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On Vulnerability to Climate Change: Daniel Schensul in conversation with The Straddler

Daniel Schensul is a Technical Specialist in Population and Development for the United Nations Population Fund. He is co-editor of two books: Population Dynamics and Climate Change (2009) and, most recently, The Demography of Adaptation to Climate Change (2013). He served as a member of the drafting team of “The ICPD Beyond 2014 Global Report”(2014), a 20-year review of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. The report argues that “development gains from the past 20 years cannot be sustained unless governments tackle the inequalities that hurt the poorest and most marginalized,” and that “growing inequalities will undo significant gains in health and longevity made over the past 20 years.”

A sociologist who earned his Ph.D. at Brown, Schensul has performed extensive research in South Africa, Indonesia, and Malawi. He has also contributed a piece on election commentary in the United States to this magazine. He is currently working on the emerging Post-2015 Development Agenda, a successor to the Millenium Development Goals agreed to in 2000 which sought to improve the wellbeing of citizens of the world’s poorest countries by 2015.

On May 8, 2014, The Straddler met with Schensul near the United Nations.

Daniel Schensul, May 8, 2014
You never want to look outside at the weather on any given day and pretend that you’re seeing climate change. The key word is “change.” Climate change is a slow, aggregate warming of the world due to an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Mostly carbon dioxide, which has a cumulative effect—you keep adding more, and the stuff that’s in there already stays. But also other gases like methane, which is more potent but has a much shorter half-life. All of these gases trap warmth and cause a slow increase in the world’s average temperature, and a change in the distribution of temperatures. You have fewer super cold spells, and more extreme heat events. Now this doesn’t mean that in any given moment there aren’t things going on outside that appear to contradict this. You know, it gets cold, it snows. You have a lot of variability with weather. Not everything that happens with the weather is the result of climate change—or is not the result of climate change. The important thing to grasp is that the general trend is towards warming, and this has a complex set of consequences.

There was a report released recently by the White House[1] that said we’re already seeing greater heat events in the United States. There is less snowfall, and less built up snowfall, which means less water. California is in a big drought. All of these things are in some way related to a very clear observation of a higher average temperature. You can look at things that might have happened anyway, but were exacerbated by climate change. Take something like Superstorm Sandy. The fact that the temperature in the Atlantic Ocean was five degrees above average, and the sea level was higher, accelerated it. It’s not like climate change creates the storm, or creates the drought, but they are somewhat exacerbated by it.

Very broadly speaking, there are two areas of policy response to climate change. The first is mitigation, which is the world’s efforts to curtail the growth of emissions and eventually cut them back significantly. The second is adaptation, which is the awareness that climate change is here and that we need to set up contingency plans. Early on in the climate discussion, there was resistance to a focus on adaptation because politically it was felt that this would undermine the case for mitigation, which involves difficult and fundamental transformations in economies. As a result, the field of adaptation got a late start, and so we’re not as prepared as we need to be.

Some of the attention that adaptation is now getting may be associated with the fact that we haven’t made much progress on mitigation, and that we are seeing events now. We’re experiencing warming, we’re experiencing sea-level rise, and we’re experiencing heat events. So it’s clear that we have to adapt. Even if we halted all emissions today, there would still be some climate change because of the length of time that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere.

The particular climate hazards that you’re exposed to don’t depend so much on whether you’re an industrialized country or a least developed country, but on where you are. Are you in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, are you on the coast, are you towards the Equator? What are your water resources?

But it’s important to understand the distinction between climate hazards and climate vulnerability. A climate hazard is a storm, or a change in the growing season, or a drought, or a heat wave, and so on. And then there’s your vulnerability, which is an intersection of your exposure to the hazard and the various kinds of resources, infrastructure, and social and economic systems that are more or less resilient in the face of it.

Richer countries are less likely to be exposed to climate hazards—as a result of factors of historical development—and they are also more likely to have the resources, capacities, technology, and infrastructure to be able to resist them. But that’s not always the case—the horrible dyke system in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina is an example of being both exposed and vulnerable. If you look at the Netherlands, by contrast, they might be more exposed to hazards, but they’re less vulnerable because they have a much better dyke system.

But this is not just an infrastructural discussion. It’s not just about your physical environment. Fundamentally, it’s about people. It’s about how sensitive people’s livelihoods are to changes in the climate, and also how able people are to move ahead of events. It’s about the ability of people to afford to build protective infrastructure for themselves, to afford escape routes, to have contingency plans in place. This depends a lot on economic resources, education, occupation, and demographic aspects like age and gender.

That’s where the discussion about climate vulnerability is primarily a discussion about the social aspects of development. It’s about similar kinds of things that make people vulnerable to economic shocks, or conflicts, or other kinds of disturbances.

So what is adaptation? It’s adjusting to new climate circumstances. But there is incremental adaptation and there is transformative adaptation. Think about the term “resilience.” What does it mean? Well, take a rubber band. You can pull it so far, and it will snap back to its original position. In that way, it’s resilient. But what if its original position is inadequate? It’s worth thinking about incremental versus transformative adaptations using this metaphor. There’s a certain aspect of resilience that is supporting the status quo—getting the rubber band back to its original position. Similarly, if we think about incremental adaptation, that basically means doing things to better cope without changing anything fundamental. So we can have insurance systems, certain social protection systems, better dykes, better protective infrastructure for a place like New York in order to resist storm surge, and so on. All of these are examples of incremental adaptation. They’re all important and critical things, but what they’re fundamentally about is maintaining the way we operate in the face of a changing climate.

