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date: 22 April 2019

Agenda Setting and Natural Hazards

Summary and Keywords

Agenda setting describes the process through which issues are selected for consideration by a decision-making body. Among the myriad of issues policymakers can consider, few are more vexing than natural hazards. By aggregating (or threatening to aggregate) death, destruction, and economic loss, natural hazards represent a serious and persistent threat to public safety. While citizens rightfully expect policymakers to protect them, many of the policy challenges associated natural hazards fail to reach the crowded government agenda. This article reviews the literature on agenda setting and natural hazards, including the strain between preparing for emerging hazards, on the one hand, and responding to existing disasters, on the other hand. It considers the extent to which natural hazards pose distinctive difficulties during the agenda-setting process, focusing specifically on the dynamics of issue identification, problem definition, venue shopping, and interest group mobilization in natural hazard domains. It closes by suggesting a number of future avenues of agenda-setting research.

Keywords: agenda setting, policy change, natural hazards, emergency management, preparedness, relief

Agenda setting is the process through which issues are selected for consideration by a decision-making body, be it a legislature, city council, bureaucratic agency, court, or any other unit of government (Cobb & Elder, 1977; Kingdon, 2003; Majone, 2006). Government can only consider a limited number of issues at once. This makes agenda setting highly competitive and conflictual (Baumgartner & Jones, 1993). Not only do organized interests need to convince policymakers that a particular issue is germane to the work of government, they must also demonstrate that it is more pressing than all of the other issues vying for attention. At the same time, opposing groups seek to block new issues from accessing the government agenda (Cobb & Ross, 1997). The study of agenda setting, therefore, describes the institutional, political, and social factors that lead policymakers to consider some social issues but not others.

A hazard is a potential source of damage or harm. A natural hazard describes a potential source of harm that is naturally occurring, like an emerging disease, flood, hurricane, cyclone, drought, or heat wave. Natural hazards vary in terms of their perceptual cues (how they reveal themselves), scope (the size of their impact), duration (how long they last), onset (how quickly they emerge), and probability of impact (how likely it is that they will occur at all) (Islam & Ryan, 2016; Lindell, Prater, & Perry, 2006). Consider the differences between earthquakes and emerging diseases. Earthquakes emerge quickly and with little forewarning. Although they typically last for a relatively short duration (30–40 seconds), they often result in widespread destruction. Conversely, scientists can identify novel viruses weeks or even months before they become a widespread public health event. Disease cases accumulate slowly, but outbreaks can last for months before subsiding, thus allowing deaths to accumulate slowly over time.

A natural hazard becomes a disaster when it stretches the response capacity of a social system or organization, leaving individuals vulnerable to an array of adverse consequences (e.g., death, destruction of property, economic loss). Sometimes this stress becomes so great that the system is unable to respond, causing widespread and often irreversible harm to a community. Catastrophes, a designation reserved for the most severe disasters, are events that overwhelm a social system (Islam & Ryan, 2016; Lindell et al., 2006). Not all natural hazards become disasters. Even fewer disasters become catastrophes. Nor is there a single, authoritative threshold for distinguishing between these categories. Instead, policymakers, the media, interest groups, and even the general public determine whether a hazard represents a private trouble or warrants government attention (Birkland, 2016).

Many natural hazards are dismissed as an unfortunate confluence of events, a tragedy that falls outside the bounds of government responsibility (Birkland, 1997). Other times, government chooses to ignore hazards until they blossom into a full-blown disaster (DeLeo, 2016). It is well established that government tends to underinvest in policies and programs that prepare for emerging hazards (May & Koski, 2013; Sainz-Snatamaria & Anderson, 2013). Between 1985 and 2008 the U.S. government spent $82 billion on disaster relief but only $7.5 billion on preparedness (Sainz-Snatamaria & Anderson, 2013), despite the fact that experts estimate that $1 in preparedness could offset $4 of relief spending (Rose et al., 2007). When government does respond to natural hazards, its reaction is often characterized by a disproportionate allocation of attention, time, and resources. Once-ignored hazards suddenly become the most pressing items on the government agenda. Policymakers struggle to assign blame and work to assure the public that a similar event can be mitigated, if not avoided, in the future (Birkland, 1997).

