'They're taking climate change as a scapegoat'

🌐 A conversation on vulnerability and disasters, with Ilan Kelman.

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Analysis and global perspectives in health, development, planet.

It comes down to vulnerability, and responsibility.

Shortly after Haiti was hit by a strong earthquake just over a month ago, tropical storm Grace added insult to injury. You might be tempted to call this bad luck, said the Economist’s data team in a prompt analysis. Not so.

In fact, it goes on to point out, it’s not the disaster itself that causes the deadly damage—it’s poor infrastructure and governance that makes the country ill-equipped to cope with earthquakes and storms.

This will not sound surprising. We’re talking about one of the world’s poorest countries, after all.

But could you say the same of most countries’ attitude to dealing with the extreme weather events that come with climate change?

You absolutely can—and that’s an inconvenient truth, argues Ilan Kelman, professor of disasters and health at University College London, in a conversation that also touches on what that means for the forthcoming COP26 climate conference.


AM: You wrote critically in the Washington Post about media coverage of extreme weather events linked with climate change. What's the problem with that coverage?

IK: A lot of the challenge that we face is the assumption that climate change causes everything in disasters. We know that it's not the weather, or the environment which is a fundamental cause. It's where we build, how we live, how we treat people. So we always have some form of choice on how we deal with environment. Unfortunately, too often, a minority are choosing for the majority, far too often forcing people to live in vulnerable places and vulnerable ways without taking measures.

So if we go away from weather just for a moment: people say, earthquakes don't kill people, collapsing buildings do—we know how to build structures to withstand earthquakes. It's the same with weather. We know how to stop people dying in hurricanes, in tornadoes, in heat and cold, yet we see these absolutely awful disasters all the time. When people say climate change is causing it, they're missing this long-term history, they're missing the vulnerability which we create for some people, and they're basically taking climate change as a scapegoat, and as a distraction for disasters which could be averted. We should never be denying that we are changing the climate rapidly and substantively—we need to recognise the huge dangers which our climate change brings—but we also need to recognise what climate change does not do.

This is the basic argument that you're putting forward in your book, Disaster by Choice.

The book takes a much wider perspective. Human-caused climate change, and natural climate change, change the environment—but a volcanic eruption also changes the environment; a tsunami, a virus, also change the environment. In every single instance, these environmental elements are typical, and we actually use them as resources. The disaster inevitably comes from us living in harm's way, forcing people to live in harm's way, not applying the science knowledge, technology and politics which we know exists—which means that vulnerability is created, increased and perpetuated.

This idea of vulnerability being part of the equation of risk has been around in academic circles for some time. Why do you think it hasn't gone mainstream. Is there resistance to it?

You're absolutely right. The resistance to it comes from the fact that we then have to accept responsibility. If a country says, we could have stopped these people dying in the tsunami through a long-term political process of reducing vulnerability and helping people, then those leaders need to accept responsibility. This includes all leaders: media and communications people, governments, private sector, nonprofit leaders, religious leaders. Taking on board vulnerability means ‘we know what to do’; ‘it's our fault’; ‘we have to do something’. This is where blaming the earthquake is an easy way out. ‘Well, it was an act of nature, what can we do.’ And also, blaming climate change is easy. So the vulnerability approach meets resistance because then people need to accept we know what to do and [have] chosen not to do it.

Are you at all worried that the idea could be hijacked to suggest that the responsibility might fall on individuals rather than governments?

We have very unfortunately learned, from ozone depletion right through to coronavirus vaccines, that no matter what facts we have, there is a small minority who is willing to put out misinformation and disinformation, including outright lies. No matter what we say, no matter what we do, there's going to be an element that deliberately misrepresents it.

What we have to do is simply continue putting out that science message that to stop disasters, everyone can contribute. But everyone needs help. So individuals do have responsibility; and the amount of knowledge, understanding, passion and commitment from the poorest people in the world is so inspiring and so phenomenal. There are many examples, from Indonesia right through to Arctic indigenous peoples. But they cannot do it alone. We should not rely on ourselves or the poorest of the poor—the richest of the rich need to be part of it.

This fits into the larger area of adaptation, would you say?

Yes. There is nothing new that climate change adaptation brings us. [The work of] dealing with disasters has done it all before, and often much more comprehensively. The danger with adaptation is [in] focusing on only climate change without thinking about wider topics, whereas dealing with disasters actually encompasses long-term climate changes, and other short-term environmental changes.

We haven't seen adaptation get a lot of high-level political attention, for example in the UN summit meetings, even though it's been an urgent need in parts of the Global South in particular. Do you see that changing after the extreme events that we've seen in parts of Europe, and the United States and Canada too, this past summer? Would you expect it to feature more prominently in COP26?

