Living with Environmental Change: Impressions

For two days, climate change experts, researchers from various social, natural and health-related disciplines, policymakers and agency representatives gathered in Birmingham on invitation of the Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) initiative which has been in existence since 2008 to discuss state-of-the science, policy priorities and recommendations. The conference, entitled ‘Supporting the Road to Adaptation’.

Irrespective of projections based on a 2 or 4 degree warming of the planet, rising sea levels, melting ice and global and local climate changes are under way. Much discussion has also focused on the role of human behaviour in affecting the extent and speed of climate change. Human activities have changed the odds of severe weather events. But there is also increasing awareness that linear prediction models have not accounted sufficiently for the complexity of human behaviour and environmental dynamics.

Current activities of the LWEC programme revolve around two central concepts ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’. Mitigation focused activities relate to strategies to prepare for and reduce the impact of climate and environmental change mostly based on the statistically modelled impact of climate change on the physical, natural and social environment; adaptation refers to ways of ‘living with’ the effects of climate change and navigating this changed world. 
Why should SDHI be concerned about environmental change? I would contend that there are several arguments that could be made for an increased engagement in the climate change agenda. Firstly, the understanding of both mitigation and adaptation mechanisms requires not only environmental science data but also social and behavioural science expertise. SDHI has a long track record of working across various social science disciplines, including human and social geography, health and social psychology, and anthropology. Researchers affiliated with the Institute can draw on a vast portfolio of research methodologies, including population statistics and data linkage, community mapping, survey data and qualitative explorations. 
Secondly, one of the key strands of the LWEC inititative and focus of the recent Health Protection Agency (2012) report are the health and wellbeing effects of climate change. The number of heat days has been increasing statistically over the past twenty years. Consider the implications for a growing number of younger and older adults with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Changes to the indoor and outdoor environment as a result of ozone level changes and humidity may be particularly challenging for people living in substandard housing, ultimately the less affluent and resourceful segments of society will bear the most profound and extensive impact on their health, wellbeing and opportunities for participation.  This is clearly at the heart of the ‘Building Bridges’ Strategy that SDHI has adopted in 2011, which positions health, wellbeing and participation at the centre of four overlapping areas of influence (economy, environment, demography and technology). SDHI has closely worked in partnership with the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR), a joint initiative between the University of Dundee and the James Hutton Institute (JHI), which has produced joint PhD studentships and knowledge exchange events at the intersection of natural hazards, environmental impact and health and wellbeing. Information is also exchanged at the level of Steering Group and Management Team between the two interdisciplinary platforms. 
Thirdly, there is rising awareness in the LWEC community for concepts such as ‘vulnerability’ linked to adaptation. SDHI has a substantial social dimensions focus on population groups that are being considered as ‘vulnerable’; i.e. people who are homeless, people with disabilities, dementia, long-term conditions, low literacy and/or limited material resources. We are arguing for a socio-relational understanding of ‘vulnerability’. In other words, not specific populations are vulnerable but environmental and social processes can render them vulnerable via lack of access to needed resources, compromised opportunities for influence and self-determination and social and physical marginalisation and exclusion.
Clearly, SDHI’s multi- and interdisciplinary research over the past 9 years into service systems, organisations, behaviours and marginalised populations including people with disabilities has and will continue to make substantial contributions in this area. 
Finally, in ‘Building Bridges’ we have laid out a commitment to linking local and global expertise. Over the past year we have seen an increasing number of academic exchanges and presentations with local and global research relevance. This is also in line with the ambitious strategic plan of the University of Dundee, entitled ‘Transformation’. 
We view climate and environmental change as one of the most significant challenges of the 21st Century, both from a basic scientific as well as from a social justice perspective. SDHI is committed to work in partnership with other organisations, research platforms and centres to inform through research and creative innovation the next Climate Change Risk Assessments (CCRA-2 and -3).