What explains this policymaking dynamic? Why do policymakers pay greater attention to some natural hazards than others? And to what extent do natural hazards differ from other types of issues, like national security, the economy, social welfare, and scores of others? To investigate these questions, this article surveys the literature on natural hazards and agenda setting. It begins by comparing the various theories used to explain the agenda-setting process. While each theory provides a distinctive depiction of the agenda-setting process, all three include a number of common steps or processes: (1) issue attention; (2) problem definition; (3) venue shopping; and (4) political mobilization. I consider each of these important elements of agenda setting in detail, highlighting the challenges and opportunities posed by natural hazards. I close by highlighting a number of underexplored research topics.

Theories of Agenda Setting

Agenda setting is the process through which issues are selected for consideration by a decision-making body. Scholars identify various types of government agendas. The systemic agenda refers to all the issues society and members of the larger political community currently care about. Systemic agenda items range from pressing issues being covered by the media to more technical topics being discussed within interest group circles. Many items languish on the systemic agenda for an extended period of time but fail to reach the government agenda. The institutional agenda, by contrast, includes all of those issues “explicitly up” for consideration by a decision-making body (Cobb & Elder, 1977, p. 86). Institutional agendas exist at all levels (state and national) and in all branches (legislative, judicial, and executive) of government. Agenda setting describes the movement of issues from the systemic to the institutional agenda.

Various theories explain the agenda-setting process. Kingdon’s (2003) multiple streams approach (MSA) argues that agenda setting occurs through the coupling of three distinct streams. The problem stream includes the various issues or problems vying for government attention. The policy stream comprises the solutions—the various policies—that promise to fix these problems. And the politics stream describes the current political climate, including things like public opinion, the national mood, and the partisan composition of different levels/branches of government. MSA argues that the convergence of the three streams opens a policy window or an opportunity for organized interests to push their preferred policies onto the government agenda and produce policy change. Coupling is facilitated by issue entrepreneurs—individuals or groups who invest a tremendous amount of personal resources and time in order to secure a future policy output. Through their tireless advocacy, entrepreneurs help “tie together” important elements from each of the three streams, in turn allowing issue advocates to capitalize on the newly opened policy window.

Unlike MSA, which primarily focuses on periods of change, punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) explains not only moments of upheaval but also periods when a particular policy domain or issue area are relatively stable. PET argues that policymaking is characterized by long periods of stasis in which a dominant coalition monopolize a policy domain and resist the introduction of new ideas. The coalition is supported by a fixed set of government institutions that are equally committed to preserving the status quo. Agenda setting, which is described as punctuation in this equilibrium, occurs when an opposing coalition injects novel ideas into the policy process and succeeds in accessing new institutions that are not wedded to the pre-existing coalition of dominant groups. After policy change, the system resets and a new group comes to monopolize the policy process (Baumgartner & Jones, 1993).

The advocacy coalition framework (ACF) offers yet another depiction of agenda setting. Whereas MSA and PET largely focus on institutional change, ACF underscores the importance of belief system change. It argues the political system is comprised of various advocacy coalitions or “people from a variety of positions (elected and agency officials, interest group leaders, researchers) who share a particular belief system—i.e., a set of basic values, causal assumptions, and problem perceptions—and who show a non-trivial degree of coordinated activity over time” (Sabatier, 1988, p. 139). Each coalition encompasses three levels of belief systems. Deep core beliefs describe a group’s political philosophy (e.g., how they align along the liberty-security continuum, their perception of social welfare). Policy core beliefs describe underlying policy positions (e.g., the distribution of power between the federal government and the states, the legitimacy of executive orders). Secondary aspects are beliefs relating to the funding and implementation of policy goals. Deep core beliefs rarely change. Policy core beliefs are more susceptible to change but remain fairly stable across time. Policy change typically involves minor changes in a group’s secondary aspects. Changes in secondary aspects allow for the refinement of existing and fairly routine policies, as opposed to radical changes in the group’s underlying philosophy and core positions on important policy issues (Sabatier, 1988; Sabatier & Weible, 2007).

