Helping Vulnerable People Cope with Climate Change: STOP SAYING THAT!

By Shaun Martin, WWF-US

Allow me to begin by saying I am all for helping vulnerable people. As in previous entries in this series, I am less concerned whether or not this phrase is technically correct and more interested in how it is interpreted and used by people new to the field of climate change adaptation. It is in this regard I have several issues with using “helping vulnerable people cope with climate change” to explain one’s mission and goals.

First, let’s tackle the word “cope.” Put aside for the moment that “cope” is a concept present among speakers of English that does not translate well into many of the world’s languages. For those of us whose native tongue is English, the word “cope” implies that you are dealing with something unpleasant, disruptive, or damaging that you have already encountered. In other words, coping is reactive. A community copes with a flood (a hazard), but not with increased frequency and severity of flooding events (a hallmark of climate change). A community prepares for and adapts to, not copes with, the increased likelihood of future extreme events. Adaptation is a pro-active.

As Heather McGray of the World Resources Institute explains in one of my adaptation favorite videos, a farming family that loses its crops to drought may sell a cow for income. This is a coping strategy – one that employed after the drought has occurred and the family suffers from crop loss. The problem with coping is that the farming family, being down one cow, will be less well-off when then rains return. Empowering farmers to prepare for more frequent and increasingly severe droughts by providing access to regional forecasting, installing rainwater harvesting technologies, and introducing drought resistant crops are all pro-active actions that I would label as adaptation.  (Note that as I write this piece, farmers in the United States are waiting for Congress to help them cope with the severe drought that has decimated crops this year by providing drought relief. Little is being said about how about we can help farmers adapt to these kinds of events in the future.)

Enough said on “coping.” Let’s turn to “vulnerable.”

I have found that when we describe people and communities as “vulnerable” most audiences perceive the “vulnerable” as other people somewhere else. It implies that they themselves are somehow not vulnerable. When speaking to colleagues in Scandinavia about climate change, they clearly believed that Africans were vulnerable and therefore needed to adapt, while rich Europeans need only address the root cause of climate change through mitigation. Their perspective changed after we discussed the fact that that while Europeans may not be as immediately vulnerable as Africans, they are highly vulnerable to indirect impacts stemming from things like declining agricultural production in other regions. The thought of southern Europeans migrating en masse to northern Europe was enough to do the trick.

In fact, all of us are vulnerable to the disruption and damage that climate change brings. It is only a matter of degree and immediacy that separates the vulnerable from the most vulnerable. So technically “helping vulnerable people” is correct in that it suggests that we need to help everyone. But that is not what most of us mean when we say this and it is certainly not what most people infer. In prioritizing adaptation we often want to help the most immediately vulnerable among us. So if that is what you mean, then say it that way!

But there comes a challenge in determining exactly who is most vulnerable. Compare any vulnerability assessments that attempt to rank groups or geographies by vulnerability and you will find little agreement among them. Vulnerability is, like many things, in the eye of the beholder. One’s choice of indicators to quantify exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity (and therefore vulnerability) highly affects the outcomes of an assessment. For example, exposure is often measured by using population as an indicator – the more people exposed to hazards, the greater exposure, so the logic goes. Thus a small, rural community where most households are highly sensitive to flooding intuitively might seem more vulnerable than a larger, more affluent river-front community. However, because a greater number of households (whose homes are probably more valuable) are at risk in the larger community, a vulnerability assessment might tell us to prioritize action there rather than in the more sensitive but smaller community.

Particularly problematic is the choice of indicators that approximate adaptive capacity. Most assessments use some sort of economic measure, like per capita income, GDP, or poverty rates. Certainly access to financial resources is critical in adapting to change, and the more resources at one’s disposal, the better. But often missing from assessments of adaptive capacity are things like awareness of the problem and political will do something about it. A community with lots of resources that chooses to ignore the problem might as well have no resources at all. In this regard, I would make the United States* more vulnerable than it is typically ranked in country-level VA’s and give nations like Bangladesh and Vietnam more points for their awareness of the problem and willingness to act accordingly (though lack of financial resources in these countries means that they are still highly vulnerable.)

I could go on by talking about how different communities are vulnerable to different things, which makes comparing them difficult (i.e., which is more vulnerable, a coastal fishing community facing storm surges, or an inland agricultural community experiencing drought?). My point here is that even if your intent is to help the most vulnerable people and communities (or species and ecosystems) you can practically justify working with anyone, anywhere by choosing how you measure vulnerability. My advice would be to simply identify who you wish to empower and use a vulnerability assessment to discover what makes them particularly vulnerable rather than how vulnerable they are relative to others.

So to bring it back to where we began, “helping vulnerable people cope with climate change” is not a particularly helpful or even meaningful phrase to rally an audience to your cause. It is at the same time misguided (we want to adapt, not cope), misleading (helping others reinforces the idea that I am safe), and ambiguous (just who is vulnerable anyway?). So what should we say instead?

If you work for a disaster response and recovery organization, continue to use “cope.” Coping is important. At one time we will all at need assistance in managing major disruptions in our lives when they occur. However, if your aim is to ensure that we will need a lot less coping when trouble comes our way, then use words like prepare for, manage, and adapt. As for that troublesome word, “vulnerable,” if you cannot specify exactly whom it is you want to help, try leaving out “vulnerable” altogether. In many cases “empowering people to prepare for the changing climate starting with those who need the most help” might work just fine.

* To address this particular problem of awareness and will, WWF-US is encouraging US cities to participate in the Earth Hour City Challenge and engage their citizens on preparing for increasingly extreme weather and promoting renewable energy.