Representatives of the world’s governments meeting in Durban this week have been advised by scientists that urgent action is needed to reduce the vulnerability of communities worldwide likely to be worst affected by the impacts of climate change.
In a new scientific paper and book, leading marine researchers Dr Josh Cinner of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) and James Cook University, and Tim McClanahan of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) propose a novel framework for helping millions of people most at risk to cope with massive changes in their jobs, lives, and environment driven by the warming climate.
Their proposal comes as representatives of 194 nations gather in Durban, South Africa, today for the critical 17th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the signatories to the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.
Based on a study of 1500 households in 29 coastal communities fringing the east African coast and islands of the western Indian Ocean, the researchers have developed a method for identifying the communities most vulnerable to climate change and prioritizing actions at local, national and international level to help them.
“In this region, climate change is not some distant possibility far into the future- it already happened when extreme coral bleaching killed 90% of the corals in some places,” says Dr Cinner.
“We looked first at exposure – how likely it was a community would experience an extreme event caused by climate change, such as mass coral bleaching. This can be affected by sea surface temperature, currents, prevailing winds, and other oceanographic conditions,” he explains. “Then we looked at the social components of people’s vulnerability – for example, whether they had alternative sources of food or employment. And finally we looked at their capacity to adapt to the changes inflicted by a shifting climate.
“Together these three factors define how vulnerable a community and individuals are to climate change,” adds Dr McClanahan.
“From there it is possible to identify the most appropriate actions that can be taken in the short, medium and long-term at local, national and global level to reduce that vulnerability, and equip these communities to cope better with what will happen to them.”
In a new paper in the journal Global Environmental Change, the researchers and their colleagues propose a systematic way to assess the vulnerability of coastal communities to loss of coral reefs and fish stocks due to climatic factors.
“We want people to understand that every community is different, that there are no ‘one-size fits all’ solutions when it comes to adapting to climate change,” Dr Cinner says.
“Each situation is unique, requiring a flexible approach.”
“Hundreds of millions of people worldwide depend on coral reefs – for livelihoods in fishing and tourism, for food and for coastal protection,” says co-author on the study Dr. Tim Daw of the University of East Anglia and Stockholm Resilience Centre.
“However, not all reefs are equally vulnerable to impacts like bleaching, and not all communities are equally dependent on reefs for their living. Some have greater capacity to adapt to sudden changes than others.”
This heterogeneity creates different types of vulnerabilities in coastal communities, which in turn require specific approaches to reduce communities’ sensitivity to big changes and enhance their ability to cope, the researchers say.
In their book “Adapting to a Changing Environment – Confronting the Consequences of Climate Change” Cinner and McClanahan argue using data from a larger study of the Indian Ocean and Africa that confronting the challenges of climate change in the coming century will require strengthening of a society\’s flexibility, assets, capacity to learn, and social organizations, as well as restricting or limiting its resource use.
This has to be done based on the context and vulnerability of the individual community, not in a broad-brush way, they argue.
“We studied communities that depend on coral reefs, because they typify those that are highly susceptible to climate change. However, our general approach applies equally to agricultural, desert, mountain and other communities, who will also be exposed to major changes in temperature and extreme events by the mid-century,” says Dr Cinner.
“We have created a framework which can help identify different types of vulnerability to major climatic impacts and provide policy makers with tangible actions to reduce it,” the researchers say.
“It will take a long time to implement global action to reduce carbon emissions, but action can be taken right away to help reduce the impacts on the world’s most vulnerable. COP17 provides a clear opportunity to make an early start.”