If somebody told you that something big was happening, something that can seriously threaten your life and the lives of your family, would you care about it?
Something that may affect:
What you can eat
Where and how you can travel
What you wear and how you dress
How much you have to pay for insurances
The options you will have to educate your children, if you have any
Your odds of dying or having to migrate because of hurricanes, fires, heat waves
The risk of your assets being destroyed because of such events
Your risk of getting malaria, dengue, sika or chikungunya
How much time your kids can play safely outdoors
How frequently you can take a shower, if available
The location of your next vacation
How and where you live
Life as you know it.
Would you care about it?
Right now [January 12th, 2020] the Air Quality Index in Canberra [Australia] shows a PM2.5 reading of 189 which is classed as unhealthy. The reading for New York is 40 and shows a smiley face. There are no smiley faces around here. Instead, many people have face masks and those who do not are staying inside to avoid the eye-stinging smoke. Somehow we feel that things are not bad today. Two weeks ago some parts of Canberra had PM2.5 of well over 4000, putting the national capital at the top of the most polluted cities of the world. This was not a record to be proud of.
The summer holidays in Australia coincide with Christmas and New Years and that means children are off school and parents take the opportunity to take their brood to the seashore and enjoy eating fish and chips on the jetty. Not this year. The hinterlands are ablaze. The Navy has been evacuating families and their pets from ports along the southeast coast of Victoria and tourists attempting to flee the holiday spots have been caught in mammoth traffic jams on winding mountain roads. These are the lucky ones. So far over 28 people have perished in the fires, and thousands of homes have been incinerated. The images are terrifying and friends from across the globe are writing to express dismay and hopes for rain to dampen the spread of conflagrations. Many people are also trying to get their head around the news that over half a billion animals have been killed and several species are thought to have been pushed to the boundaries or perhaps over the precipice of extinction. Australians feel this anxiety deeply and are angry.
The worst thing about this disaster of 2019/20 is the prediction that it is only the beginning of a future of further rises in temperature and regular buildup of crisp fuel loads as grasslands and brush are thrown back into drought.Words from our contributor, Professor Terence Hull, from Canberra, Australia.
Because of climate change, things are happening, even if they aren’t impacting you yet. Some are better prepared than others to face these risks. But the unavoidable truth is that, unless we act now, most people are not even ready to imagine the extent of the impacts of climate change, let alone adapt to them. Our options seem limited and the enjoyment of current lifestyles is at stake. We have seen in Australia the devastating effects of deadly wildfires originated by a combination of very high temperatures, low humidity and rainfall deficiencies, particularly during the past three years.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global technical and political authority in this matter, has concluded that the impact of climate change will be observed through increases in frequency and severity of several weather related hazards, such as hurricanes, storm surges, flooding and landslides, heat weaves, droughts and wildfires. The 2018 IPCC Report Global Warming of 1.5 ºC shows that a continuous increase in temperature that surpasses the 1.5 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial temperature, which is already imminent in the short term, will have irreversible effects. The recent report of McKinsey on Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts, shows that the risk from additional warming can only be avoided by reducing emissions in a way we are able to achieve carbon neutrality. However, the lack of clear commitments from most Governments, particularly the ones in the countries with the highest emissions, indicates that mitigation efforts are not enough and hence, investing in adaptation to climate change is unavoidable and more urgent than ever.
What does adaptation to climate change means? People’s risk of experiencing adverse effects from climate-related hazards depends first on their exposure to these hazards. We know for example that hurricanes only affect some regions on Earth. This means that in many other parts of the Earth people are not exposed to these kinds of climate-related events. With climate change, it is expected that exposure will be greater because of the increase and severity of hazard events and because of population growth in some of the areas most exposed to climate threats. But exposure doesn’t tell us the whole story. The risk to be severely affected depends not only on the exposure, but also on the vulnerability to these events. People, families, and communities can be vulnerable because of their income level, the construction material used in their houses, their education, financial assets, social capital, and their demographic characteristics (e.g. children, women, older people tend to be more vulnerable).
Because demographic characteristics and population dynamics are connected to both exposure and vulnerability to climate change and are, in turn, also impacted by climate change, knowing them, and having data about them is significant. This is why some of my colleagues and I started promoting studies and publishing books in the area of population and climate change, including the demography of adaptation to climate change.
