Prof. Jörn Birkmann: „The impacts of climate change depend on the vulnerability and adaptability of societies“
Extreme weather events resulting from climate change will become more frequent and more severe, but the impacts will affect societies very differently, depending on their respective vulnerability and adaptability: This is one of the findings of the 6th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Prof. Jörn Birkmann, who is the head of the Institute of Spatial and Regional Planning at the University of Stuttgart, is one of the report’s co-authors. For example, the number of fatalities after floods, droughts, and storms is about 15 times higher in highly vulnerable countries and regions than in countries and regions with low vulnerability.
Birkmann was part of Working Group II of the IPCC and is one of the three coordinating lead authors of Chapter 8, which deals with issues of poverty, different vulnerabilities, climate-sensitive survival strategies, and the topic of sustainable development. Within this framework, he and his team were able to introduce their research on global and local patterns of vulnerability in a prominent place. On the basis of numerous global studies, the researchers found that the huge differences in the impacts of extreme weather events cannot be accounted for by their intensity or frequency alone. “The differences rather reflect the fact that the impacts of climate change affect societies with different levels of vulnerability and very different adaptive capacities,” Birkmann explains. “Already existing destabilizing factors such as poverty, military conflicts, and social inequalities co-determine whether an extreme event leads to extreme, negative impacts.”
“National programs are not sufficient”
The findings of Prof. Birkmann’s team also show that there are 3.3 to 3.6 billion people living in vulnerable contexts worldwide. Numerous countries and so-called “global hotspots of vulnerability” are characterized by overlapping developmental problems. “Besides issues of poverty, a high proportion of older people or a fragile political system, for example, can result in preparation for risk and adaptive capacity being weakened,” says Birkmann. According to the scientist, the most vulnerable areas and regions are usually not individual states but groups of countries. “Therefore, we need to create more incentives for cooperation between countries,” Birkmann says. “National programs alone aren’t sufficient.”
The report also reveals that strategies for risk mitigation and adaptation must consider the framework and conditions of the respective countries and the communities living there. For example, in addition to financial aid and early-warning systems, institutional capacities must be strengthened and issues of structural development must be tackled. In addition, since many global hotspots of vulnerability are located in developing countries, the issue of climate justice will be given greater weight in the future. “Most of the particularly vulnerable countries caused only a small proportion of global climate emissions, and yet they are experiencing above-average damage,” says Birkmann.
Relevant also for Germany
But it’s not only the developing countries that are affected by the impacts of extreme weather events. “The floods on the Ahr and in North Rhine-Westphalia in the past summer, with more than 180 fatalities, show that the topics of vulnerability, risk mitigation, and climate adaptation are burning issues for Germany as well.” As can be seen from the fatality statistics in Rhineland-Palatinate, the flood disproportionately affected vulnerable people such as the elderly and people with disabilities. “The reconstruction currently underway should therefore not only restore the condition before the event, but also reduce the vulnerability and risk from future events,” urges Birkmann, who is also a member of the expert group for the scientific monitoring of the reconstruction process. “Besides, the people in the devastated regions need quick reconstruction, they cannot wait for years. To be prepared in the future, we’re going to need climate adaptation concepts that are ready to be put into practice.”
Prof. Jörn Birkmann, University of Stuttgart, Institute of Spatial and Regional Planning, Phone ++ 49 (0)711 685-66333, E-Mail email@example.com