Q&A with Chris Field: The link between climate change and disaster risk reduction

We sat down with Chris Field, Co-Chair of Working Group 2 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the World Conference on Disaster Risk (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan to discuss some of the connections between disaster risk reduction and climate change.

You’re a climate scientist, but you’re here at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. Could you tell us why you are here?

The real risks from a changing climate play out to a large extent in extremes and disasters. Recognizing this is empowering for the development of the solutions to climate change.

There is a lot of talk about how the new framework for disaster risk reduction emphasizes the importance of science. Is this true, and if so, why and how did it happen?

I agree with the view that science is much more prominent in the new framework. A good scientific foundation is a key to smart positions. I can’t claim to be a deep student of the dynamics of this community, but my impression is that hard work and clear analysis from scientists has resulted in a recognition that science serves an important role.

The disaster risk reduction process at the UN is much less understood, and less communicated, than the climate change process under the UNFCCC. Why is this?

I think the general perspective is that climate change is a global issue, with global responsibility. Disaster risk is perceived as being more at the local and national scales. That is why I believe the role of UNISDR (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) has been less prominent. What we found in [the IPCC special report]”Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change” (SREX) is that there are unique opportunities for actors at every level from families to small communities up to international organizations and UNISDR to play a key role coordinating players at the larger scales.

How can this framework really have an impact, given that the commitments are not binding?

There are three things I hope to see from this meeting. First, the recognition of the value of information sharing and learning from experience. Second, increased recognition about the value of scientific information on the essence of risk. And third, increased awareness of the opportunities for linking disaster risk reduction with development assistance.

Within the UN negotiating environment I think what we’re finding is novel ways to encourage ambition, recognizing that the UN has exceedingly limited ways to make countries do things that they don’t want to do. I see it as a challenge in creatively encouraging ambition rather than mandating it.

How does your area of research relate to disaster risk reduction?

My work is mostly on the carbon cycle and ecosystem impacts of climate change. One area is vulnerable carbon stocks – essentially the risk that changes in climate lead to is large releases of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, amplifying the amount of climate change that occurs. It is not disaster risk reduction, but it is a genuine focus on the concept of risk.

I also feel that, even though officially we are not doing new research in the IPCC, it is still a powerful mechanism for creating new insights from the collective knowledge available in the scientific community.

In your talk just now here at the Sendai conference you put a lot of emphasis on the fact that we can actually observe climate change now – rather than something we just expect to happen in the future. Is that something people aren’t sufficiently aware of, or not discussing enough?

Yes. I think its a major new result, and it is important for getting people to focus on the value of near term actions. What we need in the near term is to take the issue seriously. We need to look at the science, look at the costs and benefits of deploying a wide range of alternative energy solutions and adaptation solutions in the context of sustainable development. What we’re really talking about on solving the climate problem is slightly tweaking the development agenda to produce the best outcomes for people everywhere.

One of the really important conclusions from the IPCC report is that no matter what climate target we adopt, the world is headed for zero emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases. The implication is that all countries can play a role in adopting and deploying 21st century energy technologies.

Chris Field is the founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology and Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Stanford University. He is co-chair of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which led the effort on the IPCC Special Report on “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation” (2012) and Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (2014). Field’s research has been recognized with several American and international awards, including the Max Planck Research Award and the Roger Revelle Medal, and with election to learned societies, including the US National Academy of Sciences (2001). 

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