Here are some concrete examples of the links between population and exposure and vulnerability. One of the most important effects of climate change is sea level rise. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States (NOAA) establishes that this happens because of three factors: 1) melting of glaciers and ice sheets; 2) expansion of the oceans as water temperatures increase; and, less important but also contributing, 3) decline in the amount of liquid water on land, mainly due to increasing groundwater pumping. Sea level rise contributes to the increase in coastal flooding and storm surges. Thanks to the work of Gordon McGranahan, from IIED, and Deborah Balk, from the University of the City of New York, among others, it was estimated that the proportion of the current global population living in low-elevation costal zones, less than 10 meters above sea level, is 10 %. That equates to more than 700 million persons. In a report from Scott A. Kulp and Benjamin H. Strauss in the journal Nature Communications, the authors estimated that in a climate change moderate scenario, 150 million people are living now in land that by mid-century will be below the current high tide line. Among the most affected cities in Asia are Dhaka (Bangladesh), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Bangkok (Thailand), Mumbai (India) and Shanghai (China).
When I was in Jakarta several years ago, I visited an area where new, beautiful houses were being built. The sea was only a few meters away and the houses were built in a place below sea level. I asked myself if this was a good investment taking into account that the effects of climate change are here to stay. But people like the coast. An ocean view room in a coastal resort hotel is always more expensive than the pool or city view. In most cases, people live in low elevation coastal areas because cities have been built there. They have no options. That’s why, because of the patterns of population occupation and urbanization, the exposure to sea level rise is expected to increase. This past April, the government of Indonesia announced that over the next 10 years they would shift to a new capital, given Jakarta’s exposure.
Rapid and unplanned urbanization has also been identified as a factor that increases exposure to several hazards, such as heat waves– worse in cities where concrete, asphalt and lack of vegetation concentrate heat significantly – pollution and unplanned settlement on riverbanks and other highly exposed areas. Planned urbanization could be a strategy for climate adaptation as people are more concentrated, and consequently, services can be provided and protective infrastructure built in a more cost-effective way. However, what is happening now in many sub-Saharan countries is far from being a planned urbanization. In fact, cities are growing so fast, that the concept of planning is only a chimera. Let’s take the example of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This city will very soon become part of the club of the 10 most populated cities in the world (more than 20 million people). When I visited it for the first time in 2013, I was surprised by the lack of paved streets (I was also amazed by the warmth of its people). Kinshasa, as many other cities of Africa, is growing very fast. My colleagues at the United Nations Population Division have estimated that the population of this city is now growing at about 4.3% per year. Growing at this rate means that the population will double in 16 years! What can a mayor of a city do knowing that something like a second floor will be built over the current city in just 16 years? Just consider that in the 80’s this city was growing at more than 6% (duplication time 11 years). Kinshasa is only one example of hundreds of cities in a similar situation in Africa and Asia.
Unplanned urbanization means that part of the population living in and arriving to a city will not have paved streets, good roads, transportation, schools, medical facilities, parks, nor access to water, electricity, and other services. Many of the inhabitants will quickly become slum dwellers, the poorest urban inhabitants in developing countries and the most affected by climate change. UN Habitat is working to improve adaptation strategies in urban areas but the challenges are beyond the capacities of UN organizations and city majors. As it happens now in Africa and parts of Asia, urbanization is occurring in a way that creates more vulnerability to climate change, compounding the challenges for adaptation in the poorest countries. This does not mean that people living in rural areas – where agriculture is struggling; livelihoods are limited; services are non-existent; and people live in highly climate sensitive areas – are less vulnerable than those living in cities. The fact is that population living in urban areas will grow much faster than those in rural areas. Just some additional data: Between now and 2050, 800 millions of people will be added to the current population living in cities in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is an enormous challenge for climate change adaptation due to the high vulnerability of this population, weak institutional frameworks and the lack of financial and technological resources in most of these countries.
Vulnerability to climate change is also linked to some demographic characteristics and is sensitive to demographic change. In many developing countries, fertility is still high, and there are many children of different ages in most of the households. As shown in the scientific literature, children and women tend to be more vulnerable to climate hazards. But at the same time, demographic change is transforming the world, with the number and proportion of older people increasing steadily. During Hurricane Katrina, older people were disproportionally affected. It has been found that about 75% of dead bodies found immediately after Katrina were of people over 60. In the 2003 heat wave in Europe, the same phenomenon was observed, older people were more sensitive to the impact of extreme heat and, due to social isolation and poverty, more likely to be severely impacted. Global organizations supporting older adult’s rights, as HelpAge, have emphasized that older people needs and experiences related to disasters and climate change need to be considered and integrated in disaster risk reduction plans.
