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Vulnerability, resilience and development discourses in context of climate change

Abstract

The paper discusses how the current climate change debate influences the way in which development is conceptualised, negotiated and implemented. The objective of the article is to explore some of the underlying controversies that characterise development discourses in the context of climate change. Adaptation to climate change goes along with a significant shift in discourses used to deal with what is normally called development. This is reflected in shifting research interests and perspectives, from vulnerability studies to resilience thinking. However, the paper argues, this shift is problematic for the normative contents of development and especially for a pro-poor and grass roots perspective.

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Notes

  1. It could be argued that this is one of the most important reasons why disaster risk reduction interventions have failed. There is a growing interest in what might be called “cultural” explanations for different attitudes to disaster risk, including a recent electronic conference conducted by ICIMOD (Hewitt 2008).

  2. In much of the literature on disasters, authors and NGOs conflate resilience with “coping mechanisms/strategies”, despite the fact that when people are forced to cope it usually means that they are having to dispose of assets, undermine their nutrition and health, and generally erode their ability to survive in the present and the future. Over-romanticised views of coping have no place in a proper definition of being “resilient”.

  3. Corollaries of this include the way that markets are promoted by private sector actors in “development projects” as a solution to problems of education, health and water supply. Yet it is manifestly obvious that these sectors are those of classic market failure (not least for health in the USA). With this comes the emergence of what Klein (2005, 2007) calls “disaster capitalism” through the marketisation of supposed solutions to emergency assistance. The issue of the failure of markets to deal with health and poverty in the USA is argued by Giroux (2004) to be an inevitable result of neoliberalism, where the ideology of selfish profit-seeking can easily regard a section of the population as being expendable.

  4. The start of the Chinese economic reforms in the 1980s were led by Deng Xiaoping’s statement “Let some get rich first” and even “let some regions get rich first”, a neat restatement of the trickle-down theory of economic growth.

  5. While Folke et al. discuss the significance of people-centred involvement in the governance of social-economic systems in this substantial paper, it reflects an assumption that powerful actors will respond to ecosystem problems by engaging in co-management (as in adaptive governance) without much consideration of self-interest and power relations that have damaged the ecosystem in the first place.

  6. Adaptive governance is defined by Carpenter and Folke (2006) as: “Institutional and political frameworks designed to adapt to changing relationships between society and ecosystems in ways that sustain ecosystem services; expands the focus from adaptive management of ecosystems to address the broader social contexts that enable ecosystem based management”.

  7. Opening speech at COP 12 (12th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), 15 November 2006, Nairobi.

  8. See the special issue “Development policy as a way to manage climate change risks” of Climate Policy 8 (2), April 2008, edited by Bert Metz and Marcel Kok, and IDS Bulletin 39 (4), September 2008 on “Poverty in a Changing Climate”, edited by Thomas Tanner and Tom Mitchell. See also: Markandya and Halsnaes (2002), Smith et al. (2003).

  9. In that respect, even global warming may be called a “social construct” (Demeritt 2001), even though this is rejected by many natural scientists who follow a “realist” view of climate change or extreme events (Schneider 2001).

  10. Many of these can be viewed and downloaded from the Community Risk Assessment website of the ProVention Consortium at: http://www.proventionconsortium.org/?pageid=39.

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Acknowledgments

This paper emerges from the UNU-EHS supported “Expert Working Group on Measurement of Vulnerability” held in Bonn in November 2007, and we appreciate the encouragement of the staff and other participants. We would like to thank two anonymous referees for their helpful comments, and also Ilan Kelman and Ben Wisner, not all of whose important and challenging comments could be covered in the time and space we had available.

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Correspondence to Terry Cannon.

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Cannon, T., Müller-Mahn, D. Vulnerability, resilience and development discourses in context of climate change. Nat Hazards 55, 621–635 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-010-9499-4

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Keywords

  • Vulnerability
  • Resilience
  • Adaptation
  • Development
  • Discourse analysis