Climate Change


Climate Podcast: How should we tackle climate disasters?

In this episode, hosts Mark Maslin and Helen Czerski are wrapping up season 2 of the Generation One podcast with a conversation on disaster, mitigation and climate change. Dr Ilan Kelman and Prof Lisa Vanhala are sitting down with Mark to discuss defining natural disasters and what can be done to mitigate climate change.


UCL Minds  00:02

We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.

Ilan Kellman  00:11

That disaster does not come from the environment.

Lisa Vanhala  00:15

Human rights based approach would really really shift our thinking in terms of where power should lie.

Ilan Kellman  00:23

Just because I've happened to have some letters, does not make me any more knowledgeable, any wiser or any better than people who are eking out an existence day to day.

Mark Maslin  00:42

This is generation one from University College London, turning climate science and ideas into action. Hello, welcome to Generation One. I'm Mark Manson, Professor in the Geography Department here at UCL. My research ranges from studying the climate change of the past, the present, and even the future frequent listeners to the podcast, we know that we try hard to cover a wide variety of topics. And the beauty of the university like UCL is that we have colleagues, graduates and networks, which means we can call on some of the best people in the world to shed light on these subjects. And today, we are going to try to get into a really big and potentially quite scary subject, climate and environmental disasters, and how we can prevent them or recover from them. But before we do so, I want to take a moment to remind you how you can get involved in the podcast, and also UCL work and campaigns. We have a website ucl.ac.uk forward slash, climate hyphen change. There, you'll find all kinds of news research and your chance to make a pledge towards tackling the climate crisis. We would obviously love it if you would rate and subscribe to this podcast wherever you get your podcast from, not to mention sharing it with your network. We're also on Instagram and Twitter, hashtag UCL generation one, we would love to get your emails with comments and suggestions for future topics. The address is podcasts with an s @ucl.ac.uk. If you want to you can send a voice note and we'll include it in future episodes.

UCL Minds  02:30

You're listening to UCL generation one, turning science and ideas into climate action.

Mark Maslin  02:38

One of the reasons we want to make these generation one podcast was not only because UCL has such extraordinary wealth of talent, but because we wanted to do something which could actually make people think and change the way they behave. The consequences of doing nothing are alarming and increasingly difficult to ignore, as barely a week passes without some fresh insight, highlighting the perilous state of the planet's delicate ecosystems. And the very real prospect which is focusing our minds is environmental disaster, and the potential for us to avoid the outcome or if need be recover from it. With me to talk about these issues are my UCL colleagues and friends Professor Lisa Vanhala And Professor Ilan Kellman. Lisa is a professor in the UCL Department of Political Science. Her research covers the Politics of Climate Change, and the social legal study of human rights and equality issues. Her current ERC funded project is the politics and governance of climate change loss and damage, and is one of the reasons why she's a frequent attendee at the UNF Triple C COP meetings. Also with me is Ilan who is a professor in the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, and the Institute for Global Health. His research focuses on disasters and health. And some of his most important work has been on the impact of climate change on small island nations and his seminal contributions to the annual Lancet countdown on global health and climate change. Lisa, I wanted to start with you and ask you, what is the role of loss and damage when we're dealing with the current and future climate related disasters?

Lisa Vanhala  04:30

Yeah, it's great to be here, Mark, really excited to be able to talk about this with both of you. When we talk about loss and damage and the climate space at the UNF Triple C level. We're really thinking about kind of a new, relatively new third paradigm in climate policymaking. So if a lot of focus on climate policy has been on mitigation or trying to reduce emissions, and then adaptation trying to adapt to the impacts of climate change. This third pillar of climate policy is really focusing on Maybe those impacts of climate change that we may not be able to or may choose not to adapt to. And so So what do we do that, and that's kind of been talked about in that UN space as loss and damage. So the term resilience comes up a lot there as well. One of the things that my project is looking at is trying to understand how national level policy makers are beginning to understand this idea of loss and damage, and where do they look for kind of resources and tools and guidance on how to grapple with some of these things that fall in the last loss and damage category, which is a really broad set of issues dealing with things like kind of human mobility related to climate change. So populations that are having to move because of some of these climate impacts to dealing with non economic losses, like changing livelihoods, kind of loss of culture, maybe, and dealing also with kind of comprehensive climate risk management. So it's a motley crew of issues that fall into this category that we call loss and damage.