While the ACF, MSA, and PET differ in terms of their jargon and portrayal of the policy process, all three include a number of basic steps. First, all three theories stress that issue identification is an important, but not necessarily sufficient, precursor to agenda setting. Before an item can access the government agenda, policymakers must come to recognize it as a pressing and important issue. Second, all three theories suggest problems are more or less socially constructed. Problem definition describes the way in which social problems are described and interpreted. Third, all three underscore the importance of policy venues or government institutions with decision-making authority. Because policy venues often differ in terms of their jurisdiction, culture, and powers, organized interests “seek out” the institutions that are most likely to support their goals and preferences. This process is often referred to as venue shopping (Pralle, 2006). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, agenda setting hinges on political mobilization or the extent to which organized interests rally for or against an issue.

Issue identification, problem definition, venue shopping, and political mobilization underpin the agenda-setting process. Natural hazards often necessitate that policymakers create policy in the face of great uncertainty and stress and therefore pose distinctive challenges—and occasionally opportunities—during each of these distinct yet interrelated steps in the agenda-setting process. Not surprisingly, policy scholars emphasize the important role natural hazards play in influencing the agenda-setting process.

The Dynamics of Issue Attention

Issue identification is the process through which the media, general public, and policymakers come to pay attention to different problems. MSA coined the term “focusing event” to describe large-scale disasters that “bowl over everything standing in the way of prominence on the agenda” (Kingdon, 2003, p. 96). Disasters derive their attention-grabbing power from the fact that they typically cause widespread death, destruction, and economic damage. Much of the literature on disasters and agenda setting builds on Birkland’s (1997) seminal book, After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events, which refines MSA’s original definition of focusing events. Birkland defines a potential focusing event as an event that is

sudden, relatively rare, can be reasonably defined as harmful or revealing the possibility of potentially greater future harms, inflicts harms or suggests potential harms that are or could be concentrated on a definable geographical area or community of interest, and that is known to policy makers and the public virtually simultaneously. (1997, p. 22)

Note that Birkland uses the term potential focusing event. Many disasters do not come to represent focal events, a testament to the fact that they are not seen as an example of government failure. Note also that Birkland stresses the unpredictability of disasters, meaning focusing events become known to policymakers, the media, and the public simultaneously. The element of surprise often enhances the shock value of disasters and undermines the ability of any one group to dominate the overarching narrative surrounding these issues—at least at the outset of this process. As such, media coverage of these events plays an important role in fueling public and policymaker concerns.

Disasters have come to influence the other theories of agenda setting as well. ACF notes the existence of an “internal shock path,” which describes the ability of disasters to shape belief change in policy subsystems (Sabatier & Weible, 2007). Sufficiently large disasters can force groups to revisit their underlying belief systems and, in turn, trigger policy change. To be sure, much of the ACF literature has focused on technological and man-made hazards, particularly in area of nuclear energy policy (Nohrstedt, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2011). However, recent research has applied ACF to natural hazards as well, including floods (Albright, 2011) and volcanic ash (Nohrstedt, 2013).

Disasters are not the only mechanism for bringing problems to the attention of policymakers. Problem indicators, which are defined as numeric measures or statistics documenting a problem, play an important but often overlooked role in stimulating issue attention. Problem indicators encompass the varieties of data and government information circulating the political system, like drug overdose rates, gross domestic product (GDP), the number of uninsured individuals, counts of automobile accidents, and scores of others (Baumgartner & Jones, 1993; Jenkins-Smith, Weible, & Sabatier, 2014; Kingdon, 2003; Lehtonen, 2015; Sabatier, 1988).

