Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research



  Achieving sustainable social and economic development both in developing and developed countries is harder under conditions of climate change than under conditions of climate stability. The aims of the UK Department for International Development (DFID), as set out in the International Development Targets which seek to reduce poverty, are all likely to be affected to some degree by the impacts associated with climate change at global and local scales. International assessments such as the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have begun to address the development, sustainability and equity aspects of climate change. The underlying vulnerability of populations to climate change is determined by social, institutional and economic factors coupled with their sensitivity to climate change impacts. There are invariably opportunities for adaptation to climate change, but these must be facilitated within the wider development and social context.

  The UK government is committed both to realising the goals of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change through the Kyoto Protocol and to contribute to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. The Third Assessment Report of the IPCC states that the global average temperature is likely to rise above the 1990 level by between 1.4 and 5.8ºC by 2100. Some of this warming has already been experienced, although the associated impacts remain difficult to identify with certainty given the confounding factors of natural climate variability and social change. The longer-term impacts of climate change, however, will include shifting supply and access to key resources. These changes will constitute major challenges to the sustainable achievement of the human development and environmental aspects of the international development targets. Efforts around the nascent Climate Adaptation Fund of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are increasingly focussing on seeking sustainable adaptation strategies in combination with reducing overall emissions trajectories.

  The impacts of future climate change will be clearly socially differentiated impacting on the poorest countries in the world and potentially threatening development efforts. The Committee has already recognised in its initial questions the potential impacts on least developed countries. The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that small island nations, particularly the low-lying atoll nations, are particularly at risk, while large numbers of people reliant on weather-sensitive resources for their livelihoods, from monsoonal Asia to dryland Africa are also likely to be negatively affected. The impacts of future change will be felt on resource-dependent communities and in a multitude of primary and secondary effects cascading through natural and social systems. Here we address four key issues: vulnerability and adaptation, the impact of climate change on inequality, factors that increase vulnerability, and strategies for adaptation. These are key issues in the formulation of sustainable development strategies. We conclude with a number of recommendations.


  People's vulnerability to (ie their capacity to be harmed by) climate change depends not only on the likely responses of the systems on which they depend, but also on the ability of people and systems to adapt to change. The vulnerability of a system to climate change is determined by (i) the likelihood of occurrence of an unusual climatic event (climatic exposure), (ii) the physical setting of the system (physical exposure or sensitivity) and (iii) the ability of the system to adapt to change (adaptive capacity). A system may be a local community, a particular economic group or industry, an agricultural system, a transport network, or a whole society or country. An unusual climatic event may be a storm, a drought, or a long-term change to a new climatic regime. Sensitivity will be high where the system in question includes, for example, settlements built on flood plains, hill slopes or low-lying coastal areas. Adaptation may take the form of reducing dependence on vulnerable systems (for example diversifying food production away from a limited number of drought-prone crops), of decreasing sensitivity (by avoiding building settlements and infrastructure in high-risk locations), or by strengthening existing systems so that they are less likely to be damaged by unusual events (such as building houses on stilts or improving drainage in flood-prone areas).

  Given the uncertainty inherent in climate change scenarios, it is difficult to quantify future exposures, although exposure is likely to increase for developing countries, as discussed in the next section. However, sensitivity and adaptive capacity as defined here are not dependent on climate. They may be measured using contemporary and historical data and interventions may be made in order to decrease sensitivity and increase adaptive capacity. The Tyndall Centre is currently funding a project whose aim is to develop indicators of vulnerability, sensitivity and adaptive capacity, using socio-economic and geographical data, and data relating to natural disasters and their consequences over the twentieth century. This research demonstrates that different geographic and socio-economic factors cause vulnerability to current climate variability to vary greatly between countries. A country (or system at a sub-national scale) that is vulnerable to current climate variability will also be vulnerable to the impacts of future climate change. Priorities for adaptation may therefore be identified by examining the distribution of high-impact natural disasters in the recent past—the worst affected countries will be those that will benefit most from carefully targeted adaptation measures that are implemented within the framework of sustainable development programmes.


  Developing countries are situated predominantly in tropical and sub-tropical regions. They are therefore particularly exposed to climatic hazards such as droughts and floods, which occur as a consequence of high rainfall variability (both phenomena) and the development of tropical storms (floods). The IPCC[21] reports that future increases in sea-level and temperature are likely to increase the mean and peak precipitation intensities associated with tropical storms, increasing vulnerability to flooding and landslides, such as caused the large loss of life associated with Hurricane Mitch in Central America, particularly in Honduras and Nicaragua, in 1998. Increasing populations in economically productive coastal zones (due to birth rates and migration) will also increase national vulnerability to tropical storms via increased potential mortality and damage to physical infrastructure. Economic damage from such events is considerable, often running into billions of dollars.

