Professor Neil Adger is Geography Professor; in this blog, he discusses the implications that climate change will have for human health and security.
No place is immune to the impacts of climate change. This is the principal message from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The impacts of climate change will be felt in individual places such as in back gardens, homes, fields and cities and will likely make us feel less safe and secure.
For the first time the IPCC examines in detail the impacts of climate change on well-being across its Working Group 2 report, with a cluster of chapters on the topics of health, human security, and poverty.
Human security encapsulates the notion of the vital core of human lives and the ability of people to have freedom and the capacity to live with dignity. Human security has direct material elements, such as life and livelihood, but also elements of cultural expression and identity.
The notion of human security captures a central part of how the impacts of climate change, as they unfold, will affect values and things that people care about beyond, for example, its economic costs.
The IPCC report finds that the impacts of climate change are evident and being documented across all continents and in the oceans. Given emissions trajectories and lags in the climate system, the world is committed to warming over the coming decades that will increase risks in the natural world, and for major sensitive sectors of the economy. So how do these impacts translate into human security?
First, health. The report shows that climate change has already contributed to human ill-health in recent decades. While it may not be the dominant burden of disease, there is now strong evidence of increased heat-related mortality as a result of warming.
These are not likely to be offset by decreased cold-related mortality, because of the influence of seasonal factors other than temperature on winter mortality.
And climate affects health through other mechanisms: localised changes in temperature and rainfall, for example, have altered the distribution of some water-borne illnesses and disease vectors. The report gives stark warning of how these risks increase with projected warming over the incoming decades.
How and where we live
Second, climate change will have an impact on how and where people live and the decisions they make about moving. Displacement of populations as a result of extreme weather events is usually involuntary and often taken as a last resort, but has major public health and policy consequences.
Most displacement is temporary but often amplifies migration trends. The impacts of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and New Orleans in 2005 show that temporary displacement of populations from flood impacts leads to highly differential permanent migration patterns. While wealthier populations returned, such displacement changed the demographics of the whole region.
Governments are also planning for the movement of people, given some impacts already observed or expected. In Alaska, for example, some coastal towns, where roads, ports and other services are badly affected by melting permafrost, are planning their movements.
Such planned resettlement could be positive, but there is much experience of such schemes where residents really do not wish to move and schemes fail to protect the integrity of community.
Migration experts Robin Bronen and Terry Chapin, working with Alaskan towns and government authorities, have argued that only inclusive and patient engagement with such communities can avoid the trauma and stress of such major life upheavals.
Finally, climate change affects the risks of conflict. Learning from the political and social sciences in this area is essential to put climate risks in context. The IPCC assessment, in effect, concludes that conflict risks are an area of concern for two reasons.
First, it is difficult to say decisively whether climate change impacts will exacerbate conflict risks, and in many ways the past is not such a good guide to the future.
Second, there are good reasons to deduce that climate risks may enhance conflict. Factors that themselves are common to many recent conflicts, such as poverty and economic shocks, are themselves sensitive to climate change.
Hence climate change may not directly be implicated in triggering conflict. And greed, grievance and other factors may be dominant in many types of violence. But that is not a reason to dismiss this risk. Indeed, this area needs much more work.
One clear conclusion of the IPCC’s assessment is, for example, that places in conflict and recovering from conflict are much more susceptible and have many fewer resources for dealing with weather extremes and climate variability.
The bottom line
In summary, climate change will affect things we care about, including the security of the places we live, the local environment as we experience it, and health. The IPCC assessment has for the first time given prominence to these broader questions. It rightly concludes that the future is still in our hands. Taking the right action means we can build a safer and more resilient world.