps the most important step, is the discussion of ideas in various forums about the reasons for the event and whether the existing policy can address the problems revealed by the event. If a policy is shown to have failed, the discussion will include policies that seek to remedy the failure and prevent reoccurrence. A change can also happen without such discussion, but it is possible that “superstitious learning” is at work, as Birkland calls it. It can also lead to a positive outcome, but rather by accident than by design. However, if we can draw a link between ideas, an event, and increased attention to ideas and new policies, then we have strong evidence of instrumental policy learning and possibly some evidence of social policy learning and political learning. Even if no policy change occurs, the event can lead to accumulated experience which may promote learning in the future.

Historically the field of environmental policy is rather unique in a sense that significant events have always played a major part in shaping it. While slow change allows for gradual adaptation, abrupt change is more challenging for the social structure and the production system, which do not adapt easily. This is particularly an issue when such events do not occur frequently – memory decays and risk perception weakens. Nonetheless, policy leaps may occur. Every disaster brings losses but also gains, if we make the most of them.


Juha Kotilainen


More reading:


Birkland, T. A. (2006). Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events. Georgetown University Press. Washington DC.

Kotilainen, J. M. (2015): Environmental Disasters as the Drivers for Policy Change – Case Study: Talvivaara Mine. Master’s thesis. University of Eastern Finland.

Kroll-Smith, J., Couch, S. & A. G. Levine (2002). Technological Hazards and Disasters. In the book Dunlap, R. E. & W. Michelson (ed.) Handbook of Environmental Sociology. Greenwood Press. Westport, CT.