Many natural hazard domains have strong indicator cultures, meaning there is an emphasis on data-driven decision-making and a marked sensitivity to changes in these measures (Bell et al., 2011; DeLeo, 2016; Turnhout, Hisschemöller, & Eijsackers, 2007). In the emerging disease domain, changes in disease cases and deaths are used to track the evolution of novel viruses. Large upticks in cases are often assumed to represent an approaching crisis (DeLeo, 2017). Thus, whereas focusing events draw attention to an event that has already occurred, indicators often point to an emerging problem that has yet to crystallize into a full-blown disaster. Using pandemic influenza as an example, Birkland (2006) contrasts indicators and focusing events:

In 2005, for example, the problem of the H5N1 strain of bird flu influenza gained worldwide attention, and its transmission to humans in Turkey and Europe in early 2006 has increased concern about pandemic flu, and in particular about the possibility of its transmission from person to person rather than from birds to people. But a global flu pandemic is a different kind of disaster from the type described in this book because it can be anticipated before the pandemic occurs. (p. 7)

Of course, a strong indicator culture does not always result in issue attention. Consider the climate change domain. Measures of annual average temperatures, emissions rates, and sea level rise are frequently offered as indicators of climate change. However, unlike disease cases and deaths, these indicators are highly contested and deeply politicized (Pralle, 2009). Conservatives groups attack the viability of climate data, often taking aim at the very methodologies used to derive these measures. The politicization of these data undermines their influence on the policy agenda.

Indicators and events represent important mechanisms for issue attention in natural hazards domains. Yet the extent to which an indicator or event ultimately shapes the policy agenda is dictated by how it is integrated into larger policy narratives. Put differently, these various data points “do not speak for themselves” (Kingdon, 2003, p. 94). Instead, organized interests work to control the way in which indicators and event are described, conceptualized, and defined. Policy narratives determine not only whether or not an issue is able to access the crowded government agenda but also the types of solutions considered by policymakers.

Problem Definition and the Social Construction of the Issues

The agenda-setting power of an indicator, event, or any other type of exogenous shock hinges on how these elements are defined. Effective problem definition narratives include a number of basic components. First, they describe a problem. Who does the problem impact? Are they a sympathetic or unsympathetic population? Are they worthy or unworthy of government assistance? What is the cause of the problem? Is the problem growing or shrinking? These questions, as well as scores of others, help define the dimensions of a problem. Second, effective narratives identify solutions to a problem. Strong narratives will present one or even a handful of solutions that logically flow from definitional claims used to describe the problem. Finally, strong narratives persuade the general public and policymakers that government action is needed, meaning they justify an issue’s placement on the government agenda (Rochefort & Cobb, 1994).

A number of recurrent themes are often associated with the definition of natural hazards. Proponents of policy change typically try to define natural hazards, particularly those revealed through focusing events, as a crisis—a dire circumstance requiring immediate correction (Rochefort & Cobb, 1994). Crisis definitions are incredibly powerful in that they symbolize a problem too great to ignore, hence the ability of focusing events to bowl their way onto the policy agenda (Kingdon, 2003). In the absence of a tangible or manifest crisis, policymakers often resort to a more “conjectural” policy discourse, meaning they posit that a failure to protect against a future crisis will create undue risk (Birkland, 1997; DeLeo, 2010). In both instances, however, fear is an important motivator, and those groups seeking to place an item on the government agenda will manipulate public concern regarding the dangers associated with a particular hazard. Problem definers must also demonstrate that government is somehow complicit in allowing the disaster to occur. Put differently, it is imperative that the disaster be defined as an example of government failure, as opposed to an unfortunate, but unavoidable, event (Birkland, 1997).