What I hoped we would see in COP26 and beyond is an admission that we've been doing climate change adaptation for 10,000 years, with different levels of success. And so we have the skills, resources and knowledge we need in order to move forward. We don't necessarily need new financing. We don't necessarily need a new international treaty. All we have to do is reallocate what we have, and apply what we know already. So if COP26 can come out with an international treaty to reduce all forms of vulnerability, against all forms of risk, that's a success. If we come up with US$100 billion of funding per year for climate change adaptation, we've gone nowhere—because direct fossil fuel subsidies from governments is five times that amount, [and] indirect fossil fuel subsidies from governments are calculated as 50 times that amount.

We have a separate framework focusing on disasters, the Sendai Framework. Is there progress on that front?

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has done amazing work in pushing the principles and practices embodied within the Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction. It is voluntary. So, there is a lot of incentive for countries to sign on, and then not do a lot. There's a lot of self-reporting. So we need people out there doing independent monitoring and verification. The Sendai Framework has a lot of good aspects, and a lot which we can draw on. How much is it achieving? We have not seen extensive results. And we also recognise that getting a legally binding disaster aid agreement would be almost impossible, because that means that countries have to admit who is creating the vulnerabilities and why, and then actually act on it in such a way that can undermine the power base of those who create and perpetuate the vulnerabilities.

Is there anything in all of this that gives you hope?

It's up to us—whether we have our assets of US$100 billion, whether we can barely make ends meet, which unfortunately is the majority of the population. There is something we can do. We need government or the UN on board, but we don't have to wait for them. So it's up to us to say, we don't want human-caused climate change, and we don't want the floods, fires and heat disasters which have hit some of the richer countries in the past few months. So, by thinking about where we get our information, by demanding evidence-based policy action, by doing what we can as individuals and as collectives, and by trying as much as we can, in safety, to hold accountable those with power.

*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

➖ Learn more about Ilan Kelman and disaster risk reduction.

Briefing Highlights


Afghanistan has dropped away from the spotlight of mainstream media. The drama of frantic evacuation efforts has passed. But that’s not the end for the people left behind and under the rule of Taliban 2.0. The new reality is stark. And the warnings keep coming. The UN chief has said a “humanitarian catastrophe” is on the way. Food could run out this month for a third of the country. The cost of basic necessities increased by more than 50% since the pandemic began. Global warming and a worsening drought are compounding the crisis driven by conflict, along with fears that farmers will be forced to grow poppy intread of food crops. Those who have fled face a stark reality of a different kind: while some countries have welcomed Afghan refugees—neighbouring Pakistan and Iran in particular—others, including much of the EU, want to keep them out.

More in recent Briefings: August 31 + September 7. (Sign up here)


Conversations about mental health risks are no longer restricted to the health sector. The impacts—and expected impacts—of climate change are fuelling a rise in anxiety, among young people in particular. Same with earthquakes, wildfires and conflict. Then there’s the pandemic. Reports come from a number of places, from Myanmar to Nigeria to the US state of Atlanta.

Sources: Atlantic + Scientific American + Al Jazeera + Bloomberg + NPR

  • Indonesia ends deforestation pact with Norway, citing non-payment - Reuters

  • Global conservation forum votes to protect Amazon forest - TRF

  • Shared causes fuel surge in disasters - TRF

  • Catch the rain, fix water crisis: How Odisha leads by example - Down to Earth

  • The number of people with dementia is set to jump 40% by 2030 - Reuters + FT

  • Air pollution is cutting short the lives of billions of people by up to six years on average - Guardian + Al Jazeera

  • Suicide still treated as a crime in at least 20 countries, report finds - Guardian

  • Trial suggests malaria sickness could be cut by 70% - BBC

  • Central America is facing unprecedented displacement and migration - UNHRC

  • Syria: Former refugees tortured, raped, disappeared after returning home - Amnesty

  • Reducing people’s exposure to disasters must be a priority - ICRC

  • More than 4 billion people worldwide lack any social protection - DW + ILO

  • The number of children working as labourers has increased for the first time in 20 years - Economist

  • Food price inflation heaps pressure on poorer countries - FT

  • LGBT+ websites censored, from Russia to Indonesia - TRF

  • Nepal moves to decriminalise abortion - Jurist

  • Kenyan women love the idea of a ‘women-only’ rideshare. They hate that the option costs more - WaPo

  • African languages to get more bespoke scientific terms - Nature

  • Afghan panic over digital footprints spurs call for data collection rethink - TRF

  • How healthcare workers in India fought a surveillance regime and won - Coda

From the week’s global soundtrack 🌐

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