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Climate Change’s Role in Disaster Risk Reduction’s Future: Beyond Vulnerability and Resilience

This article uses vulnerability and resilience to explore the intersections and overlaps amongst climate change, disaster risk reduction, and sustainability.


A seminal policy year for development and sustainability occurs in 2015 due to three parallel processes that seek long-term agreements for climate change, the Sustainable Development Goals, and disaster risk reduction. Little reason exists to separate them, since all three examine and aim to deal with many similar processes, including vulnerability and resilience. This article (download here or from right-hand column) uses vulnerability and resilience to explore the intersections and overlaps amongst climate change, disaster risk reduction, and sustainability.

Climate change is one contributor to disaster risk and one creeping environmental change amongst many, and not necessarily the most prominent or fundamental contributor. Yet climate change has become politically important, yielding an opportunity to highlight and tackle the deep-rooted vulnerability processes that cause ‘‘multiple exposure’’ to multiple threats. To enhance resilience processes that deal with the challenges, a prudent place for climate change would be as a subset within disaster risk reduction. Climate change adaptation therefore becomes one of many processes within disaster risk reduction. In turn, disaster risk reduction should sit within development and sustainability to avoid isolation from topics wider than disaster risk. Integration of the topics in this way moves beyond expressions of vulnerability and resilience towards a vision of disaster risk reduction’s future that ends tribalism and separation in order to work together to achieve common goals for humanity.

Below is an abridged version of this article, which was published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Science in March 2015 (Volume 6, Issue 1, pp 21-27).

Common Goals and Interests: Beyond ‘‘Normal’’

2015 will see three parallel but interacting United Nations processes: (1) seeking a long-term agreement on dealing with greenhouse gases and climate change impacts; (2) aiming for the finalization and adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals; and (3) striving to develop a successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action as a global disaster risk reduction plan.

Why three separate these processes? They all have common themes, use common approaches, and deal with common terms, including the examples of ‘‘vulnerability’’ and ‘‘resilience.’’ 2015 is an opportunity to bring them together and to learn from each other in order to improve society and build a better future.

In many conceptualizations of ‘‘resilience’’ the core idea is to return to ‘‘normal’’ or, after a disaster, to return to the pre-disaster state. Yet returning to normal means returning to poor development, poverty, vulnerability, and disaster, not building a better future. Rather than ‘‘bouncing back,’’ resilience and sustainability could instead be demonstrated through a society ‘‘bouncing forward’’ (Manyena et al. 2011), one that can ‘‘Build Back Better’’ (Kennedy et al. 2008).

The three 2015 processes provide an opportunity to use vulnerability and resilience concepts that would break out of the trajectories leading to disasters and sustainability difficulties. Applying long-term, deeper perspectives seeks a ‘‘normal’’ in which hazard effects, including those from climate change, are less detrimental and more advantageous for society. Part of this strategy entails deepening our approach to vulnerability and resilience in order to step beyond standard approaches that have proven counterproductive to the common 2015 goals.

Deepening Our Approach to Vulnerability and Resilience

To facilitate improvement and integration, five points are suggested here because they embrace wider and deeper meanings that ensure a robust future for disaster risk reduction (presented a priori):

(1) Vulnerability and resilience are dominated by quantitative approaches, even though they are also qualitative. Not all aspects of vulnerability and resilience can be demonstrated by calculation or quantification, even where these actions assist with some aspects. Qualitative characteristics are shown by the value of intangible items, including photographs and archaeological sites, in understanding how people and communities avoid, react to, and recover from disasters (Parker et al. 2007).

(2) Vulnerability and resilience are presented as being objective, when subjectivity is more realistic. For example, Russia has been saved at least three times from invading armies when the harsh winter weather, coupled with poor strategic military decisions by the invader and solid tactics from the Russians, contributed to the invaders’ defeat. In such cases, one side in a military conflict saw weather damage as vulnerability, while the other saw it as resilience. The perspective depended on to whom the damage was being done. A parallel interpretation is that the environmental phenomena itself can be a hazard or a resource/opportunity, depending on one’s perspective. If it is viewed as a hazard, then vulnerability is emphasized. Conversely, if it is viewed as a resource or opportunity, then resilience is emphasized. In this way, environmental phenomena can be intertwined with the interpretation conferred on it by society.

(3) Vulnerability and resilience are assumed to have absolute metrics, but proportional approaches are important too. Lewis (1979, 1999), amongst others, provides an alternative to the frequent focus on presenting absolute numbers to describe vulnerability and resilience. He describes why proportional impact, indicative of proportional vulnerability, provides important information for development activities. For instance, islands have small populations relative to cities. Even if 100 % of an island country’s population is affected by a poor water supply or by a cyclone, that situation is unlikely to match the numbers of people who would be affected in a megacity with only 1 % of the population affected. Yet 100 % of a population affected can be much worse than 1 % of a population affected. Absolute and proportional metrics provide different characteristics of vulnerability and resilience, so both are needed.