Mark Maslin  05:58

So I was really interested because there's the sort of localised national understanding of loss and damage and how to deal with it. But there's also what you study is the much broader international, and that cop 26. at Glasgow, we all realise that we fail to take the loss and damage initiative forward, I believe it was blocked by the USA and the EU, given the next COP will be the African cop based in Egypt, and focus much more on adaptation. What are your hopes for loss and damage? Do you think we can actually build a sort of consensus on this?

Lisa Vanhala  06:34

Yeah, it's a great question mark. And COP 26, I think was, you know, in some ways, kind of parodic Matic, that loss and damage issue has been really contentious since it first emerged. And in some ways, that's in part because a lot of people in that space understand it as an issue related to kind of compensation or liability. COP 26, in some ways, wasn't knew that the EU and the US are often kind of very hesitant to, to kind of make any kind of progress on loss and damage, partly because of this fear of being held to account or held responsible and what that might mean in terms of compensation. But yeah, COP 26. I mean, the developing countries were really pushing for more finance, and kind of more institutional structures to help them deal with with these impacts of climate change that they might not be able to adapt to. And that that fell through kind of quite late in the day, what they, you know, where we did get to was the establishment of a Glasgow dialogue on finance for loss damage. There's some scepticism about where this is going to go. So there, there's been a lot of talk about finance and fairly little money on the table thus far, it kind of explicitly in that loss and damage category. I am more hopeful at this point, I have seen things kind of happening and shifts kind of within the EU even in terms of thinking about this. And one thing that was really interesting that came out of COP 26 on loss and damage was that we had different kinds of actors all of a sudden starting to talk about finance for loss and damage. So the Scottish government committed 2 million pounds, the Wallonia government in Belgium met that as well. So that's really the first time we've seen kind of sub national actors really engaging in that international space.

Mark Maslin  08:21

So Ilan, if I can bring you into this discussion, because you're much more focused on the ground, or what the actual impacts are real people, What, in your opinion, the best ways that we can so perhaps prevent some of these disasters or at least reduce their impacts.

Ilan Kellman  08:37

A lot of it really comes from ensuring that we articulate properly what a disaster is. So we do throw around these phrases like climate disaster climate related disaster, but as Lisa just mentioned, some of our vocabulary is, Well funny. It's odd, because the disaster does not come from the environment. A disaster does not come from the climate or the weather, or changes or earthquakes or tsunamis. The disaster comes from exactly what you just said, Mark, what is happening on the ground, that people often want to help themselves want to reduce risk, want to be safer, but simply the political and societal structures, long term processes denying people opportunities, resources and choices mean that they cannot deal which is perfectly typical environmental processes, and often perfectly typical environmental changes, although not always because there's a lot of environmental changes we are doing, which are far from perfectly typical. So what do we do about it? Well, we need to understand people's needs, interests, and also their contributions. It's an exchange, just because I happen to have a title just because I happen to have some letters does not make me any more knowledgeable, any wiser or any better. then people who are eking out an existence day to day, we need to learn from each other, recognise what the day to day and century to century challenges are, in order to say, look, you're sitting in an earthquake zone, this is what's needed, or we are changing the climate rapidly. And substantively, this is what the implications are. And this is how we deal with it. It's about people, disasters, risks are about people. So what we do about it is work with people, to learn from them, to exchange with them to say, here's how we build up over the long term, making people safer and healthier with fulfilling livelihoods and lives.

Mark Maslin  10:39

Given the recent IPCC reports on impacts and mitigation. What are your thoughts on the magnitude and frequency of disasters? And I take your point, that sort of disasters are basically human generated, they're not climate or environmentally generated. But we do know that the environment and the climate is changing. So having read these reports, where do you think we should be focusing our efforts to try and prevent the worst impacts on humans?

