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Q&A: Lisa Schipper and Richard Klein on the IPCC Special Report on disaster risk reduction

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Written by Marion Davis

Friday, 18 November 2011 19:54

Photo composition from the IPCC's SREX Generic Presentation slide deck.

The SEI researchers answer questions about the SREX findings and its implications for the UNFCCC process, for climate finance, and for individual countries.

Richard Klein, a senior research fellow at SEI in Stockholm, is a lead author of the chapter “Managing the Risks: International Level and Integration Across Scales” of the new IPCC Special Report, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. Lisa Schipper, a senior scientist at SEI-US, is a lead author of the chapter “Determinants of Risk: Exposure and Vulnerability.”

Q: Are we wasting our time when we try to parse just how much disasters can be attributed to human-caused climate change?
The climate scientists involved in this report have tried to separate out the human contribution to any observed trends in changing climate extremes and disaster losses, but they have concluded that this is difficult due to the very nature of extremes (they happen only rarely so data is scarce), and in the case of losses, because population and wealth in exposed areas is increasing and this overrides any climate signal.

Q: Does this focus on causality make us how much we can do to reduce disaster risks?
It is clear that much can be done to reduce vulnerability to climate extremes by addressing socio-economic determinants of vulnerability. This may well be more effective in the short run than reducing greenhouse gases – which is not to say that we don’t also need to do that. However, the policy discourse of adaptation, in the UNFCCC and in many countries, still focuses on addressing climate risk and not on promoting socio-economic development.

LS: Development is key to reducing disaster risk. This means we have to focus on reduction of vulnerability through sustainable development. This way we will be able to reach many of the development goals while also reducing risk and thereby helping to ensure the sustainability of development efforts.

But don’t be fooled – controlling social systems is by no means easy, even if we think we would have more control over social systems than over natural systems.  Humans do not function rationally; for example, people do not always make decisions that leave them less at risk – if there are other things that they prioritise, they may decide the risk is worth the possible gain.

Q: Many of the disasters we’re seeing involve water – from extreme precipitation, to drought. How can we deal with those risks?
Humans traditionally have a lot of experience dealing with variability in water availability.  I think we can learn a lot of lessons from places that have traditionally had a dry or wet climate that can be useful for teaching us what our future will look like. For example, people in flood plains in Latin America who have been able to control floods but now are unable to can learn from communities in, say, the Mekong or the Ganges that have always lived with lots of water.

Q: Lisa, you’re working with El Salvador right now on this very issue. What does this report say about what countries like El Salvador need to learn and do about disaster risk reduction?
One thing that the report showed is that we have few longitudinal studies of reconstruction processes after disasters, and it’s hard to identify which are the most significant drivers of change in attitude and policy with regard to disaster risk.

The report also says that moving toward adaptation requires transformation, and not just business as usual. Current disaster risk reduction institutions are likely to be unable to transform the country, so the transformation has to come from the development approach in each country.

Learn more and download the report (IPCC website)

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