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Climate change and vulnerability

Climate change and vulnerability

Dr Ilan Kelman explores the link between climate change and vulnerability.

We hear so much these days about climate change, often with suggestions of it inevitably causing more disasters. Science, however, paints a much more nuanced picture of the link between climate change and disasters.

Basic definitions help, in that climate itself cannot be a disaster because a disaster cannot happen without people. Fundamentally, disaster risk is a combination of hazard and vulnerability. In considering climate change, we focus on environmental hazards, such as floods, storms, temperature extremes, wildfires, and droughts.

None of these phenomena represents an unusual environmental process. For example, floods, wildfires, and droughts are part of ecosystems with many species adapted to their regular occurrence. In fact, they are not even necessarily hazardous unless unprepared people and our infrastructure get in the way.

This aspect is vulnerability, referring to the processes by which people could potentially be harmed by the regular environmental phenomena of flood, storm, temperature extremes, wildfires, and drought. People can choose to live in harm’s way, for instance by purchasing a house in the floodplain to enjoy beautiful views of the river without taking adequate measures to reduce flood damage. More often, people are forced into vulnerable situations such as when women might choose not to evacuate because they fear sexual violence in the public storm shelter or their culture does not permit them to be outside without an accompanying man.

Many people in the UK cannot afford to heat their homes during winters or cannot afford fans or air conditioning for summer heat waves. Normal, seasonal weather can kill thousands of people each year due to their vulnerability. Poverty arises for numerous, complex reasons ranging from government ideology to individual choices. Understanding vulnerability and reasons for it is not straightforward, so we research the combination of hazards and vulnerabilities at UCL’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction and UCL’s Institute for Global Health.

The science is clear that vulnerability causes disasters, not hazards. Climate change’s most significant influences are on hazards, not on vulnerabilities. Climate change will make some hazards worse, will reduce potential problems from other hazards, and will have no influence on further sets of hazards. One example is that many storms including tropical cyclones seem to be decreasing in frequency but increasing in intensity due to climate change.

Consequently, climate change by itself cannot cause or increase disasters. There must be vulnerability. Even where climate change makes hazards worse, we can choose to redress vulnerability in order to avert disasters. If poor people were supported for home heating and cooling costs, then in-home temperature deaths could be avoided no matter what climate change does to temperature extremes.

Subsidising poor people for basic living expenses is an ideological choice. In being for or against it, we make an active choice on vulnerability–and on more or fewer people dying in temperature extremes. Climate change does not influence our ideological choices.

So future disasters under climate change have few instances where society lacks choices to stop the hazards from becoming disasters. In the oft-repeated phrase, the future is in our hands.

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Relaunched: January 1st, 2016.

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