Ilan Kellman  11:08

Well, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is fascinating because this recent report, which came out is a six assessment report, the first one being in 1990. And this sixth report didn't tell us anything new. It therefore raises a question. If we want to decide where to focus our efforts, why are we putting into more assessment reports to tell us what we know. Anyway. So this panel, the IPCC, we have to wonder whether we need it anymore, it's given us plenty. And what we need to do is take the evidence and apply it. So because disasters come from people's choices, particularly long term political choices to oppress others, to marginalise others to remove resources and opportunities from others. We need to focus our efforts on changing these structures. We are changing the climate, rapidly and substantively, that is indisputable. And it's actually really complicated if we want to take hurricanes or landslides or blizzards, frequency, intensity, location, all of these aspects are being altered because of climate change. Not all of them are getting worse. Some are changing differently, which may be bad or good, depending how we respond. Actually, some numbers are decreasing. So if we look at hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones, the projections are a decrease in numbers from human caused climate change, even while intensity increases. So the focus has to be on people. Why are we living in vulnerable places, without the options, opportunities and resources to help ourselves? And that's politics, that's people that society that sees long term, gradual processes that force people instead into situations where they cannot help themselves.

Mark Maslin  13:02

Lisa, a lot of your research focuses on human rights and what we've heard from Ilan, it really is about people and their livelihoods. Can you help the listeners understand how we can use human rights and why they are right at the heart of how we must deal with these future and current disasters?

Lisa Vanhala  13:23

Yeah, so the way that we might think about human rights when we're thinking about climate change is both in terms of how human rights are impacted by the impacts of climate or what Ilan has just called the changing weather potentially. So how is that affecting people's right to life, the right to health, the right to culture. But we might also think about how we respond to climate both in the way that we mitigate climate change, but also in the way that we respond to these potential disasters and their human rights offers a more kind of procedural approach, right, whose voices should be included in decision making about how we prepare for disasters, how we respond to disasters, and how we deal with the aftermath of disasters. And so a human rights based approach would really kind of reshift our thinking in terms of where power should lie in terms of the like, who makes those decisions, and who's who's kind of agency is going to be either undermine or bolstered in the way that we met in the way that we make those decisions as they happen before, during and after a disaster.

Mark Maslin  14:29

So Ilan, I mean, I know from your research that this sort of idea of human rights and who has voice and engagement and power is really central to your research. Do you have any examples of how you've been able to build communities of voices that allows human rights to actually be taken into consideration within the sort of these disaster preventions?

Ilan Kellman  14:52

I have no right to use that word. I have no right to impose ideas on others. What we do as scientists, is try to ensure that people have the information available for them to make their own decisions have the evidence available that they can try and use in order to improve their lives and livelihoods. So where I have tried to bolster human rights of people dealing with climate change, as well as disasters, is where I've lived for myself, for my own locations, we are working with politicians such as in the House of Lords, and other people who affect change and deal with policy in the private sector and non governmental institutions. This is where we try and help ourselves while providing opportunities and approaches that others can use according to their own context. And this ranges from humanitarian shelter, right through to what you mentioned, initially, in terms of dealing with some of the small island communities. So humanitarian shelter, for example, has traditionally been considered to be in other locations, people who are supposedly poor and helpless and cannot assist themselves. Within London and other places I've lived, it really is saying, Well, how do we deal with community gardens? How do we deal with mayors or decision makers? We recently prepared a report on warnings for the UK for the national preparedness commission. It was such a privilege to be able to write the report, which we hope is being given and applied by many decision makers such as the in the environment agency, in the Met Office, and other people who are serving the UK. This experience, hopefully, we can apply to small island countries and elsewhere. But in writing the report, and in dealing with local and national decision and policymakers, I've gained so much and applied so much from what I've learned from the islanders, and from others. So on a rights basis, I hope this means in evidence basis, but very much an exchange basis, learning from each other and helping each other for our own back gardens.

Mark Maslin  17:07

I think this is one of the things that I find really exciting about working in this field is this co- across cultural exchange of information and understanding about how we deal with the environment and the climate. Lisa, I'm going to bring it back to you and ask you a really nasty question, which is, what can we be? What can we do at the international level to actually prevent what we're seeing, which is the loss of life, loss of health and livelihoods because of these environmental and climate disasters that we've seen unfolding all around the world in the last couple of years?

