Yet misuse of climate change does not obviate climate change as a significant concern that will cause major problems, not just for low-lying islands such as Maldives and low-lying coasts such as Bangladesh, but for all of humanity (IPCC 2013–2014). Many good practice examples of resilience exist, to climate change impacts and to other hazard drivers and hazards. These practices demonstrate what can be achieved when broader concepts of vulnerability and resilience are accepted and applied (Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction 2009, 2011). An ongoing challenge is framing climate change in research, policy, and practice to try to avoid the difficulties resulting from narrow views of vulnerability and resilience or too much focus on a single phenomenon such as climate change.
It is not appropriate to disparage or to ignore climate change. Nor should a false duality be created by suggesting that the debate is climate change versus other concerns such as earthquakes, injustice, HIV/AIDS, gender equity, or water resources. Care is nonetheless needed when highlighting climate change, since addressing climate change has the potential to create or exacerbate other development concerns.
For example, large hydroelectric dams might contribute to climate change mitigation through reduced dependence on fossil fuels. Large dams might also contribute to climate change adaptation by permitting a more stable water supply, irrespective of precipitation variations. But large dams tend to increase flood risk over the long-term in a process termed “risk transference” (Etkin 1999). Structural defences including large dams stop smaller floods and permit people to live in floodplains while remaining relatively dry. As a result of this false sense of security, vulnerability to flooding increases (Fordham 1999). Most structural defences could fail at some point, often from an event that exceeds or has different characteristics from the design flood but sometimes because maintenance requirements have not been met. Then the damage incurred by the flood is much greater than it would have been without the false sense of security imposed by the structural defences. Short-term flood risk has decreased, but long-term flood risk has increased. Risk is transferred into the future and augmented, hence the term “risk transference” (Etkin 1999). Risk can also be transferred amongst locations, subpopulations, and sectors (Graham and Weiner 1995), which makes it important to consider a multitude of challenges (similarly to “multiple exposure”) when assessing and addressing vulnerability and resilience. Other than risk transference, many other development concerns have also been identified through relying on large dams (World Commission on Dams 2000) irrespective of their potential contributions to climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Rather than keeping climate change as a separate or dominating topic, the proposal from a development perspective is to enact the “multiple exposure” perspective by viewing climate change as one challenge amongst many (Gaillard 2010; Mercer 2010). Researchers and practitioners have long published on and tried to address vulnerability and resilience to the consequences of change, positive and negative, at all time and space scales and based on many forms of change (Glantz 1977; Lewis 1979, 1999; Hewitt 1983; Aysan and Davis 1992; Etkin 1999; Bankoff 2001; Wisner et al. 2004, 2012). Examples are aridification and desertification, climatic changes from meteorite strikes and volcanic eruptions, local water drawdown, and availability and use of local and locally appropriate building materials. Contemporary climate change is one more to add to this well-established list—and it should be added to ensure that climate change vulnerability and resilience are addressed. Nonetheless, climate change should not be tackled at the expense of other challenges and opportunities in everyday life.
The subset within development work that is best suited for placing climate change adaptation in perspective and context is disaster risk reduction (Shaw et al. 2010a, 2010b). That arises due to the long history within disaster risk reduction of dealing with climate-related changes at all time and space scales and from multiple causes (Glantz 1977; Hewitt 1983; Lewis 1999; Garcia-Acosta 2004; Wisner et al. 2004, 2012). Therefore, research, policy, and practice should accept contemporary climate change as one challenge amongst many within disaster risk reduction. Climate change as a subset within disaster risk reduction can be elaborated through three main points.
First, climate change is one contributor to disaster risk amongst many. Climate change should not be ignored but neither does it necessarily dominate other contributors. Those contributors include, but are not limited to, non-climate-related environmental phenomena (for example, earthquakes and volcanoes), inequities, injustices, social oppression, discrimination, poor wealth distribution, and a value system that permits exploitation of environmental resources irrespective of the long-term consequences. Climate change drives both hazards and vulnerabilities.
It drives hazards, for instance, in that a hotter atmosphere can hold more water vapor leading to increased precipitation. When and where that moisture is released can augment the intensities of floods and blizzards as they occur. Sometimes climate change drives hazards by making the hazards less extreme such as by reducing the frequencies of Arctic storms called polar lows (Zahn and von Storch 2010), Atlantic hurricanes (Knutson et al. 2010), and winter floods in central Europe (Mudelsee et al. 2003). Climate change drives vulnerabilities by changing local environmental conditions so rapidly that local environmental knowledge cannot keep pace with and is less applicable to, for example, local food resources. Whether climate change is a more significant or a less significant contributor than other factors—such as relying on structural approaches for floods or increasing the social oppression that creates and perpetuates food-related vulnerabilities—depends on the specific context.
Second, climate change is one “creeping environmental change” amongst many. Creeping environmental changes are incremental changes in conditions that cumulate to create a major problem, apparent or recognized only after a threshold has been crossed (Glantz 1994a, 1994b). Climate change fulfils that definition. Other creeping environmental changes not linked to contemporary anthropogenic climate change include soil erosion due to intensive farming, salinization of freshwater supplies due to excessive drawdown, and slow subsidence of land due to water or fossil fuel pumping (Glantz 1994a, 1994b; Wisner et al. 2012). Development work has long dealt with such topics (such as the historical descriptions provided by Crush 1995; Glantz 1999; Gaillard 2010; Mercer 2010) and climate change can readily be integrated into this set of development concerns.
Third, the reality is that climate change has become politically important, within and outside of development. That should provide an opportunity, not to focus exclusively on climate change, but rather to raise the points made in this article in order to engage interest in more comprehensive development processes. Little point exists in building a new school with natural ventilation techniques that save energy and that cope with higher average temperatures, if that school will collapse in the next moderate, shallow earthquake. Similarly, if a hospital is renovated with water-resistant materials and finishes for climate change adaptation due to the projected expansion of the floodplain, but is put out of action by toxic contaminants in the floodwater, then little has been achieved.
Climate change is one topic amongst many and should be dealt with in wider contexts. Since climate change drives hazards and vulnerabilities and since disaster risk reduction efforts provide more comprehensive views of vulnerability and resilience, a prudent place for climate change would be placement within disaster risk reduction. Climate change adaptation therefore becomes one of many processes within disaster risk reduction.