Skip to content

Climate shocks: Risk and vulnerability in an unequal world

maggio 18, 2011

Climate shocks:

Risk and vulnerability in an unequal world

Earth’s climate is in constant evolution. Its composition, temperature and self-purifying capacity have been constantly changing since the making of our planet. This natural energy balance has been upset more strongly since our society development system has been strongly powered by fossil carbon oxides.

Compared to the human history, the last two centuries represent the blink of an eye. In that “flash”, humans, especially western, have experienced a deep transformation, the Industrial Revolution[1]. They developed a society based on a new way of producing goods, work’s system, social relation and they became an important actor that influencing climate’s balance.

This role has two important aspects:

1- active, humans are still continuing to influence the climate by using fossil resources as a basic standards of economic growth and development to guarantee their “wellbeing”;

2- passive, humans are paying important costs in terms of humans capabilities and lives for this mutation.

Climate change is now a scientifically established fact. If we look it as a puzzle, and we put together the natural factors such as increased solar radiation and reduced volcanic activity, a hole remains. The anthropogenic factors as greenhouse gas and aerosol emission complete the picture. This “anthropogenic  upheaval” increase frequency and intensity of weather-related extremes, and gradual changes in the average temperature will exacerbate these impacts.

If we imagine an ideal world like a single country, where all the citizens enjoy similar income levels and all are exposed  more or less to the same effects of climate change, “the threat of global warming could still lead to substantial damage to human wellbeing and prosperity by the end of this century”. But, in reality, the world is a heterogeneous place: climate change affects regions very differently and people have unequal incomes and wealth.

Climatic shocks bring near-term human insecurity and destroy long-term efforts aimed at raising productivity, improving health and developing education, eroding human capabilities, perpetuating the low human development traps that will be illustrated in this paper.

Climate shocks and low human development traps


Climate change is creating systemic conditions for more extreme weather events. The 2007 IPCC Report predicts that greenhouse gases and aerosols will alter the energy balance of the climate system and over the next two decades it is projected that there will be a warming of 0.2 C[2]. Climate changes are expected to have unprecedented effects on people worldwide, particularly through the increase in natural disasters[3]. The scale of the potential human development reversals that climate change will bring has been heavily underestimated. The reported data captures fail to expose the imminent risks faced by the poor and expose only the tip of the iceberg. Many local climate disasters go unreported or underreported, and many more do not figure at all, because they do not meet the criteria for a humanitarian disaster. For example, “during 2000 and 2004 these events affect the 98 percent of people that are living in developing countries and the economic impacts are skewed towards rich countries”. In the OECD countries one in 1,500 people was affected by climate disaster. The comparable figure for developing countries is one in 19 a risk differential of 79.

Whereas the rich can cope with weather shocks trough private insurance, by selling off assets as property or by drawing on their savings, the poor face a different set of choices. They may have no alternative to cut nutrition, withdraw children from school, or sell the productive assets on which their recovery depends. Climate related risks force people into trade-offs that limit substantive freedom and erode choice. This can constitute a one way trip into low human development traps, that undermine opportunities.

As Amartya Sen has written: “The enhancement of human capabilities also tends to go with an expansion of productivities and earning power”[4]. The erosion of human capabilities has the opposite effect.

Risks and Vulnerability


Climate generates a distinctive set of risks. Many countries have large and highly vulnerable populations that will face a steep increase in climate related risks, with people living in coastal areas, river deltas, urban slums and drought-prone regions facing immediate threats.

Any increase to climate-related risk exposure has to be assessed against the backdrop of current exposure. That backdrop includes the following numbers of people facing climate-related hazards[5]:

• 344 million exposed to tropical cyclones;

• 521 million exposed to floods;

• 130 million exposed to droughts;

• 2.3 million exposed to landslides.

Climate change is only one of the forces that will influence the profile of risk exposure in the decades ahead. The combination of increasing climate hazards and declining resilience is likely to prove a lethal mix for human development.

All the shocks events have the potential to disrupt the people’s lives, leading to losses of income, assets and opportunities. Vulnerability is an indication of people’s exposure to external risks, shocks and stresses and their ability to cope with, and recover from, the resulting impacts.