Lisa Vanhala  17:44

Yeah, so I've spent the last five years following quite closely a body called the Warsaw International Mechanism Executive Committee, the UN, obviously loves their acronyms. So it's known as the WIM XCOM. And one of the areas where I think we've seen the most progress at that level is related to kind of thinking about governance of climate related displacement. And they've established a task force on displacement. And a lot of experts from international organisations and non governmental bodies sit there, like really trying to think through a lot of the things that Ilan has talked about, about, you know, how do we how do we kind of accommodate the kind of range of different ways in which climate related displacement might play out the fact that a lot of it is internal, rather than crossing borders? What kind of support might be available at the international level there and what kinds of law might be helpful for those people that are facing that, as well as those who are not able to move right? We often emphasise that those people who are able to move. So that's one example of kind of where and how things are progressing slowly, slowly at the international level, I think one thing that will be really interesting to kind of watch over the next few years is how much of that is trickling down and how much national policymakers are aware of what's happening at that level and starting to use some of the tools that might be developed there in the way that they develop policy and guidance and practices going forward. But really, I think the big issue there as the resources for thinking about these things have just not been forthcoming.

Mark Maslin  19:23

Ilan, one of the things that we see with disasters is that they take many forms. So we are all at the moment focused on the Ukraine invasion, and the humanitarian disaster that's happening there. How do you see that fitting into the wider aspects of disasters? And is it distracting us against other bigger problems such as climate change?

Ilan Kellman  19:47

It is a horrible situation. It is a real disaster and like all disasters entirely unnecessary, entirely unwarranted and is really destroying a country. Which had so much going for it. So we just find it so sad that there is so much we could and should be doing to avert disasters. And instead, those with power, want to create disasters. Even worse, is this level of violence and conflict is not new. Ongoing before Ukraine was invaded, were horrible wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. So is it a distraction? No, because it's the human condition. And it's what we want to try and stop. But we want to try and deal with, it really shows how much politics kills people and kills countries. It shows how much we've yet to do in order to bring our leaders and those with the power on side to help everyone. And we just hope that it will, the killing will end soon. And we can hopefully use the lessons to try and stop war and other disasters in the future.

Mark Maslin  21:01

Can I put you on the spot and say, given your experience, both in London, small island nations, the Arctic, what do you think are the most important factors that can make local communities more resilient and perhaps better able to deal with these future potential disasters?

Ilan Kellman  21:19

People. People, livelihoods, governance, people need resources, they need choices, they need opportunities. Lisa, actually used the key word, the key word power. If people do not have the power to meet their needs, in balance on an evidence basis without causing problems from others, then we're in deep trouble. And we are in deep trouble because they don't have that. We need to look at what they're experiencing and why and how it's very good examples actually trying to attribute disasters, complex migration to human caused climate change. We've been trying for long time from the top down and bottom up, just talking to people understanding their experiences, as well as diving deep into the academic theory, trying to understand the terminology, trying to understand international processes. And we actually really struggle to attribute migration, displacement, moving, disasters, catastrophes, calamities, conflicts, war and violence, we really struggle to attribute any of them directly to human caused climate change. It is likely to change in the future because the climate is changing rapidly and substantively, heat humidity is devastating now, and it is not going to get better, it's going to get a lot worse. And there are other impacts of climate change, which are really going to kick in in the future. But there are so many myths so much rhetoric, so much encrypt science, saying that everything is about climate change, and these people are moving. So it's climate change. And this has also happened. So it's climate change! On the ground, with the people with the science top down and bottom up, we really cannot evidence that at this point. So it's a balance.

Mark Maslin  23:07

One of the things we do on these podcasts is we ask each one of our guests, is there a myth or a misunderstanding that really annoys you that you think should be busted?

Ilan Kellman  23:19

I mentioned some of the myths, but one of the phrases which we are trying to challenge and ensure that people understand the reason for challenging it, is this phrase 'environmental disaster', 'natural disaster' - deflects and distracts us from the people processes, which are the causes of risks and disasters long term and short term. So one myth which we hope to bust is removing these words climate disaster, climate related disaster, environmental disaster and natural disaster to ensure that people do not think that disasters come from the environment, but rather disasters come from people.

