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Climate hazards, climatic change, and development planning

William E. Riebsame

The increased risk of climate hazards calls for a new approach to development planning. Development planners must develop a strategy that reflects (1) the sensitivity of resource systems to variations in climate, (2) uncertainty about climate change and how that uncertainty can be incorporated into an expanded repertoire of responses, so decisionmakers are not pressured into premature action or paralyzed by uncertainty, and (3) awareness of development’s effect (good or bad) on the “greenhouse” problem and on social adaptability to climate problems. The development planners’ repertoire should include actions that are easily and cheaply implemented and reversed and adjustments that expand rather than limit future options (such as efforts to conserve crop diversity). Planners should expand on a “tie-in” strategy that links the uncertain threat of climatic change to the certainty that current resource management systems (from power generation to agriculture) contribute to current environmental problems (such as acid rain and erosion). The mitigation of current natural hazards should be linked to concerns about climate warming so that actions taken today have both immediate and long-term benefits, whether the greenhouse effect materializes or not.

Climatic fluctuations pose hazards to agriculture, water, and other resource systems. It can be argued that better management of current fluctuations and extremes would reduce not only some constraints on development but also vulnerability to future climate changes.

Many atmospheric scientists predict that human activity will warm the global climate in the next several decades, but uncertainty about the rate and magnitude of change in specific regions is so great that it is difficult to plan resource development with global warming in mind. Moreover, growing public interest in an international treaty to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases is putting pressure on development planners to mitigate the causes and effects of anthropogenic climatic change. Planners who have assumed that environmental conditions would remain the same and who have sought local sensitivity in development plans must now add global considerations to regional development plans, responding to a threat the outlines of which are still fuzzy. The threat of global warming calls for a new approach to regional development planning, one that includes:

· Analysis of the sensitivity of resource systems to climate fluctuations.

· A gradual stepping up of responsiveness as the threat of global warming becomes more certain.

· Consideration of a wider range of adjustment options.

· New links between multiple development goals (for example, economic and environmental well-being).

The threat of global warming

Many scientists argue that changes in climate attributable to human behavior are likely to emerge from the noise of natural climate variations in the next decade or so - and some analysts believe that record warm temperatures in the 1980s are a signal of global warming (Hansen and others 1988, Hansen and Lebedeff 1988). Average temperatures are likely to increase roughly 3 degrees Celsius in the next century according to several scientific groups (World Meteorological Organization 1985, Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee 1983, IPCC 1990). Recent debates about the reliability of global warming projections offer no compelling new evidence for or against the threat (Michaels 1989, Lindzen 1990, Schneider 1990), but illustrate the great uncertainty and limited understanding of climate dynamics.

We do know that current extremes of climate regularly disrupt social well-being (National Academy of Sciences 1987, Riebsame and others 1986). Droughts in India or the Sahel, floods in Bangladesh or the Sudan, and frosts in Brazil or Papua New Guinea demonstrate the critical relationship between climate and development (see, for example, Kates 1980). The ability to cope with fluctuations in climate varies among regions: the least developed areas suffer the most from climatic hazards and face the most problems if the climate changes.

Climate is an intellectual construct: the statistical properties of the atmosphere, averaged over time. Fluctuations and extremes of climate are expressions of the tails of the current distribution of temperature, rainfall, storms, and the like. Climatic change is a shift in their distribution over time (figure 1). Both can add stress to regional development projects, but while climatic extremes are certain to affect all regions, there is great uncertainty about whether we face significant climatic change per se.

Despite the uncertainty, development planners should examine the potential implications of climate change. The changes predicted by global warming theorists in the next several decades may seem modest, but recent experience indicates that climatic change of this magnitude would severely disrupt ecological and social systems. A broad review of studies of the effect of climate in the last two decades reveals a common, disturbing pattern (see Kates and others 1985, Riebsame 1988c, Parry and others 1988). Existing research indicates that:

· In some localities and natural resource sectors, relatively small changes in climate can be quite disruptive. Modem systems for managing and using water, energy, agriculture, and forests are generally flexible, but in some (for example, semiarid) regions, climatic changes much smaller than one could expect with the doubling of the greenhouse effect threaten to alter resource flows markedly (see, for example, Parry and others 1988, Bolin and others 1986, Riebsame 1988a).