Transformative adaptation, on the other hand, is about significantly shifting our means and modes of life to be more protected. And this is where the mitigation and adaptation pieces come together, because there are incremental things we do to help with emissions, but in the end we need a radical shift in everything from individual level consumption to the energy systems of the world to actually come to a point where we’re at zero carbon emissions.

Here’s an example of a transformative adaptation potential from my field, which is population and development. The world is in the midst of radical reorganization of people, spatially, as a result of urbanization. In some ways, people are moving towards climate vulnerability. They’re moving into coastal cities, into climate risk, in exchange for livelihood opportunities. For example, western Chinese moving into Beijing. The scale of this is enormous. There are roughly 3.5 billion people in urban areas right now, and it’s likely to go up to 6 billion by 2050—when world population will be about 9.6 billion. So all of the net population growth between now and 2050 will be in cities. We’re talking about billions of people, over the course of a few decades, fundamentally changing most every aspect of their lives. From their social networks and systems to their livelihoods and the economic structures of society to the concentration of people in space to their environmental footprint and impact. That’s an enormous process, and it can go towards transformative climate resilience and adaptation, or it can not.

Cities are where we see the range of trajectories possible. They’re where inequality most clearly emerges. You have some people with large amounts of space, you have urban sprawl, and you have spatial inequality in terms of access to services and access to transportation. On the other hand, you have the prospects of lower environmental impact because of resource efficiencies, and prospects of economies of scale for provision of services. And you have the fact that half the world’s population lives on around three percent of the world’s land surface. That has the potential to reduce the environmental impact from a population perspective.

Now, some very significant portion of the urban land that will be occupied by 2030 has not yet been built up. Because cities are often in climate-exposed areas, there is a huge opportunity to shape the trajectory of this future development in a low-emissions, climate-resilient way. Of course, there is also the possibility that the forces of inequality will continue the trajectory of sprawl and slum growth. Business as usual, in other words, where the best land goes to the most privileged, while highly vulnerable, highly exposed land goes to the most vulnerable. These are decisions that we have to begin making now because of the lag time. You plan now, you enact zoning laws now, you build infrastructure now, and it has consequences for decades.

So that is an example of a transformative potential. It’s one that’s very much in doubt, but at the same time gives us a sense of the scope and scale, in billions of people, of what it means to move towards a transformative adaptation.

The question of inequality is an important one. As I mentioned, one of the things about cities is that they compress inequality. This is something that our work is particularly focused on in The Demography of Adaptation to Climate Change. You see very significant variations of the geographic distribution of vulnerability in small places. The Red Hook section of Brooklyn is one of the clearest examples of this. During Sandy, the Red Hook projects were filled with water for a long time. People had to leave, and it was a while before they could come back. The infrastructure wasn’t there to protect them in the first place, and the response systems weren’t going there. I mean, there are some levels of exposure where it doesn’t matter how rich you are in terms of the immediate consequences of the event. Twelve feet of water is twelve feet of water. But how you bounce back from that is highly dependent on your resources. Whether you have another place to go. Whether you can get there. Whether you have a backup in place for your job, so that if you can’t get to your job you can continue to work.

The principle of the book gets to this question of inequalities, and in particular how the demographic, social, and, to some extent, economic inequalities at the micro level shape the nature of societies’ and cities’ vulnerability and adaptability.

The idea is to identify who’s vulnerable, in what way they are vulnerable, and then to plan for adaptation that is based in and recognizes these inequalities and addresses them. Not just by building physical and economic systems, but by ensuring that at the neighborhood and community levels, you’re actually building resilience among the people who need it the most—not just among the people who are already most able to access the resources government spends.

We want to be able to get this information into the hands of policy makers, and NGOs, and community leaders at local levels so that we can devise programming that takes the most vulnerable into account. Right now there’s a big capacity gap in the ability to use this information at a local scale. So we’ve built an automated analysis system that helps get the information into the hands of non-data-sophisticates in order to enable them to engage with the data directly and interactively and generate their own vulnerability analyses.

This kind of thinking is what underlies a field of environmental justice. The observation of inequality as it relates to your particular environment. So, for instance, in cities, you can see trees where the money is, and no trees where there’s no money. It’s a very simple example, but you get the idea. It’s an intuitive medium that allows you to see the array of inequalities, in intersection with the geography of climate hazards. The hope is that people are empowered on a local level. Like every development process, it’s not just about data, it’s about the political process of engaging in a plan for getting yourself out of hazards without relocating people or evicting people.

Right now, in a highly developed country like the United States, climate events are more impactful than the slow unfolding of climate change. The main way most of the people in the US experience the weather as non-farmers is to look out the window and choose clothes accordingly. That’s not the case in the large majority of the world, where agrarian economies continue to be very significant. Farmers in Malawi, for example, have experienced a radical shift in their growing seasons. And that undermines their livelihoods. And, of course, people in the developing world are also deeply affected by acute events. Things like heatwaves in Ethiopia, or heat and drought consequences in the Sahel region of Africa, are extremely disruptive because people’s well-being is very fragile to begin with. But eventually, highly developed countries like the United States will also face the double burden, let’s call it, of the combination of gradual change and acute events.

If you look at California, for example, it’s in a drought. And that influences food prices, and debates over water, and people’s access to water. There’s a lot of the southwest that is also in a drought, and there’s a lot of settlement in places that just don’t have the long-term water resources to actually handle that. And that’s going to be exacerbated by climate change.

You can imagine a world in which we had made better decisions in the past. You can also imagine a future that is organized according to better decisions that we make today.


[1] Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds. 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.

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