Knowing how many people are in each household, what the age and sex distribution of the population is and how this is changing over time is essential to better plan for adaptation. This may seem obvious. However, demographic characteristics and population dynamics were not even included in the initial discussions around adaptation. I remember asking some of my former UN colleagues, “where is population in your adaptation equation?” It took some years for the international community to start considering population as an important factor in the adaptation plans and research. Additionally, having updated data on population at a more disaggregated level (as blocks, neighborhoods, even districts, etc.) is not so simple. And, most of the data used now come from old censuses and other obsolete data sources. Countries will be collecting population disaggregated data in the new 2020 round of population census, which is an internationally agreed plan to which countries are in principle committed. However, many countries, including those in Sub-Saharan Africa, are postponing their census due to lack of resources or ongoing conflicts. Additionally, when countries conduct their census they don’t always provide access to disaggregated information with the demographic indicators. This is clearly an area of investment and development: data expansion and increased accessibility.
Climate change has also clear effects on population dynamics. Migration is considered as a response to climate change but also as an adaptation strategy. The world was taken by surprise in 2005 and the media reacted passionately when Prof. Norman Myers from the Green College, Oxford University, U.K, estimated that, when the effects of climate change become more generalized, as many as 200 million people will move due to disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall patterns, severe and longer droughts and by sea level rise and coastal flooding. In the report by Kulp and Strauss mentioned above, the authors conclude that, if their results are consistent, people living in coastal areas around the world must expect a more difficult future than previously predicted. In the case of the United States, this means increasing risks that people living in coastal areas will migrate massively from states more affected to landlocked states, transforming the population landscape across the country.
In 2018 the World Bank published Groundswell : Preparing for Internal Climate Migration, a comprehensive report focused on Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America and co-authored by several known scientists, including my friend and colleague Susana Adamo, a research scientist at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). In this report it was estimated that without climate action, more than 143 million people (almost 3 percent of the population of these three regions) would have to move within their countries to avoid the consequences of hazards events associated with climate change. In developing countries, where people lack options and live with limited resources, the vulnerability is greater, and for that reason, the risk of impoverishment or health deterioration is even greater. The World Health Organization (WHO) has calculated that between 2030 and 2050, approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year are expected because of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress caused by climate change impacts.
We are wired to adapt. This is in our DNA. We are here now on Earth because we have been able to adapt. Yes, it is true that some microorganisms are better than we are at adapting, but we have been here already for more than 50,000 years. Let’s work to ensure our descendants will be able to celebrate the new 50,000 year anniversary. The Netherlands is a good example of adapting to sea level and storm surges through the construction of dikes since the 14th century, and even before. But they had centuries to build these dikes while improving the technology of their construction. A contrasting example is the levies in New Orleans, which were unable to withstand the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina. The challenge with climate change is that countries, particularly the poorest ones, will have less time to deal with all hazard events caused by climate change, and further that the hazards will become unprecedented. It is hard to plan for what we have not yet experienced. Adapting to climate change could mean facing in a very short period of time an extreme disruption that affects many people at the same time. A good example is the effects of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico that destroyed the island’s power grid and the water system and caused about 3,000 deaths. These high intensity impacts could mean losing your assets, your network, and your social capital. But, in the case of long-term events, such as sea level rise, there is the risk of not acting or acting too late. If the effects will not be seen immediately, but in the future, why worry about it? Unfortunately, the future is getting closer.
Many have recommended community-based adaptation as a set of participatory initiatives in which communities are empowered to take their own decisions to adapt to climate change by using their own accumulated knowledge and experiences. Yes, this is good as it incorporates the concept of collective intelligence to solve people’s problems, as defined by the MIT, and more specifically its platform called Climate Plan Accelerator. However, it is insufficient. Adaptation, that is, reducing both exposure and vulnerability, needs resources, particularly from those countries who contributed the most to emissions. It requires technological innovation, people’s involvement and active participation at all levels and from a variety of actors. Moreover, it requires that we all be aware that changes are needed, that climate change is real and that, no matter what we think about it, we all will have to adapt. Hopefully we will be willing to contribute to mitigating and adapting by changing our attitudes, behaviors and consumption styles. Adapting and building resilience means that we need to be more intelligent and have the audacity to make the right decisions. Taking action on climate change adaptation should be a no-brainer.
 These colleagues include Daniel Schensul (contributor to this blog) and George Martine, both from UNFPA; Gordon MacGranahan, Cecilia Tacoli and others from IIED; Silvia Giorgulli (blog contributor) and Landy Sanchez, both from El Colegio de Mexico.
Any views or opinions presented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and they do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the contributors of this blog nor of any institutions, firms or organizations in which the author currently works or have worked in the past. All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only.