Natural Disasters and Development: In a Globalizing World

By Mark Pelling | Go to book overview

2

Does global environmental change cause vulnerability to disaster?

W. Neil Adger and Nick Brooks

Contested global environmental change

We have experienced natural hazards since the beginning of history. To those who have experienced them the world has appeared to cave in when a natural catastrophe occurs. It is only with the advent of economic, social and environmental globalization that we have, in effect, created the ability to actually make our world cave in and to change it irrevocably. At the same time, globalization makes us more aware of the impacts of natural hazards, and our perceptions of risk from them cannot be divorced from its social setting. The physical basis of many natural hazards is assumed to be periodic but essentially in equilibrium. Some elements of the natural world that wreak havoc when they occur do so with unpredictable timing, but are in themselves predictable after a fashion and at other timescales. But some hazards are changing in nature due to global environmental change. In this chapter we seek to elucidate what global environmental change might mean in the context of globalization, to outline some examples of global environmental change and the implications for exposure to natural hazards, and to examine some evidence of whether there has been a change in the scale and scope of environmentally 'triggered' natural hazards in the past century.

The term 'global environmental change' is contested and problematic. First, all forms of environmental change are in some sense global or, more accurately, universal. This issue is not merely semantic, but rather frames the way in which risk and response to environmental change are perceived, particularly at the level of public policy. Second, and related, the term 'global environmental change' has become synonymous with a mindset that sees the transnational nature, or global public-good nature, of environmental change as the justification for exclusively global and market-oriented solutions to solve them. This is common across the range of so-called global environmental problems, from biodiversity loss to desertification and climate change (Adger et al. 2001).

In the 1990s the discourses of global environmental change have moved to the centre ground of environmental debates, leading to global-scale solutions for what are perceived to be significant environmental problems. At

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