Mark Maslin  23:57

Lisa, I'm going to ask you the same question. Having dealt with the international negotiations, there must be some myths on things you get really frustrated about you want to get these off your chest.

Lisa Vanhala  24:09

Yeah, it's a good point. Mine is more of a geeky disciplinary one, Mark. I'm political scientists have have really, they've been doing a lot of thinking about climate change and what it means for politics and governance for a while. But the emphasis has really been on the mitigation side of things. And I think that in part comes from the fact that, you know, reducing emissions is something that we in the Global North that when we think about climate policy, that's one of the first things that comes to mind, because that's what we need to be doing. That's what's going to change our lives. And that's what our governments need to be grappling with. But when we take kind of a more holistic global picture, I've really felt the shift over the last five years in terms of where we as political scientists need to be putting our attention and the governance of adaptation, the politics of vulnerability as I think Ilan has so beautifully highlighted in this conversation. And the kinds of choices that we make that lead to those losses and damages that I've been studying, I think really deserve a lot more attention from social scientists and from political scientists in particular, who really haven't looked at that. And, and it has implications for people setting a range of different issues from kind of political economies to political behaviour to people interested in international law and international relations. There's a lot of room I think, to make to make a contribution and to advance the kind of political sciences, social sciences, when we think about the impacts of climate change. And so for me, that's kind of a very kind of, I suppose, intellectual myth I want to bust is that, you know, thinking about climate is thinking about mitigation policies. And I really want to encourage colleagues to kind of think more broadly.

Mark Maslin  25:48

Can I say thank you to both Lisa and Ilan for a brilliant set of answers. And also just a highlight. This is the reason why I absolutely love being at UCL because of having brilliant colleagues. And if I've taken anything away from this, it is that to deal with disasters, we must empower people. Full stop. I like to say a huge thank you to Lisa, and to Ilan. Thank you guys.

Lisa Vanhala  26:18

Thanks so much Mark, really thought provoking discussion.

Ilan Kellman  26:20

Thank you for the opportunity.

UCL Minds  26:23

You're listening to UCL generation one, turning science and ideas into climate action.

Mark Maslin  26:30

In a moment, I'll be rounding up some of the notable climate news stories that I've been tracking this week. But before I do that, let me remind you about all the ways you can get involved in the podcast and UCL's work related to climate change, which you can find on ucl.ac.uk forward slash, climate hyphen change, please rate and subscribe to the podcast and send us a comment or question to podcasts with an s @ucl.ac.uk.  My conversation with Ilan and Lisa was recorded a few weeks ago. But this is my summary of the climate news stories. I have been tracking for the week beginning Monday, June the sixth 2022. Last week, the G7 the meeting of the world's largest seven economies, agreed to decarbonize the electricity sector by 2035. The decision to decarbonize however, does allow countries to still burn fossil fuels if they capture their greenhouse gases. And as we all know, current technology cannot capture 100% of those gases emitted. The G7 also committed to eventually phase out coal power generation but gave no deadline for when this would happen. Well, this week at the Bonn climate summit, the US envoy on climate change, John Kerry has warned delegates, and I quote, if countries extend their reliance on coal in response to the war, then were cooked. In the UK, the government has announced a 25% windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas firms that will create a 5 billion pound fund to assist low income households struggling with a sharp rise in the cost of living. An important feature of this extra tax is there any money that companies may have lost in previous years or money that they spent on decommissioning naughty oil platforms cannot be used to reduce the amount of tax they pay. Because we know in recent years such methods have meant that BP and Shell for example, have paid almost no tax in the UK. So all UK households will get a 400 pound grant on their energy bills, and more than 8 million people on low incomes will get 650 pound payment to help with the cost of living. That was the climate change news from G7 promises to bond climate summit realities to taxing the extreme profits of fossil fuel companies to support the poor. That's it for the second series of generation one podcast, myself and my co host, Helen Cesky. have really enjoyed making these programmes and we hope that you have enjoyed listening to them just as much. As I mentioned, there is a stack of really good material on the UCL climate change website, not least the links to all the previous episodes of generation one. We very much hope to be back later this year with more podcasts. But until then, for me, Mark Maslin goodbye for now.