Indicators require interpretation as well. Numbers often seen as a more objective descriptor of a problem than simple anecdotes and can thus carry a great deal of weight and influence in political settings (Innes, 1990; Stone, 2002). In the case of slow-onset hazards, problem definers use changing data points to construct narratives extrapolating trends years, if not decades, into the future. Consider the discourse surrounding rising sea levels and climate change adaptation within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Countries concerned with the threat of increased flooding over the course of the next century often reference data and models estimating future flood zones. This process of flood mapping not only has tangible policy implications (e.g., funding for adaptation programs), it also lends greater proximity and immediacy to the issue of sea level rise by visibly demonstrating its potential severity.

The use of analogy and other forms of implied comparison are another important feature of discourse in natural hazard domains. Analogies present a rational argument as to why two things or individuals share a common set of characteristics (Beard, 2000). Scholars have documented the widespread use of analogy during an array of naturally occurring and man-made hazards, including environmental hazards (Hoberg, 1991), war and international conflict (Khong, 1992), submarine incidents (Bynander, 1998), emerging diseases (Sturken, 1997), financial crises (Di Mascio, Natalini, & Stolfi, 2013), and others.

Because natural hazards are often entail great uncertainty, complexity, and even confusion, analogies provide a shorthand way for policymakers to make sense of these situations by invoking examples from the past (Houghton, 1998). Analogies are a particularly effective way to mobilize support for programs that address emergent hazards. Similar to measurement discourse, analogy allows proponents of preparedness policy to articulate the likely severity of emergent hazard by comparing it to a similar event from the past. Consider the debate surrounding the 2005–2007 avian influenza outbreak. Avian influenza was frequently compared to the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, the deadliest pandemic in recorded history. At the time, not a single case of pandemic influenza was identified on American soil, although public health experts feared a large-scale pandemic loomed. The 1918 analogy stressed the importance of initiating widespread public health preparedness programs and argued that a pandemic resembling the 1918 virus could kill millions of people worldwide. It helped empowered elected officials to act in the face of tremendous uncertainty, and Congress ultimately passed a series of sweeping public health policies in anticipation of a potential pandemic (DeLeo, 2016).

Not all analogies are built alike. Brändström, Bynander, and ’t Hart (2004) present a variety of different analogy types, some of which are more influential than others. Teacher analogies, for example, seek to provoke reflective and critical thought about a particular event. Not only do they strive to induce agenda setting, they also help policymakers make an informed decision about the best course of policy action. Prison analogies, by contrast, present a single, correct solution to a problem. In this respect, prison analogies stunt robust discussion and debate about viable solutions.

Hazards, disasters, and crises are, more than anything, social constructs. Their meaning and cause is ultimately open to interpretation and redefinition. Equally important, problem definition is critical to helping organized gain entry into policy venues that are receptive to their preferred policies and programs (Pralle, 2006). The next section reviews this process of venue shopping and selection in greater detail.

Venue Shopping, Institutional Authority, and Natural Hazard Governance

Policy venues are institutional locations in government with decision-making authority (Pralle, 2006). They exist at all levels and in all branches of government, from a state legislature to the U.S. Congress, a bureaucratic agency to the Supreme Court, a municipal government to the executive office of the president. Venues differ in terms of their jurisdiction or range of authority over different issues. State legislatures can enact laws governing citizens residing within their borders but have no authority over national issues. Government agencies are tasked with overseeing program implementation within a specific policy area, like the environment, health, or homeland security. Even the judicial system distinguishes between the types of questions that can be heard in a trial, appellate, or supreme court. In this respect, venues serve as gatekeepers to the political system, meaning they have authority to decide when and where different issues will be considered.

The principle of checks and balances dictates that, at least in the United States, each venue will enjoy its own distinctive constellation powers. Whereas a legislature can devise law, a court can interpret and overturn it. Beyond these very basic distinctions, venues differ in terms of the ways in which they process policy issues. Each venue is marked by its own distinct procedural rules, which shape how they go about making policy. Majority rule holds more weight in legislatures than, say, government agencies, which tend to vest more authority in individual decision-makers and experts to devise rules and regulations.

