Graduation year: 2022
Semester/year area of interest proposed: Spring 2020
Major status: ENVS single major
Other major (if applicable):
Minor(s) (if applicable):
While natural disasters have long been considered social “equalizers” or “status levelers”, they have not proven to be such as there are oftentimes many groups that are particularly susceptible to the stages before, during, and after natural disasters. Communities are affected differently in the wake of natural disasters of all kinds, in all different places, and oftentimes, some groups are impacted more harshly and directly than other groups. My Area of Interest aims to explore why certain communities are impacted more intensely than others and how policy-makers and legislators can dampen the effects felt by these groups. By exploring different definitions of vulnerability and resilience, I seek to understand how best to help all communities in the face of climate change. Social vulnerability is experienced by members of society who – pre-disaster- have already been experiencing some form of social stratification which is exacerbated by the disaster (Fothergill & Peek, 2004). These communities feel the effects of the environmental disturbance during and long after due to the lack of preparedness, which tends to be a result of pre-existing structural inequalities. Specifically, I will focus on social vulnerability to drought to understand why some social groups are more susceptible to the effects of climate change.
The results of climate change have led to disproportionate effects on some communities globally. Trends in temperature, precipitation, and sea level have all been tied to climate change. These shifting trends in global climate have been traced to increased anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide (Patz et al., 2014). The culmination of these changing trends has created the perfect conditions to exacerbate certain ecological disturbances, like droughts and floods (Ornes, 2018). According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, drought has worsened due to climate change because “warmer temperatures can enhance evaporation from soil, making periods with low precipitation drier they would be in cooler conditions”. Currently, nations such as Australia, Mongolia, Argentina, Paraguay, as well as much of central and southwest Asia and the western United States are likely to see “climate-driven water scarcity” as they are arid environments already, and are prone to experience worsening droughts (Eriyagama, 2009). Uneven distribution of droughts means that globally, there is no “equalizing” of disasters. Climate change is making the conditions necessary for extreme disasters more likely to occur, and in doing so it is weakening the adaptive capacity of livelihood systems in the face of increasing uncertainty at both global and local scales (Masika, 2002).
In order to understand who is vulnerable, it is crucial to have an understanding of what vulnerability is in this context. One basic definition is “the characteristics of a person or group in terms of their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of a natural hazard” (Blaikie, 1994). The topic of vulnerability in the face of natural disasters has shifted more from hazard only focus to that of a more sociopolitical view, to create an interdisciplinary view of the issue, which would allow more flexibility in mitigation of vulnerability. Until recently, many discourses on vulnerability failed to mention the biggest actor in human vulnerability: social implications (Vacano & Zaumseil, 2014). Prior to this distinction, macro-economic, regional economic, and infrastructural vulnerabilities were prioritized in risk mitigation: however, taking a “contextual and proactive approach” to social vulnerability allows communities of any size to define their own “vulnerabilities and capacities” (Wisner, 2008).
“The poor are living in crisis before a disaster strikes. Thus, when a disaster does occur, it must be recognized that those already living in poverty are impacted in different and significant ways” (Fothergill & Peek, 2004).”
Human vulnerability is reflected through both social vulnerability as well as economic vulnerability. The combination between these two in the face of extreme climate changes prove to be detrimental to the wellbeing of socioeconomically vulnerable communities, from household to nation. Those who are most vulnerable are least able to adapt to a disaster and are the least able to recover (Fothergill and Peek, 2004; Wisner, 2008). An example of this is the agricultural effects of climate change related drought in southern Africa where local farmers are forced to adapt to climate changes as well as economic changes (Leichenko & O’Brien, 2002). Economic and climate shifts make this region more socioeconomically susceptible to large changes than other regions of the world. Another example of socioeconomic vulnerability to environmental disturbances is seen in the United States: many of the victims of the 1980 Midwest heat wave were “poor and on fixed incomes” and could not afford to turn fans on due to electricity bills, despite the fact that these fans were provided as free emergency relief (Fothergill and Peek, 2014). Institutional inequalities make development projects for hazard and crisis risk reduction very difficult due to “institutional weakness” which acts to “prevent effective communication between those parts of government that should cooperate on disaster management and climate change” (O’Brien, 2006). This weakness hinders legitimate discussion with the people who are likely to be affected the hardest by climate change related hazards such as drought.
To combat vulnerability on a regional scale, Frigerio et al. (2018) developed a ‘social vulnerability index’ in order to see the layout of social vulnerability in a spatiotemporal map. This may be considered as a possible approach to solutions in regard to climate change related drought and vulnerability. A vulnerability index displayed over a spatial axis allows for an understanding of “how and where vulnerability is changing most dramatically” so that the regions with the greatest changes may be targeted for some form of mitigation (Leichenko &O’Brien, 2002). On a larger scale, disaster risk reduction strategies have been implemented by the United Nations in order to combat the short and long term effects of natural disasters, though these strategies are seen by some as “development investments” that have the potential to either increase or reduce vulnerability to hazards, as these projects are nearly never “risk-neutral” (O’Brien, 2006). Rather than risk reduction, an emphasis on resilience offers a more “holistic and proactive response” because it focuses less on lack during a crisis, but more on already existing resources and capacities. Risk management programs built on existing capacities with an emphasis on community resilience are likely to work on both national and local scales.