(4) Vulnerability and resilience are assumed to be non-contextual, when contextuality or localization tends to be more realistic. Often, a method for quantifying objective vulnerability or resilience is assumed to be transferable to other contexts. That assumption might not be appropriate. Vulnerability and resilience might be predominantly Western constructs that makes their understanding and application highly contextual (see also Bankoff 2001; Baldacchino 2004). In fact, some languages do not have words for ‘‘vulnerability’’ or ‘‘resilience’’ and the concepts can be difficult to explain within those cultural contexts.

(5) Vulnerability and resilience are often presented as being the current state, whereas examining a long-term process with a past and future is needed. Vulnerability and resilience are not only about the present state, but are also about what society has done to itself (and especially what some sectors have done to other sectors) over the long-term; why and how society has taken that set of actions in order to reach the present state; and how society might change the present state to improve in the future (see also Lewis 1999; Bankoff 2001; Garcia-Acosta 2004; Wisner et al. 2004, 2012).

These five points show how varying perspectives and wider contexts would contribute to fully accounting for development’s long-standing contributions to vulnerability and resilience studies.

The Role of Climate Change

An ongoing challenge is framing climate change in research, policy, and practice to try to avoid the difficulties resulting from narrow views of vulnerability and resilience or too much focus on a single phenomenon such as climate change.

Rather than keeping climate change as a separate or dominating topic, the proposal from a development perspective is to enact the ‘‘multiple exposure’’ perspective by viewing climate change as one challenge amongst many (Gaillard 2010; Mercer 2010). The subset within development work that is best suited for placing climate change adaptation in perspective and context is disaster risk reduction (Shaw et al. 2010a, 2010b). This can be elaborated through three main points:

(1) Climate change is one contributor to disaster risk amongst many. Climate change should not be ignored but neither does it necessarily dominate other contributors. Those contributors include, but are not limited to, non- climate-related environmental phenomena (for example, earthquakes and volcanoes), inequities, injustices, social oppression, discrimination, poor wealth distribution, and a value system that permits exploitation of environmental resources irrespective of the long-term consequences.

Climate change drives both hazards and vulnerabilities. For instance, a hotter atmosphere can hold more water vapor leading to increased precipitation. When and where that moisture is released can augment the intensities of floods and blizzards as they occur. Climate change drives vulnerabilities by changing local environmental conditions so rapidly that local environmental knowledge cannot keep pace with and is less applicable to, for example, local food resources. Whether climate change is a more significant or a less significant contributor than other factors—such as relying on structural approaches for floods or increasing the social oppression that creates and perpetuates food-related vulnerabilities—depends on the specific context.

(2) Climate change is one ‘‘creeping environmental change’’ amongst many-an incremental change in conditions that will cumulate to create a major problem, apparent or recognized only after a threshold has been crossed (Glantz 1994a, 1994b). Other creeping environmental changes not linked to contemporary anthropogenic climate change include soil erosion due to intensive farming, salinization of freshwater supplies due to excessive draw- down, and slow subsidence of land due to water or fossil fuel pumping (Glantz 1994a, 1994b; Wisner et al. 2012). Development work has long dealt with such topics and climate change can readily be integrated into this set of development concerns.

(3) The reality is that climate change has become politically important, within and outside of development. That should provide an opportunity, not to focus exclusively on climate change, but rather to raise the points made in this article in order to engage interest in more comprehensive development processes. Little point exists in building a new school with natural ventilation techniques that save energy and that cope with higher average temperatures, if that school will collapse in the next moderate, shallow earthquake. Similarly, if a hospital is renovated with water-resistant materials and finishes for climate change adaptation due to the projected expansion of the floodplain, but is put out of action by toxic contaminants in the floodwater, then little has been achieved.

Climate change is one topic amongst many and should be dealt with in wider contexts. Since climate change drives hazards and vulnerabilities and since disaster risk reduction efforts provide more comprehensive views of vulnerability and resilience, a prudent place for climate change would be placement within disaster risk reduction. Climate change adaptation therefore becomes one of many processes within disaster risk reduction.

Moving Beyond Climate Change, Vulnerability, and Resilience

By placing climate change within disaster risk reduction, while using the prominence of climate change to promote and achieve wider development agendas, a long-term perspective is supported in which related research better serves policy and practice—and vice versa.

Although the role of climate change is to be positioned within disaster risk reduction, disaster risk reduction’s future is to be a subset of wider development and sustainability processes. Having three separate streams for international negotiations duplicates efforts and disperses energy. But given this situation, bringing them all together would be challenging; for instance, the climate change negotiations seek a legally binding accord ratified by world parliaments while the disaster risk reduction process and the Sustainable Development Goals aim for voluntary agreements. None of the three has yet articulated a verifiable monitoring and enforcement mechanism, although that could potentially develop. With effort and will, these practical difficulties could be overcome, although territorialism and vested interests are likely to preclude such action.

The theoretical strength of climate change sitting within disaster risk reduction, which in turn sits within development and sustainability, can lead to positive policy and practice outcomes. This approach would represent a vision for disaster risk reduction’s future, ending tribalism and separation in order to work together to achieve common goals. Although the prospect of this integrated approach occurring seems unlikely, not despite but because of the three 2015 processes and their long histories, the momentum of three independent but overlapping institutional paths should not stop us from doing our best to bring all areas together in order to save humanity from itself.

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