The concept of policy images underscores the fact that each venue perceives the world through a distinctive lens. Put differently, venues differ in terms of their professional and ideological norms (Pralle, 2006). Consider, for example, the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO has long emphasized the importance of evidence-based public health practices. As such, it tends to shirk policies that use more intrusive interventions, like travel bans or even forced hospitalizations, which, in many instances, lack efficacy, perpetuate stigma, and undermine global trade. Venues are not stagnant, however. Changes in party control of a legislature, for example, invariably reshuffle agenda priorities. Moreover, while the underlying mission of government agencies typically remains stable across time, new chief executives routinely undue and amend the bureaucratic rules and regulations put in place by their predecessor, especially if their predecessor represented a different political party.

Organized interests strategically shop for venues that are sympathetic to their cause. For example, in the face of gridlock at the national level, environmental groups used state and even local governments to forward their policy agendas. Indeed, states like Massachusetts and California have been forerunners in the movement to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. This does not mean environmental groups abandoned their efforts to secure a national emissions regime. Quite the opposite. Adding new venues allowed them to continue to work toward their overarching goals, despite being intermittently marginalized at the national level (Pralle, 2006; Rabe, 2004).

The venues involved with the governance of natural hazards are noticeably diffuse and span multiple levels and branches of government. Natural hazards management is primarily a responsibility of state and local governments. By and large, the national government has sought to influence the states by providing them incentives to perform certain actions, as opposed to requiring the implementation of specific mandates (Birkland, 2010). A sizable portion of this money is disaster stricken communities in the form of relief spending (Burby, 2006), an outgrowth of the myopic voting patterns described above (Healy & Malhotra, 2009).

While major focal events can create opportunities for agenda setting at the national level, Burby (2006) notes that there are few political and institutional incentives for active national government involvement in these types of pre-event activities. The onus for most planning and preparedness ultimately falls on the states. Indeed, important federal agencies, most notably the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), are only deployed in instances in which subnational units are overwhelmed. As such, a virtual mosaic of policy venues are involved in the governance of natural hazards, as every unit of state, regional, and local government has its own hazard profile and is marked by its own distinctive set of policy priorities.

Political Mobilization and Interest Group Competition

According to Schattschneider (1960), most political conflicts include a stronger party (the winning party) and a weaker party (the losing party). Given its advantaged position in the debate, the winning party ties to contain the scope of conflict. The winning party is reluctant to allow new groups to join the debate because new participants can only undermine the winning party’s superiority. Instead they perpetuate existing problem definition claims, many of which already support their position, and obstruct any attempt to move the issue to a new venue

The losing party, by contrast, works to expand the scope of conflict. Conflict expansion requires that the disadvantaged party recruit new allies, ideally groups that were previously uninvolved in the policy conflict. Recruiting new participants helps the losing party overcome existing biases favoring the status quo—biases favoring the winning party. The disadvantaged group must communicate new narratives that challenge the ideas perpetuated by the advantaged party. The losing party must also access new venues, moving the conflict to institutions that are more receptive to new ideas (Schattschneider, 1960).

In some, but certainty not all, instances, natural hazards policymaking deviates from this pattern. Natural hazard or public risk domains are often characterized as lacking an organized public, meaning interest groups do not readily mobilize for policy change (Huber, 1985; May & Koski, 2013). Put differently, natural hazard domains tend to lack highly sophisticated and well-organized interest groups, at least relative to other policy areas like social welfare policy. This is partially a testament to the fact that, when it comes to natural hazard policy, there is not an obvious redistribution of government benefits and goods. Nor does natural hazards policy typically impinge on private industries and interests. Instead natural hazard policymaking tends to be dominated by individuals with a very high level of technical expertise (e.g., emergency managers or scientists), many of whom have direct ties to government agencies and bureaucracies (May & Koski, 2013).

Birkland (1997) shows that this pattern is particularly pronounced in the hurricane and earthquake policy domains. He documents a very brief period of change in the composition of these domains in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Victims and their families enter, but swiftly exit, the policy community. Some of them petition government for relief and redress. Others simply recount their experience. However, their involvement is relatively short-lived, and technical experts quickly reemerge as dominant actors.