· There are major disparities in our understanding of the effects of climate. We understand fairly well how climatic change affects agricultural, water, and energy systems, but we know much less about how it affects fisheries, grasslands and livestock systems, human health, transportation, urban development, and the general economy (see, for example, Kates and others 1985). Our understanding of how climate and resources interact is especially fuzzy at environmental and social interfaces - the complex interactions between, for example, crops and soil (affected by soil temperature, erosion, and so forth), fisheries and wetlands (perhaps destabilized by rising sea levels), and different resource management institutions.

· The net consequences of global warming remain ill-defined. Productivity could decline catastrophically in some areas as the result of climatic extremes or rapid climatic change. Forests, for example, could produce less because of wildfires; agriculture could suffer from outbreaks of new pests or diseases; water could be scarce or excessive because of extreme events; changes in habitat could affect the viability of species. On the other hand, mitigating factors could produce unexpected gains. Ambient carbon dioxide could enhance biomass; warmer ocean temperatures or coastal inundation could improve fisheries; societies could adapt to changing conditions (a process poorly understood; see Butzer 1980), possibly through the transfer of new technologies and resources from “winners” to “losers” as part of the international response to the threat itself. At this time, it is difficult to estimate the balance of positive and negative effects, but most analysts expect global warming to produce a net loss, if for no other reason than that it brings change and increases uncertainty.

· Finally, there is a growing sense that the effects of global climatic change will be socially divisive. Developing countries are widely believed to be especially vulnerable because those countries have fewer options and limited resources with which to adjust to or recover from the effects of climatic damage - as experience with natural hazards and recent fluctuations in climate shows (Jodha 1989, Woods Hole Research Center 1989). Thus, the distribution of the benefits and costs of greenhouse gas emissions is unlikely to be equitable.

Figure 1 Schematic relationship between environmental engineering systems and climate variables

a. Normal conditions.

b. Hypothetical new climates with altered frequencies of events approaching or surpassing operating limits.

Source: Riebsame 1990.

Even at the lowest rates projected for the greenhouse effect, it appears that climate change could greatly disrupt activities in certain places and cultures. Thus, despite uncertainty about global warming projections, a consensus is emerging on why and how global warming should be limited (Mintzer 1987 and 1988, Lashof and Tirpak 1989, Jager 1988). The technical feasibility of markedly reducing greenhouse gases has been demonstrated; the potential for needed social change is less clear. A common approach is to stress the logic of taking actions that pay off - for example, increased energy efficiency - even if the dangers of global warming have been exaggerated. This “tie-in,” or no-regret, strategy, links the uncertain threat of climatic change to the certainty that current energy systems waste resources and cause pollution (Schneider 1989).

Proponents of tie-in strategies assume that the threat of global warming sufficiently increases the probability of human damage to the environment to make compelling the need for actions that people have not yet seen fit to take (such as pricing fossil fuels to reflect the full environmental costs of their use). This assumption makes sense, but behavioral studies have identified several factors that limit people’s ability to solve resource management problems such as increases in greenhouse gas: their attitudes toward development; their tendency toward temporal discounting; their limited ability to assess risks; and institutional constraints on individual or collective choice. Nor have such actions been supported with full analysis of the risks and benefits of trying to limit, or simply ignoring the possibility of, global warming.

If strategies to limit global warming fail, and if significant climate change occurs, one option is for social systems to adapt. This possibility has received less attention than others. Indeed, one weakness of studies of the effect of changing climates is that they are static - resource systems are often portrayed as having little potential for change. Can our resource systems adjust to the negative effects of climatic change? We do not know with any certainty, nor do we have robust methods for assessing adaptability. Some researchers expect social systems to adapt readily through technological innovation (Wittwer 1980, Waggoner 1983) and economic adjustment (Easterling and others 1989) but the process of adaptation is rarely described explicitly (Riebsame 1988a). On the other hand, concern about global warming is driven mostly by the intuitive belief that the rate of change will outstrip our ability to adapt. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two positions. There is substantial historical evidence that most agricultural systems, water resources, industrial processes, and settlement infrastructure are quite adaptable, but that the less-managed eco-resource systems - such as grassland and grazing systems, forests, and fisheries - often adapt less well to change. Any policy response must address such differences.

The policy response

Global warming is now a high-priority national and international policy issue. Projections of its impact have led to calls for concrete action to alter energy, agricultural, and forestry practices so as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nations are lining up either for (most of the OECD) or against (United States, USSR) quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The issue was the centerpiece of the Second World Climate Conference in October 1990, and will be high on the agenda for the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development.