The processes by which risk is converted into vulnerability in any country are shaped by the underlying state of human development, including the inequalities in income, marginalization of poor into the policy making process, and strategies for coping these events. Convert risk into vulnerability depends on different facts that create a predisposition:

–       High concentrations of poverty among populations exposed to climate risk are a source of vulnerability. People in the low human development category of the Human Development Index (HDI), even small increases in climate risk can lead to mass vulnerability;

–       Inequalities (GINI Index) within countries are another marker for vulnerability to climate shocks: “countries with high levels of income inequality experience the effects of climate disasters more profoundly than more equal societies”[6];

–       Infrastructural disparities help to explain why similar climate impacts produce very different outcomes.

–       Insurance can play an important role in enabling people to manage climate risks without having to reduce consumption or run down their assets. Private markets and public policy can play a role.


Gender inequalities intersect with climate risks and vulnerabilities. Women’s historic disadvantages -their limited access to resources, restricted rights, and a muted voice in shaping decisions- make them highly vulnerable to climate change. The devastating cyclone and flood during 1991 in Bangladesh it’s an example. The death rate was reportedly five times higher among women. In the aftermath of a disaster, restrictions on the legal rights and entitlements of women to land and property can limit access to credit needed for recovery[7].

Vulnerability of the poor people is increasing due to a number of trends, including increasing HIV/AIDS, conflict and pressures associated with globalisation.

Vulnerability analysis, feeding into poverty reduction strategies and other

macro-economic planning tools, needs to take the level and type of impacts of climate variability into account. Additionally, any action taken to reduce specific impacts of climate variability needs to be designed and undertaken with an understanding of the overall vulnerability context, not forgetting the special needs of vulnerable groups such as women, children and the elderly. Vulnerability assessments should be combined with hazard information to assess the level of risk to communities. This hazard information can be obtained from seasonal weather forecasts and longer-term climate predictions.

A solution: support the poor’s response-capability by reinforcing their assets.

– Social capital: supporting social networks that provide safety nets;

– Natural capital: protecting the resilience of natural systems to support livelihoods of the poor;

– Physical capital: assisting the poor to make their physical capital more climate-resilient;

– Human capital: supporting the flow of climate information to the poor;

– Financial capital: supporting the poor to reduce and spread their financial risks.

There are a number of tools that can help to achieve these aims including disaster preparedness and social protection. It will also be necessary to incorporate vulnerability reduction into wider policies and programmes.

Of particular importance will be the empowerment of communities to take collective action to prepare for, cope with and recover from shocks and stresses and to improve information on impending shocks and stresses.

Their design requires a clear understanding of the vulnerability context for all groups, which should by its nature take climate variability into account. There may also be an increasing role for financial insurance mechanisms in assisting the poor to spread and reduce their risks. Incorporate vulnerability reduction into wider policies by:

1-      Improving the flexibility and responsiveness of food security mechanisms to climate shocks, e.g. food intervention systems;

2-      Improving the resilience of the poor’s health and the health care system;

3-      Ensuring macroeconomic policies reduce poor people’s vulnerability;

4-      Protecting natural resources in poor people’s livelihood and coping strategies.

High levels of poverty and low levels of human development limit the capacity of poor households to manage climate risks. Strategies for coping with climate risks can reinforce deprivation. Using micro level household data examined some of the long-term impacts of climate-shocks in the lives of the poor. In Ethiopia and Kenya, two of the world’s most drought–prone countries, children aged five or less are respectively 36 and 50 percent more likely to be malnourished if they were born during a drought. For Ethiopia, that translates into some 2 million additional malnourished children in 2005. In Niger, children aged two or less born in a drought year were 72 percent more likely to be stunted. And Indian women born during a flood in the 1970s were 19 percent less likely to have attended primary school.

The long-run damage to human development generated through climate shocks is insufficiently appreciated. Media reporting of climate – related disasters often plays an important role in informing opinion – and in capturing the human suffering that comes with climate shocks. However, it also gives rise to a perception that these are ‘here-today-gone-tomorrow’ experiences, diverting attention from the long-run human consequences of droughts and floods.

Looking ahead – old problems and new climate change risks


Climate change will not announce itself as an apocalyptic event in the lives of the poor. Direct attribution of any specific event to climate change will remain impossible. However, while specific events are uncertain, changes in average conditions associated with climate change can be reported as five key transmission mechanisms through which climate change could stall and then reverse human development.

Agricultural production and food security. For example, drought affected areas in sub-Saharan Africa could expand by 60–90 million hectares, with dry land zones suffering losses of US$26 billion by 2060 (2003 prices), a figure in excess of bilateral aid to the region. Other developing regions will also experience losses in agricultural production – including Latin America and South Asia -, undermining efforts to cut rural poverty. “The additional number affected by malnutrition could rise to 600 million by 2080”.