This characterization does not accurately describe all natural hazard domains, however. Albright’s (2011) study of Hungarian flood management documents widespread mobilization in the wake of disasters. Albright notes that a diverse array of groups entered the flood policy community after disaster, including environmental organizations, farmers, mayors, scientists, and water management institutions. This pattern, which stands in stark contrast to the pattern described by Birkland (1997), is attributed to a number of factors that, at the moment, were somewhat unique to the Hungarian case. For example, Hungary was undergoing a period of increased democratization and decentralization, which empowered a variety of groups to become more active participants in the policy process.

Widespread mobilization can occur in the United States as well. It is not uncommon for private interest groups (e.g., drug manufacturers, nursing associations, civil liberties groups) to coalesce around public health preparedness efforts (DeLeo, 2016). The policy debates surrounding the pandemic influenza, Ebola, and Zika outbreaks were marked by fairly widespread and diffuse mobilization by public and private actors. Some environmental hazards are also marked by widespread mobilization, as evidenced by the diverse array of environmental, industry, and even consumer groups that have staked out positions on issues like climate change. Recent developments suggest that this trend will continue. For example, a group of business leaders and philanthropists recently formed the Risky Business initiative, which aspires to publicize and assess the risks associated with climate change. Among its many initiatives, Risky Business has advocated for greater federal investment in climate adaptation programs in order to ensure climate-related hazards do not undermine long-term economic growth in the United States. While adaptation has only recently emerged as an important agenda item, the intensity and scope of this policy conflict will likely increase in coming years. Many coastal states are already entertaining large-scale property buyback programs in order to re-establish natural barriers between the ocean and more densely populated inland zones. As such, citizen groups will likely mobilize and object to being removed from their homes.

Mobilization is the proverbial linchpin that holds the agenda-setting process together. A compelling narrative, a new venue, and even a widely recognized problem are ultimately useless unless they energize organized interests, policymakers, and the general public. In the absence of mobilization, policymakers are unlikely to grant an issue space on the crowded government agenda. These difficulties are only magnified by the fact that most natural hazard domains are devoid of widespread interest group activity, a testament to the fact that few groups feel compelled to fight for stronger emergency management and preparedness programs.

Future Research Directions

Policy scholars have played a leading role in analyzing the political dimensions of natural hazards, giving rise to a wellspring of innovative contributions to the literature on agenda setting and policy change. This work has been instrumental in explaining the ways in which exogenous shocks and events influence agenda setting. It has provided important insights into the problem definition process, underscoring the important role crisis definitions and analogical discourse play in shaping policy narratives. It has drawn attention to the variety of distinctive political mobilization patterns that can occur before, during, and after disaster, in turn challenging some of the most entrenched assumptions about the nature of political conflict. More than just a contextual sidelight, natural hazards have featured prominently within the agenda-setting literature and have informed applied debates about the political dynamics emergency management. Indeed, in 2010, the Policy Studies Organization (PSO) launched an entire journal (Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy) devoted to the study of hazards, disasters, and public policy.

Still, much works remains. Save a number of exceptions, much of the literature on natural hazards and agenda setting focuses on policy change after disaster (DeLeo, 2010, 2016, 2017). Few studies have empirically examined agenda setting before disaster. Gradual onset hazards, like droughts, sea level rise, and emerging disease, often necessitate that policymakers at least entertain the possibility of proactive policy change. As noted above, the concept of problem indicators provides a useful bridge between these types of problems and the larger literature on agenda setting. However, more research is need on the relationship between indicators and agenda setting, especially in the area of preparedness policy.

