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Regional themes > Environment and climate change Last update: 2020-11-27  

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Four assessments carried out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) over the past 15 years have contributed to a growing consensus among the scientific community that humans are influencing the global climate system. These assessments confirm that climate change is contributing to dramatic transformations of the biophysical environment that will affect human settlements, ecosystem services, water resources, and food production, among other things. These transformations are likely to have widespread implications for individuals, communities, regions, and nations. Although there is considerable uncertainty about the future trajectory of climate change, related in part to the amount and rate of greenhouse gas emissions, the consequences of climate change represent an unprecedented threat to human security.

Human security is closely linked to the development of human capabilities in the face of change and uncertainty. Individuals and communities faced with both rapid change and increasing uncertainty are challenged to respond to climate change in new ways that protect their social, environmental, and human rights, and that empower them to respond through both mitigation and adaptation. Surprisingly, the issue of climate change has been widely discussed and debated among scientists and policymakers as an environmental issue, rather than as human security issue. Current discourses on climate change draw attention to growing bodies of research on biophysical changes to the earth system, as well as on the economics and politics of climate change management. Although the climate change vulnerability literature has emphasized differential exposure, sensitivities, and adaptive capacities, as well as the concept of social vulnerability, there has been relatively little attention to the implications of differential outcomes and changing vulnerabilities for human security.

In this paper, we consider climate change within an emerging discourse on human security. We emphasize two important dimensions of human security that are directly influenced by climate change: 1) an equity dimension and 2) a connectivity dimension. The equity dimension draws attention to the fact that not all individuals, communities, regions, and nations will be equally affected by climate change. The connectivity dimension emphasizes that the security of individuals and communities is increasingly linked across both space and time, such that outcomes for one group are increasingly related to outcomes in other areas or for other groups, both in the present and future. These interrelated dimensions of human security challenge current discussions and debates about climate change as an environmental issue, and call instead for a more people-based approach to climate change. Drawing upon case studies and examples from the climate change literature, we emphasize four key points about climate change from a human security perspective.

First, vulnerability to climate change is influenced by multiple processes of global change. Using examples from southern Africa, we illustrate how the changing burden of disease, economic changes, conflict and other “stressors” contribute to climate change vulnerability.

Together, multiple stressors create a context for vulnerability. The equity dimension of climate change is closely linked to this context, in that many of these changes benefit some, while contributing to new challenges for other individuals and communities. In some contexts, even small changes or variations in climate can have a large influence on human security. Consequently, dangerous climate change should not be measured by parts per million or degrees of temperature change, but by the dynamic social context, captured by indicators of capabilities and human development, such as health status of the population, presence and quality of social and community networks, and access to information and education.

Second, changing economic and social policies strongly influence the capacity to cope with and adapt to climate change. In most countries and regions, economic and social policies and institutions have undergone dramatic change as the result of globalization. These changes, which are sometimes defined under the term ‘neoliberalism,’ entail a wide range of policy measures including liberalization of trade and investment policy, privatization of state-owned enterprises, reduction in state subsidies for various industries, loss of social safety nets, and devolution of responsibility for planning from national to local levels. A case study on climate change and economic changes in India shows that the differential capacity to adapt to climate change can be partly linked to policies associated with globalization. An increased recognition of the interactions between climate change and trade liberalization points to the growing importance of institutional and policy changes as keys to reducing vulnerability.

Third, vulnerabilities are linked through an increasingly connected global economy and society, such that actions and behaviors taken in one place have implications for other places. This point draws upon the connectivity dimension of human security, emphasizing that outcomes in one place increasingly reverberate to other people and places. Using examples from coastal megacities, we show how the consequences of climate change related-sea level rise and increased storm surges will not only have significant impacts within specific cities, but will also have consequences for other areas. The case study of Shanghai shows how rapid spatial expansion of the city, coupled with increasing global economic independencies may exacerbate the negative outcomes of climate change within the city, with repercussions throughout China and other parts of the world.

Fourth, vulnerability to climate change is not limited to developing countries. There are vulnerable individuals, communities, and groups within most countries, and new vulnerabilities are emerging in response to the impacts and consequences of climate change, in combination with other societal changes. Our case study focuses on the growing vulnerability of elderly populations in both developed and developing countries to climate-related shocks and stressors. Climate change is not a North-South issue, but an issue of human security that is relevant to all societies.

The four case studies together suggest that there is a significant gap between current responses to climate change and approaches that address the social and ecological challenges posed by climate change. Current climate change policy responses do not take into account multiple and interacting processes of change, the importance of linking economic and social policies with climate change policies, or the linkages betweens adaptations and human capabilities, and differing values. Sustainable mitigation and adaptation to climate change requires consideration not only of the environmental and economic outcomes, but also of the consequences for human security. While there are many potential responses to climate change, and many potential pathways of development, responses that take into account both equity and connectivity are more likely to contribute to human security in the 21st century.

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