World Bank Workshop Puts Human Face on Impacts of Climate Change

May 2, 2008

  • Poor people will be hurt most by an increasingly unstable climate.
  • Workshop goal was to launch broad discussion on global responses to social dimensions of climate change.
  • Formation of global regulatory framework centered on social justice called urgent.

May 2, 2008 – Many of the negative impacts of climate change, actual and predicted, have been charted and graphed. But how do you humanize the faceless metrics – and make sure those who will be most affected get help?

A recent international workshop at the World Bank on “The Social Dimensions of Climate Change” looked for ways to put a human face on the grim statistics and strategize how the global community should respond.

Some 200 people attended the two-day workshop’s mostly standing-room only sessions on how climate change is likely to affect issues of conflict, migration, urban space, rural institutions, drylands, social policy, indigenous peoples, and gender. Attendees included former heads of state, community activists, indigenous peoples, scientists, academics, and development practitioners, including top staffers from the World Bank.

The goal was to “shape a global agenda on the social dimensions of climate change,” says Steen Jorgensen, Director of the Social Development Department at the World Bank, a sponsor of the conference along with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.

“The impacts of climate change are seen and felt differently by different people, depending on, for example, their gender, age, caste, or ethnic group,” says Jorgensen. “We, therefore, need to ensure that policy and program interventions are designed based on poor people’s own reality. For example, weather-related shocks already figure prominently in the lives of the poor, and climate change ratchets up the risks and vulnerabilities they face – possibly to the point of causing irreversible damage to poor families.”

Millions at Risk

The environmental and economic costs of climate change are well documented, but the human impacts have been mostly obscured by numbers. “The Social Dimensions of Climate Change” workshop focused on the people behind the numbers.

A 2º C temperature rise in coming decades – the lowest increase forecasted by UN climate change scenarios – could worsen drought and flooding and plunge hundreds of millions of people into hunger. It would expose millions more people to malaria and water shortages, according to experts. This in turn could potentially drive more conflicts, forcing millions of people to flee. Most of the victims would be the most vulnerable – the world’s poor.

”This was not a conference to present definite answers, but to raise the issue to the level of profile and importance it deserves,” said Gillette Hall, Senior Social Development Specialist at the World Bank. “The purpose was to signal early, ‘Let’s not make the same mistake we’ve made over and over in the past, where we’ve left out the social impacts and the human face.’”

How hundreds of millions of poor people in low- and middle-income countries who are jammed in urban areas will cope with flooding, landslides, and other impacts of climate change was one focus of the two days of discussions.

Local governments “lack knowledge and capacity to act,” said Caroline Moser of the Global Urban Research Centre at the University of Manchester in the U.K. “Community responses to climate change are essential."

In some urban areas, those grassroots responses are already happening.

“Simple actions are being scaled up by communities themselves, and knowledge has been transferred from one country to another,” said workshop participant Esther Mwaura-Muiru, Founder and Director of GROOTS, a multi-tribal women’s self-help network in Kenya that has linked up with similar groups in Latin America and East Asia and the Pacific as well as other African countries. “We have not persuaded any agency to borrow from these lessons and scale these actions up.”

Pinpointing the social dimension of climate change is not easy because many of the impacts have multiple repercussions. For example, young girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, or Latin America may have to quit school because they are forced to spend more time fetching water due to more severe and more frequent droughts brought on by climate change.

An entire session of the workshop focused on such linkages between climate change and gender.

“Women are often very vulnerable and consequently one of the most affected groups,” said Caroline Kende-Robb, Sector Manager of the Bank’s Social Development Department. “In the tsunami of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India, mortality rates of women were 3-4 times higher that of men because many women had not learnt to swim due to social norms or they were trying to save their children without regard for their own safety. Climate-induced storm surges will have similar impacts. However, women are powerful agents of change as well as the managers of community resources. They therefore have an important role to play in designing effective adaptation and risk reduction strategies.”

Integrating Social Justice in a New Climate Change Strategy

Lessons learned from the workshop’s presentations, panel discussions, and Q & A’s will shape policies and approaches which the World Bank will adopt in responding to the social impact of climate change.

Robin Mearns, Senior Natural Resources Management Specialist and co-organizer of the workshop, said that these policies and approaches will be integrated into the Bank’s new Strategic Framework for Climate Change and Development that is scheduled to be ready this fall. In addition, a landmark World Development Report on Climate Change and Development, to be released next year, will also present these policies and approaches.

Adapting to climate change will mean, among other things, reshaping the Bank’s Country Assistance and Partnership Strategies, the blueprint for development assistance.

“Governance at all levels – global, national, and local – will emerge as a critical issue for climate change. Citizen engagement and social accountability in developing countries will be important in empowering people to demand effective climate action from their governments,” said Kende-Robb.

“We will also have to think in much longer time frames,” said Andrew Norton, Lead Social Development Specialist and workshop co-organizer. “Country Assistance Strategies extend for three years, but to see the range of climate change’s impact you have to look to at least 12 to 15 years, or more. The challenge is that we need to act now, to both ‘avoid the unmanageable’ by reducing emissions and prepare to ‘manage the unavoidable’ by planning ahead to protect the vulnerable.”