There is also growing debate regarding the utility of using conceptual “silos” to distinguish between the various policy domains involved in the policymaking process. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center crystallized preparedness as an important policy goal for a number of issue areas. Policymakers in the United States adopted an “all-hazards” approach to risk reduction, which set out to reduce existing vulnerabilities to not only future terrorist attacks but an array of natural and man-made threats (Birkland, 2006). Such hazards include, but are not limited to, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, emerging diseases, and even the dangers associated with emerging technologies (May et al., 2011). Similarly, Boin et al. (2013) document the European Union’s increased emphasis on managing transboundary crisis that “unfold across borders and have widespread consequences” (p. 101). Managing these types of transboundary crises demands horizontal or sector-spanning interventions that encompass actors and agencies from disparate policy domains.

The rise of all-hazards governance raises important questions about agenda setting in natural hazards domains. Scholars tend to narrowly focus on one or two rather specific domains when investigating the agenda setting process. However, an all-hazards approach raises the specter of trans-domain agenda setting or agenda spillovers that come to encompass multiple and often disparate policy domains (Kingdon, 2003). For example, Avery (2004) shows that September 11 helped elevate a number of public health issues, most notably bioterrorism policy, to the top of the congressional agenda. Similarly, the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic prompted China to enact one of the most sweeping reforms of its emergency management system in decades. The Emergency Response Law of the People’s Republic of China restructured national and even local government authority to respond to an array of crises, including public health events, terrorism, natural disasters, technological incidents, and other hazards (Zhe, Chan, Liu, & Yeung, 2016). Scholars are only beginning to scratch the surface in terms of understanding spillover events and trans-domain policymaking. Under what conditions do events create spillovers? And, can events that occurred in one country influence agenda setting in another country? These questions, as well as scores of others, warrant consideration.

Agenda-setting research has also witnessed an uptick in interest in the relationship between the strategic use of political language and policy change. The Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) provides a comprehensive theoretical framework for empirically measuring the impact of language on agenda setting. It argues that political narratives constitute the primary vehicle through which interest groups communicate their policy goals. Shifts in narrative structure are assumed to correspond to changes in interest group belief systems. Agenda setting occurs when new narratives challenging existing policy regimes are accepted, thereby injecting new ideas into the policy process (McBeth, Shanahan, Arnell, & Hathaway, 2007). Aside from Crow et al.’s (2016) recent study, relatively little research has applied NPF to natural hazards and disasters. This omission is striking, given that NPF has emerged as an important theory of agenda setting and policy change. Scholars should fill this void.

Finally, while policy scholars—and indeed political scientists more broadly—have devoted considerable attention to policies aimed at mitigating climate change, far less is known about climate change adaptation, which works to reduce existing vulnerabilities to climate-related hazards. Climate adaptation policies have become increasingly important at the subnational level of government, as many communities are already suffering from increased climate-related hazards. Because adaptation often entails large-scale hazard mitigation programs (e.g., fortifying coastlines, reducing vulnerability to heat waves, flood insurance, etc.), scholars studying disasters and agenda setting are particularly well positioned to contribute to this important issue area. Scholars could begin by considering the flurry of policy activity at the state and local levels of government, including the recent proliferation of state-based climate adaptation plans. And although the United States national government has yet to enact a comprehensive climate change adaptation law, scholars are behooved to consider the ways in which this issue has permeated the regulatory agendas of executive departments and agencies, including the Department of Defense (DoD) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


Natural hazards can serve as focusing events and provide an impetus for agenda setting and even policy change. At the time same, indicators and other measures can suggest the possibility of future threats to human health, the economy, and the environment and induce agenda setting in anticipation of an emergent hazard. But even in the most extreme instances, agenda setting is wrought with pitfalls. Political institutions can only process a finite number of issues at once. Natural hazards are rarely a top priority for busy policymakers. Overcoming this institutional inertia requires political savvy and, in some cases, luck. At a minimum, proponents of policy change need to access favorable venues, communicate persuasive narratives, and cobble together coalitions willing to advocate for government action. Shepherding issues onto the crowded government agenda is never an easy task, but natural hazards magnify these challenges by injecting uncertainty, fear, and scientific complexity into the policy process.

Suggested Readings

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