Water stress and water scarcity. Changed run-off patterns and glacial melt will add to ecological stress, compromising the water lifeblood of a vast ecological and agricultural system and human settlements in the process. The Antarctic glacier, the biggest water bank, by accelerating its disintegration could multiply the ceiling predicted by the IPCC by a factor of five times.

Rising sea levels and exposure to climate disasters. Sea levels could rise rapidly with accelerated ice sheet disintegration. Global temperature increases of 3-4°C could result in 330 million people being permanently or temporarily displaced through flooding. Over 70 million people in Bangladesh, 6 million in Lower Egypt and 22 million in Vietnam could be affected. Small island states in the Caribbean and Pacific could suffer catastrophic damage. Warming seas will also fuel more intense tropical storms. With over 344 million people currently exposed to tropical cyclones, more intensive storms could have devastating consequences for a large group of countries. The 1 billion people currently living in urban slums on fragile hillsides or flood prone river banks face acute vulnerabilities.

Ecosystems and biodiversity. Losses of both of them are intrinsically bad for human development. The poor, who depend most heavily on these services, will bear the brunt of the costs. In general, climate change is already transforming ecological systems with irreversible repercussions for current and for future generations from all over the world.

Human health and extreme weather events. Climate will interact with human health in different ways. Rich countries are already preparing public health systems to deal with future climate shocks, such as the 2003 European heat wave and more extreme summer and winter conditions. However, hill-health is one of the most powerful forces holding back the human development potential of poor households. Climate change will intensify the problem of the major killer disease, because of high levels of poverty and the limited capacity of public health systems to respond. For example climate change will affect rainfall, temperature and humidity, three variables that most influence transmissions of Malaria, an additional 220–400 million people could be exposed to malaria – especially in Africa – a disease that already claims around 1 million lives annually. Dengue fever is already in evidence at higher levels of elevation than has previously been the case, especially in Latin America and parts of East Asia.

None of these five separate drivers will operate in isolation. They will interact with wider social, economic and ecological processes that shape opportunities for human development.

Inevitably, the precise mix of transmission mechanisms from climate change to human development will vary across and within countries. Large areas of uncertainty remain. What is certain is that, the distributional challenges is made particularly difficult because those who have largely caused the problem – the rich countries – are not going to be those who suffer the most in the short term. The starting point for action is the recognition that rich countries themselves curry much of the historic responsibility for the climate change now facing the developing world. In contrast to economic shocks that affect growth or inflation, many of the human development impacts – lost opportunities for health and education, diminished productive potential, loss of vital ecological systems – are likely irreversible in the foreseeable future. We know it is growing with every day of inaction. We are therefore making choices today that will affect our own lives, but even more so the lives of our children and grandchildren. This makes climate change different and more difficult than other policy challenges and the most compelling reason to act rapidly.

Marco Alongi

[1] Come scrive Yves Cochet nel suo libro Apocalypse pétrole: «La rivoluzione industriale è stata, più che una spinta prometeica per liberarsi dai vincoli della natura, la capacità di esportare questi vincoli verso le periferie del pianeta. […] I settori sviluppati delle nostre società industriali devono la propria condizione ancor più che al genio tecnologico e allo spirito d’impresa alla schiavitù e alla devastazione dell’ambiente».

Introdurre la logica della crescita ai Paesi del Sud del mondo, con il pretesto di essere la via d’uscita alla miseria che questa stessa crescita ha creato, non può che aggravare ulteriormente gli squilibri sociali e ambientali di questa parte del pianeta. In questo contesto Latouche scrive: «[…]è possibile affermare che la crescita è una “macchina” per affamare i popoli».

[2] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. IV Report of the IPCC, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007.

[3] Giles J.,How to survive a warming world: African communities have been adapting to climate change for millennia. Nature 446: 716-717, 2007.

[4] Sen Amartya, Development as Freedom, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[5] Maskrey et al, J Biol Chem, 2007

[6] Roberts, J. Timmons and Bradley C. Parks, A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North-South Politics, and Climate Policy, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2007.

[7] Skutsch, M. et al. (2004). Mainstreaming Gender into the Climate Change Regime (COP 10). Buenos Aires


From → Uncategorized

I commenti sono chiusi.

%d blogger hanno fatto clic su Mi Piace per questo: