Climate Change: The burden of risk

18 Sept 2019

Extreme weather events become more frequent and intense. Geographer Matthias Garschagen examines how urban societies can adapt to climate change.

© imago images / ZUMA Press

The population of Jakarta has a lot to put up with. Virtually every year, parts of the city are subjected to heavy flooding. But this year the city experienced the heaviest monsoon rains for many years – and they arrived on New Year’s Day. More than 60 people died in the floods and in landslides precipitated by the torrential downpours, while some 400,000 inhabitants of the city and its metropolitan area were forced to take refuge in emergency shelters. Moreover, meteorologists hold out little hope that the situation will improve any time soon. The rains continue and may actually get worse as the season advances.

Climate change has dramatically increased the risks of natural disasters in many regions of the world. The risk of extreme events has increased significantly: Cyclones, floods, but also droughts or heat waves – the statistics show a clear increase in their frequency and destructive power. Modelling also suggests that this trend will continue and in some cases even accelerate with climate change.

Matthias Garschagen analyses what makes storms, floods and heat waves particularly devastating. However, he does not only look for the physical causes of the destructive power, but above all for the political, economic, social and cultural reasons that make an urban society or even individual population groups vulnerable. Vulnerability – this is the term that has become established to grasp the susceptibility of societies to the natural hazards mentioned. Above all, however, the geographer also examines the possibilities cities have for adaptation, in order to keep the effects of such extreme events as small as possible.

He originally comes from disaster studies, says Garschagen about his professional biography. Over the years, however, his research has increasingly focused on how cities can adapt to the consequences of climate change, so to speak in response to current events. For several years he headed a research section at the United Nations University (UNU), the "academic arm" of the United Nations. It maintains the Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn. Since spring 2019 he has held the chair of human geography at the LMU with a focus on human-environment relations. He is also a lead author within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Environment and human security: Garschagen's work has provided him with a wealth of experience in some regions of the world, especially in countries where emerging economies are generating particularly strong pressure to change. This autumn, the geographer from Munich is back in Vietnam. Garschagen knows the socialist state with the tight one-party system well, he has spent a long time there. Vietnam is one of the countries that will presumably have to struggle particularly hard with climate change. Its main urban agglomeration Ho Chi Minh City is already recording a noticeable increase in flood events. The trend so far has been driven mainly by strong urban growth and inadequate sewerage systems, but it allows a glimpse into the future, when sea levels will rise and an increase in heavy precipitation will further exacerbate the problem. Cities in central Vietnam such as Hue or Da Nang are also affected by hurricanes, the intensity of which is increasing. So what do future risk trends look like, especially in such dynamic societies whose economic and social development is so difficult to predict? And what is the impact of climate change?

Where the wealthy do not want to live

For Garschagen, Mozambique is a good example of how the poor half of humanity bears a "double burden" of inequality – through global development disparities and the unequally distributed risks of climate change. In March 2019 the Cyclone Idai raged over Mozambique for just a few hours. The storm was a disaster for the country and its people. About 1,000 people died, three million needed disaster assistance afterwards. But after this first blow only a month later, the second followed: Kenneth, another severe cyclone, devastated the country. And it has not yet been determined whether and how quickly Mozambique will recover from the 2019 storm season.

Even the rough figures indicate that the country is one of the poorest in the world. Almost two thirds of the population live on less than 1.90 dollars a day, wrote Garschagen and his colleague Mark Pelling from King's College London in a detailed commentary in the renowned scientific journal Nature. Mozambique is at the bottom of the UN development index: 180th out of 189 countries. At the same time, however, the state is one of the three countries in Africa most severely threatened by climate change.

But even that is only part of the reality, argues Garschagen. Such average figures give a distorted picture of how hard it can hit individual population groups. Within cities, for example, the poorest of the poor often live in locations with the highest exposure to flood hazards, such as on river banks - where more affluent sections of the population do not wish to settle. At the same time, the poorest have the least capacity to cope with extreme events. For Nigeria, for example, scientists have quantified the effects of this unequally distributed risk. The poorest 20 percent of the population are 50 percent more likely to lose their lives, livelihoods or health in the event of a flood than the average person in Nigeria. The differences in the risk of being particularly affected by a drought or heat wave are even more pronounced.

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