The potential for ameliorating climatic change by altering energy and industrial systems has been analyzed extensively. Much less attention has been paid to how well systems for managing climate-sensitive resources can cope with rapid climate change (Rosenberg and others 1989). Yet global warming of 1 to 2 degrees celsius could occur in the next few decades even if greenhouse gases are limited - because of accumulated gases and thermal inertia (Jones and others 1987). If projections of global warming are correct, both preventive and adaptive steps will be needed.

A development planning conundrum. Conventional planning assumes that social factors such as population may change dramatically but that basic environmental elements such as climate are stable. The threat of global warming changes undermines this paradigm. Climatic change would affect the ability of resource management plans to meet future social needs and desires. Moreover, because global warming is caused by human behavior, one must also ask how those plans contribute to the problem.

Some policymakers are responding to pressures for quick action to stem the greenhouse effect without waiting for more scientific understanding of the problem (White 1988). But most resource managers have adopted a wait-and-see attitude and are being criticized for failing to address the issue aggressively (U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee 1989, New York Times 1989). The wait-and-see approach is supported chiefly by three arguments:

· That predictions of climatic change are too uncertain, especially regionally, for specific action (White 1988, Katz 1988).

· That current systems can absorb significant climatic change without failing (Hanchey and others 1988).

· That technological change can offset the negative effects of climatic change (Wittwer 1980).

These arguments have merit. Projections are insufficiently detailed regionally for rational alteration of development plans. It is premature to build new reservoirs or plant different tree species because of the greenhouse threat. But current planning approaches fail even to assess the threat in climate-sensitive resource sectors, or to try dealing better with fluctuations in the current climate. Resource managers are also dissuaded by policy from accounting for potential impacts of their actions on such global commons as the atmosphere and climate (Schelling 1983).

The conundrum, then, is how - faced with uncertainty - to respond to pressure for action. Development planners must develop a strategy that reflects (1) the sensitivity of resource systems to climate fluctuation, (2) uncertainty about climatic changes and how that uncertainty can be incorporated into their repertoire of responses, and (3) awareness of the effect of development (good or bad) on the greenhouse problem and on social adaptability to climatic fluctuations. What is needed is a new paradigm for natural resource planning appropriate to the policy environment being shaped by the threat of global warming (Riebsame 1988c).

A new approach to development planning

The threat of global warming calls for a new approach to development planning, one that builds on (rather than replaces) traditional planning approaches that emphasize empirical analysis, economic efficiency, and environmental protection. The new approach should incorporate at least three elements:

· Sensitivity analysis of resource systems that explicitly recognizes the potential for both variability and fundamental environmental change.

· Gradual adjustment that reflects increasing certainty about the effects of global change.

· A wider range of adjustment options that reflect recognition of links between the causes and effects of climatic change generated by human behavior as well as the value of mitigating current climatic hazards to reduce current and future vulnerability.


The management of most renewable resources - and of some stock resources such as fossil fuels - is sensitive to climatic fluctuation (Kates and others 1985). Factors affecting sensitivity and adaptability include:

· The degree to which factors such as temperature and precipitation affect resource yield or the maintenance of desired management criteria.

· The planning horizons for changes in resource systems.

· How often operational criteria are evaluated and updated.

· Whether potential effects may be incidentally accommodated or exacerbated as planners seek other goals such as more efficient use of energy or water.

Sensitivity to climatic change is especially evident in certain areas: agriculture, forestry, floodplains and coastal zones, water and energy resources, and certain aspects of architecture and urban and regional planning.

Unfortunately, the sensitivity of most natural resource and social systems to climatic change has not been analyzed (Warrick and Riebsame 1981). Planners need to assess how different climatic conditions would affect current resource systems and those systems as they might change over time. Analysis of a range of scenarios will provide a more robust evaluation of sensitivity than use of a single projection (Katz 1988, Lamb 1987, Wigley and others 1986).

While interest is high and before climatic change has had a chance to be disruptive, development planners should assess the sensitivity and adaptability of different resource systems and management practices. Many methods for assessing the effect of climatic change have been developed in the last decade and can be applied to both current variations and broad fundamental changes in climate (for example, Riebsame 1988b). Projections of climatic change are too uncertain to warrant specific action now, but what is needed is a wide range of evaluations of resource systems’ capacity to adapt to both variations and broad changes in climate - and resource managers should create contingency plans for such changes.

