The IPCC Special Report on Disasters and Adaptation: more than just climate science

Guest post from one time Oxfam research team member Arabella Fraser, who is currently in the Department for International Development, London School of Economics, writing a PhD on climate risk and vulnerability in informal urban settlements. She is also a consultant on climate adaptation and development issues, working most recently on urban adaptation planning in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Arry mugshot

The recent publication of the IPCC’s full SREX report (or Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation) certainly provides researchers and practitioners with a 594 page T-REX of a document to grapple with. The product of 220 authors and over 18 thousand reviewers, it is a ‘state of the science’ juggernaut to fill the gap between the 4th (2007)and 5th (2014) overall IPCC Assessments.

The SREX has already generated much-needed headlines about the increased confidence of climate scientists that extreme weather events can be linked to man-made climate change, and the need for investment and improvement in disaster risk management (some of its authors talk about these main messages here).

It would be a shame, though, if the read-out by the wider climate and development community stopped there. Importantly, what SREX does is shift the terrain of IPCC reports onto a better integration of lessons from the social as well as the physical sciences. This was the first time that the IPCC’s Working Groups One (Physical science) and Two (Vulnerability and adaptation) had worked together on a single document. For the first time they joined forces with experts in disaster risk management. The result draws on a long scholarship in disaster studies that has stressed the unnaturalness of ‘natural’ disasters – climate events only become disasters, after all, when vulnerable people are in the way. One of the key messages is that increased exposure of populations and human assets is driving increased disasters, alongside changes in climatic events (see fig).

SREX petal diagSREX also changes the definition of vulnerability used since the 4th Assessment to make more explicit the role of social context, independent of physical events. The semantic change may be a tweak, but it matters. The IPCC’s definition has been ubiquitous in adaptation planning documents. The way ideas about vulnerability are framed also influences international discussions. It will be interesting to see if and how this affects debates about the scope of adaptation funding and the relationship between adaptation and development finance.

Alongside this ‘shift to the social’ SREX turns attention to all that we know about ‘the local’, which comes before the chapters on national and global issues. The report pulls in studies about the way people understand the risks they face and the importance of engaging with this knowledge. It finds both ‘high agreement’ and ‘robust evidence’ for the fact that integrating local knowledge with scientific knowledge improves disaster risk management and adaptation. Communicating risk means, in SREX, sitting down and sharing knowledge rather than simply telling people that they are at risk and what to do about it.

Where now? Too often social vulnerability analysis has been the exclusive preserve of NGO and community work, falling out of the purview of government planners. The problem is partly one of methods. It is a major challenge to incorporate contextual, multi-dimensional, dynamic and often qualitative analysis about risk and vulnerability into planning and evaluation frameworks that mostly demand numbers and high aggregation. In the context of climate change, SREX highlights the benefits of using human ‘storylines’

'Human story lines': farmers in Bolivia
'Human story lines': farmers in Bolivia

alongside model projections. But what people tell us about how they coped in the past does not necessarily prepare them for an uncertain future, while their ability to cope may also have changed.

No surprise to readers of this blog, bringing what we know about the social and physical worlds together in practice is also a political as well as technical exercise. Not least because it means going beyond risk management policy to seek more structural changes, which get at the fundamental causes of exposure and vulnerability. SREX doesn’t avoid the fact that these causes are often institutional, governmental even. It sets out the evidence for more participation and more decentralisation, but also linking sub-national work better to governance at higher scales. It is hard to imagine a state-ratified report getting much more political than this. At ODI’s event to launch the report summary last year author Mark Pelling alluded to the difficulty of getting even these issues established in the text. Development workers and theorists will have much to add, though, about the workings of power and exploitation in the most vulnerable parts of the world.

Of course, there is more to take from SREX. But that’s my aid to digestion.

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