- How is vulnerability conceptualized across different disciplines?
- What adverse effects might increasingly-severe droughts have on global geo/biophysical ecosystems?
- How do global institutions exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities? What metrics are used to measure vulnerability?
- How can countries around the world mitigate the effects of climate change?
- Will attempts to mitigate global climate change lessen regional social vulnerability?
- Aside from agriculture, what other types of livelihood are threatened by drought? Do shifting climate trends provide positive opportunities in livelihood for regions which might not have been able to practice that previously?
- Does education promote preparedness in the face of disaster when other forms of capital are not available? What kinds of measures are being put in place to ensure safety for all citizens of the world in the face of climate change?
- Who should aid vulnerable nations?
- SOAN 282 (Pacific Rim Cities) Fall 2021: This class will provide me with a basic understanding of geographic vulnerability which is a precursor to understanding the social aspect involved with vulnerability to disasters.
- ENVS 311 (UnNatural Disasters) Spring 2020: This class is absolutely perfect and will give me the ability to analyze natural disasters in different contexts.
- GEOL 280 (The Fundamentals of Hydrology) Fall 2022 (if possible): Because I will be focusing on droughts related to climate change as the disaster portion of this Area of Interest, it is important to understand the basics involved in hydrology and water movement in general.
- IA 296 (Human Rights and International Politics) Fall 2021: While somewhat obscure, I think that the international dimension of social vulnerability and climate change relations is important to understand because access to water is a human right and must be addressed through global politics.
Here are the required breadth courses I will include in my ENVS major/minor: CHEM 100, GEOL 170, IA 340, SOAN 265, SOAN 305, HIST 261, PHIL 215. These are in addition to my ENVS core courses, and the area of interest courses I propose above.
Revisions to date
- 3/1: Meeting with Jessica Kleiss. Big changes to overall aspects involved in A.o.I. Shifted into more interdisciplinary fields (economics, natural sciences, and social sciences)
- 3/1: Originally, my Area of Interest was fairly one-dimensional and it focused almost exclusively on social vulnerability. After discussion with Jessica, I realized that there is so much more to this picture:
- I expanded my view on human vulnerability to the social and economic pieces
- I shifted my view from earthquakes as a disaster to drought as it is directly tied to climate change, which is something else that I am very interested in.
- The new Area of Interest is more multi-faceted and interdisciplinary as it discovers the economic, scientific, and sociological aspects of the issue.
- 4/10: consultation with Liz Safran:
- need to grapple with scale -> I added more information about different places where people have been affected disproportionately affected by climate change’s effects
- need more information about droughts in general and already existing drought patterns -> I added normal drought patterns and data on how drought patterns are expected to change
- need more concrete examples to avoid abstract concepts -> I added more specific examples of social vulnerability (these included other natural disasters, in order to exemplify what vulnerability looks like)
- Blaikie, Piers M. “At Risk : Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters”. London ; New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
- Eriyagama, Nishadi, Vladimir Smakhtin, and Nilantha Gamage. Mapping Drought Patterns and Impacts: a Global Perspective. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute, 2009.
- Fothergill, Alice, and Lori A. Peek. “Poverty and Disasters in the United States: A Review of Recent Sociological Findings.” Natural Hazards 32, no. 1 (May 2004): 89–110.link.
- Frigerio, I., Carnelli, F., Cabinio. “Spatiotemporal Pattern of Social Vulnerability in Italy”. Int J Disaster Risk Sci 9, 249–262 (2018). link
- Leichenko, Robin M., and Karen L. O’Brien. “The Dynamics of Rural Vulnerability to Global Change: The Case of Southern Africa.” Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 7, no. 1 (2002): 1–18.
- Masika, R. “Gender, Development and Climate Change”. Oxfam, Oxford.. (2002). Print.
- O’Brien, Geoff, Phil O’Keefe, Joanne Rose, and Ben Wisner. “Climate Change and Disaster Management.” Disasters 30, no. 1 (March 2006): 64–80.
- Ornes, Stephen. “Core Concept: How Does Climate Change Influence Extreme Weather? Impact Attribution Research Seeks Answers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 33 (August 14, 2018): 8232. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1811393115.
- Patz, Jonathan A., Howard Frumkin, Tracey Holloway, Daniel J. Vimont, and Andrew Haines. “Climate Change Challenges and Opportunities for Global Health.” Jama-Journal Of The American Medical Association 312, no. 15 (2014): 1565-580.
- Wisner, Ben, and Greg Bankoff. Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People. London: Earthscan. (2008). Print.
- Vacano, Mechthild von, and Manfred Zaumseil. “Understanding Disasters: An Analysis and Overview of the Field of Disaster Research and Management.” In Cultural Psychology of Coping with Disasters. 3–44. New York, NY: Springer New York, 2014.link.