Climate and disaster reduction

Revised November 2010

Gently deploring lassitude in comprehensive adaptation to climate change, a useful review of the declared statements of international organisations and institutions concerning disaster reduction appeared in Tiempoi. The same lassitude in most national governments could be observed now. We all know of governments reluctant to be stirred into action against events neither of their own making nor of their own immediate purpose or political interest – and this in the contexts of recent extreme events. Why do such great divides persist between specialist findings and policy implementation?

Sixteen years after the 1990 IPCC report, the first intergovernmental acknowledgment of climate change, much of the response to the 2006 fourth report is as if the process had just started. Without going beyond our own countries we can see divisions between those actions devoted to reducing emissions on behalf of a more amenable future, and those to do with hazards already imminent or manifest. Take only one UK national sector to see the carbon-free house of the future on the one hand, whilst on the other and at the same time, permitted built development on flood-prone sites and failures of recent construction against moderately high winds.

When UK “disasters” research began in the early 1970s, international programmes on the ground were a poor cousin to development. But, for the past thirty years or more, the situation has been the reverse; development budgets have lost out to those allocated in one way or another to disasters. More tragically, “disasters” became disassociated from “development”, seemingly for better access to direct funding and, although there may now be welcome exceptions, this continues to be the case.

Whatever the reason, the regrettable split that ensued between the two camps of “disasters” and “development”, has been a cause of persistent divisions and a reason why policies for disaster reduction remain too narrowly focused to cope with climate change and all of its associated hazards. Aspects of this disassociation are discussed by this author elsewhereii. In the more than twenty years since sea level rise became a concern, there has been adequate time for multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral and multi-temporal policies to have been formed to take account of one of the greatest disasters to befall the world since Noah built his ark.

The Davos 2006 recommendations were a major step forward but though their substance has been part of disasters literature since 1999 and before, it has been restricted, constrained and made piecemeal by which camp it belonged to, impeded in the formation of an “integrated participatory approach” for all disasters, all risks and most crucially - all vulnerabilities. Strategies for vulnerability reduction in developmental contexts would serve the potential victims of all the extremes of a changing climate; social vulnerability to one thing being very often social vulnerability to another. But understanding of the causes of vulnerability has not been helped by globalised and institutionalised conceptions of disasters in distant places. Vulnerability is pervasive in local, community, and domestic contexts, and our insights into its often invidious processes have to be achieved at similar levels of application.

Most disaster policies and programmes remain impeded by overly narrow focus on what happens in and after the event, but insufficiently on what has taken place before - and what is continuing to take place before subsequent events; too often brought about, it has to be said, by inappropriate, socially and environmentally insensitive, and even corrupt “development”. Attempts in recent years, to integrate a developmental dimension into disaster recovery programmes, serve to emphasise this ongoing but pathetic state of affairs.

Integrated national, community and domestic strategies for continued reduction of emissions, which will make environments less severe in the future, have to be accompanied by mutually supportive and parallel strategies to reduce already apparent vulnerabilities to the hazards of climate change and more: sea level rise and associated storms, sea-surges, coastal and riverine flooding, high temperatures - and earthquakes as well.

Hazards are not a comfortable topic. Though it is more amenable to implement measures for a more acceptable future than to take action for a fearfully hazardous present, the bullet is there to be bitten for recognition of serious risk and for the ultimate achievement of comprehensively advantageous vulnerability reduction.


This is a revised version of the article that first appeared in Tiempo 62

i Granich, Sarah (2007) Tiempo 62. January.

ii Lewis, James (1999) Development in Disaster-prone Places: Studies of Vulnerability IT (now Practical Action) Publications. London. p127 et sec.

Source Publication: 
Tiempo Climate Newswatch
Publishing Institution: 
Climate Research Unit, University of East Anglia