  The IPCC also reports that, while mean rainfall is likely to increase over many areas in the mid and high latitudes of the northern hemisphere, the frequency of extreme rainfall events is likely to increase everywhere, as will rainfall variability. Increased rainfall variability will increase the risk of drought in semi-arid regions such as the African Sahel, and more frequent extreme rainfall events will increase the likelihood of crop damage and flash floods. Increased isolated heavy rainfall events are also likely to increase the rapidity and severity of soil erosion, which may in turn increase dust storm activity, a serious health hazard in arid and semi-arid zones.

  It is therefore highly likely that the adverse impacts of climate change will be felt disproportionately by developing nations situated in the tropics and subtropics, particularly those already vulnerable to drought, soil erosion, sea-level rise and tropical storm damage. Within these countries, the poor will be the worst affected, due to poor housing situated in the most exposed locations (for example on unstable hillsides), and a lack of capital with which to purchase foodstuffs in times of scarcity. Poverty is also associated with a lack of access to healthcare, and with a lack of coping capacity generally. Climate change thus has a very real potential to increase inequality both between and within nations, as the poorest nations and communities suffer the greatest adverse impacts on mortality, health, infrastructure and economic well-being. These impacts are likely to have negative effects on social, political and economic stability, making the countries affected less attractive for foreign investment and therefore inhibiting economic growth as conventionally measured, increasing the gap between rich and poor nations. Perhaps more importantly, increased exposure will jeopardise sustainable benefits from development investment unless such investment includes adaptation measures designed to enhance the coping capacity of developing countries.


  Ongoing research at the Tyndall Centre is attempting to identify how social groups and sectors of the economy are vulnerable to climate change. In South East Asia, for example, previous work by UEA researchers funded by the ESRC[22] showed that vulnerability within localities is determined by levels of poverty and the distribution both of wealth and income, but also the distribution of power within communities. Vulnerability, therefore, is mediated by institutions of governance. In the field of impacts of natural hazards and disaster relief it has long been known that catastrophic events typically reinforce underlying inequalities. Our research in Vietnam and elsewhere has demonstrated that vulnerability to long-term change fits the same pattern—there will be winners and losers from climate change but the losers are likely to be those already marginalized.

  This research also demonstrated how governance issues are key in preventing maladaptation, and that there is potential for institutional change to increase and exacerbate vulnerability. Economic liberalisation and the negative impacts of economic globalisation can undermine social mechanisms for coping with climate change and climate variability. This has been shown through careful empirical work in developing countries faced with present day weather extremes that are likely to be exposed to significant impacts of climate change. Furthermore, trajectories of economic development vary between countries, and a development model that is appropriate in one case may be inappropriate in another. For example, an emphasis on urban industrialisation and export-driven agriculture is unlikely to solve problems of rural poverty, and may well exacerbate them, particularly in countries that have a large rural population of subsistence farmers. Work supported by DFID, ODI and ESRC[23] shows that a shift from cash crops to food crops and from artificial fertiliser to animal manure, and an emphasis on diversity in both crop types and income sources, has facilitated sustainable agricultural development in marginal regions of Africa and reduced vulnerability to drought and famine. Strategies such as these are far more appropriate to sustainable development in Africa than programmes that aim to increase economic productivity per capita, which generally exhibit an urban bias and further marginalise the rural poor.


  Adaptation to climate change is not a costless exercise and investment in adaptation strategies will also inevitably result in winners and losers. In addition, the nature of uncertainty concerning the scope and magnitude of climate changes suggests that some adaptation strategies may turn out to be redundant, or in the worst scenarios, may actually be offset by maladaptation in other policies and sectors.

  Thus international development assistance appropriately targeted which brings about sustainable development can enhance adaptive capacity in the face of climate change. Policy recommendations on enhancing resilience and alleviating vulnerability should be targeted more carefully at particular groups and sectors, rather than simply stating that one country or region is relatively more vulnerable than others. The key problem is the identification of adaptation options that minimise the impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable parts of society. Planned adaptation at the international scale could, for example, include collective investment in plant-breeding research for agriculture, early warning systems for food security, development of transferable infrastructure technologies for coastal defence, underwriting of particular insurance markets and other potential investments. These areas potentially could be supported by DFID and other donor agencies where they coincide with the objectives of the International Development Targets. But the range of planned adaptation investment for individual countries is more limited and specific to the geographical and development circumstances. Planned adaptation in general forms only a part of overall coping. Spontaneous reactive adjustments in resource use and livelihood will be required by communities whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly weather-dependent.

  This adaptation must be facilitated through governance structures that enhance adaptive capacity, and again are geographically and culturally specific to different countries and regions. A key aspect of adaptation is that it is highly context specific and in order to have sufficient ownership from a broad array of stakeholders it needs to be carried out in a process-oriented multi-stakeholder dialogue mode at national and regional levels.

  The ability to adapt should be enhanced through international development assistance. But this does not mean that resource-dependent communities are victims of climate change—people have adapted to climatic changes throughout human history and will continue to do so. Assessments of the future impacts of climate change often utilise modelling of alternative future scenarios to quantify impacts and risks and project that millions of people may be in danger because of climate change.[24] Such approaches give important insights into the scale of the question. But research at the Tyndall Centre has also shown that many aspects of adaptive capacity are, in effect, latent in the networks and information of those likely to be affected. Evidence on adaptation strategies adopted by farming, fishing and other communities throughout the developing world suggests, though this has yet to be tested, that some groups within society may be less at risk than modelling studies portray because of this latent ability to cope in times of stress.

  Migration, for example, is a coping mechanism used throughout history by societies as part of their resource utilisation strategies and as a means of coping with climate variability. Indeed migration, including to urban centres, continues to play an important role in livelihood resilience to the present day in many parts of the developing world. There is a high degree of certainty that areas of the present day developing world will face greater incidence of extreme weather events in the future. If desirable migration is not available to those affected, it may ultimately increase the necessity of displacement migration, typically undertaken as a last resort when other coping strategies are exhausted.

  There is emerging evidence from Brazil[25], Vietnam[26] and the small island developing nations that new migrants even to frontier areas build up knowledge of the local environments to promote sustainable utilisation of resources. Migration would appear to be a feasible climate adaptation strategy in particular circumstances and particularly for small island nations, which, regardless of past or future vulnerability, will be particularly vulnerable to inundation due to sea-level rise; some of these states may disappear altogether by the end of the twenty first century.[27] But the right to migration, particularly international migration at a time when there are increasing inequities in international labour flow practice[28], is likely to be increasingly contested.

  So when faced with significant changes in climate regimes and weather extremes in the future, different societies will clearly adopt radically different strategies. Their ability to make a sustainable transition will be determined in part by their underlying vulnerability and in part by governance issues. Thus vulnerability to climate change cannot be divorced from the wider sustainable development questions. Climate change gives greater urgency for the international development community to tackle these issues head on.


  The Tyndall Centre makes the following conclusions and recommendations regarding strategies on climate change and sustainable development:

  1.  Vulnerability to climate change should be assessed on the basis of recent vulnerability to extreme weather- and climate-related events.

  2.  Small island states with large amounts of land close to sea-level are particularly vulnerable regardless of historical vulnerability, as they may be literally inundated as sea-levels rise.

  3.  Low-lying small island states and countries with high levels of poverty and high mortality rates from natural disasters are priorities for adaptation funding.

  4.  New adaptation funds must be supplemental to current development investment, and not a substitute for it.

  5.  Adaptation measures should include planning, forecasting, and institution building. The international community must recognise the right of people to migrate where climate change is likely to make their livelihoods untenable.

  6.  Planned adaptation measures must take careful account of local realities, and care must be taken to avoid maladaptive practices and practices that inhibit autonomous adaptation.

  7.  Conflicts between economic liberalisation and sustainable development should be identified and efforts should be made to ensure that economic globalisation does not have maladaptive consequences for developing countries.

Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

January 2002

21   Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2001) Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, WMO/UNEP. Back

22   Adger, W N, Kelly, P M and Ninh, N H (eds) (2001) Living with Environmental Change: Social Vulnerability, Adaptation and Resilience in Vietnam. Routledge: London. Back

23   Mortimore, M and Tiffin, M (2001) Livelihood Transformations in Semi-arid Africa 1960-2000, proceedings of a workshop arranged by the ODI with Drylands Research and the ESRC, in the series "Transformations in African agriculture", Drylands Research, pp 26. Back

24   Parry, M, Arnell, N, McMichael, T, Nicholls, R J, Martens, P, Kovats, S, Livermore, M, Rosenzweig, C, Aglesias, A and Fischer, G (2001) Millions at risk: defining critical climate change threats and targets. Global Environmental Change 11, 181-183. Back

25   Muchagata, M and Brown, K (2000) Colonist farmers' perceptions of fertility and the frontier environment in eastern Amazonia. Agriculture and Human Values 17, 371-384. Back

26   Adger, W N, Kelly, P M, Locke, C, Winkels, A and Huy, L Q (2002) Migration, remittances, livelihood trajectories and social resilience. Ambio 31, in press. Back

27   This is also the case for the British Overseas Territories. See the work for DFID by Natural Resource Institute and Tyndall Centre researchers-Sear, C, Hulme, M, Adger, W N and Brown, K (2001) The Impacts of Global Climate Change on selected Overseas Territories. Report to DFID Overseas Territories Unit. Natural Resources Institute and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia. pp 101. Back

28   O'Neill, B C, MacKellar, F L and Lutz, W (2001) Population and Climate Change. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. Back

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