Figure 2 An illustration of the tie-in between efforts to achieve sustainable development, reduce losses from material disasters, and limit global climate change


Heightened concern about global warming has elicited demand for immediate mitigating action. The next several years will see a marked improvement in climate forecasting and possibly conclusive detection of climatic change distinctly attributable to human activity. Development planners should differentiate between steps to be taken immediately and those that should await further refinements of climatic projections or more solid evidence of global warming.

Resource managers cannot be expected to adopt costly or disruptive adjustments aimed at reducing the impact of uncertain changes. Nor are they likely to support drastic changes to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. But neither can they ignore the issue. They should focus first on adjustments that can be justified for other environmental or economic reasons, such as more efficient use of water or more flexible systems (Schneider 1989).

At the same time, they should give serious thought to planning for climatic change per se, especially for resource systems that might fail with modest climate change. Slight warming and drying of northeastern Brazil, the Great Plains of the United States, or the Asian steppes, for example, could disrupt social systems there, requiring enormous changes in land use and resource management (Parry and others 1988). A first step might be to assess how current development paths affect adaptability to a changing climate and to identify trends that limit flexibility. Contingency plans should be made for changes in cropping patterns, resource protection, and rural development. They can be put into effect as the change in climate becomes more certain, and may yield benefits even without climate change.


To avoid being pressured into action prematurely or paralyzed by uncertainty, development planners must consider a wider repertoire of planning approaches than they have traditionally used. Their responses should include adjustments that are easily and cheaply implemented and reversed as needed (such as more frequent evaluation of operating rules for reservoirs) and adjustments that expand rather than limit future options (such as efforts to conserve crop genetic diversity, and floodplain or coastal land use that places less fixed investment at risk).

Planners should expand on the tie-in strategy proposed by several analysts (Schneider 1989). They should take immediate steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, steps that are also justified because they would help resolve current environmental problems such as acid precipitation. They should also take steps to make resource management systems less sensitive to current climatic variations and more adaptable to future climatic change. These strategies coalesce where (1) the needs for sustainable development are met, (2) sensitivity to current and future fluctuations in climate are reduced, and (3) emissions of greenhouse gases and other global changes are limited (see figure 2).

Efforts to reduce losses from natural hazards, especially those associated with extremes of climate, will make development less sensitive to climate change, should it occur. At the very least, they will help us sharpen analytical tools for assessing the effects of climatic change and informing governments about regional vulnerabilities to variations in climate.

Regional development in the context of global change

The global nature of the greenhouse problem requires new links between local, national, and international decisionmaking and a better understanding of the role of climate in development. Many resource activities - from power generation to the cultivation of rice - are sensitive to climate and produce greenhouse gases. So policy discussions on global warming inevitably embrace links between national resource planning and the global threat. Resource planners at all levels must be prepared to address both how climate change affects their plans and how their activities affect global warming.

How this heightened concern will translate into altered development policy remains uncertain, but the general shape of imminent change can already be discerned. Several principles appear to be emerging from the international dialogue on global warming (World Meteorological Organization 1989, Woods Hole Research Center 1989). First, the greenhouse problem has been caused chiefly by the industrialized nations, which must bear the main burden of its solution. Second, solutions must accommodate Third World needs for economic development. Developing countries cannot be asked to limit greenhouse gas emissions by using less energy, cutting less timber, or cultivating less rice - without equal or better substitutes for the resources those activities yield. Finally, developing countries are most at risk with both current extremes of climate and long-term climate change, so they deserve special attention to help improve their ability to deal with the effects of climate change.

Under these principles, resource planners - even local planners - will be under pressure to change their activities to meet multilateral objectives. Planning principles and global links will be shaped at the highest policy levels, presumably through the international treaty already called for by several political and scientific leaders (World Meteorological Organization 1989: 292-99). Expecting this, development planners at all levels should begin to build a roster of mechanisms that would link planning goals (figure 2) and begin evaluating ways to fit local resource decisions into the emerging global environmental policy framework. Regional forest managers, for example, might begin to account for and alter the carbon balance of their activities in accordance with international agreements (Sedjo 1989) and to measure how reforestation could reduce the impact of climatic change. Links between the use of land and the effects of climate change should be evaluated. National energy ministries could increase research on noncarbon energy systems and on ways to implement them without derailing economic growth. In this way, the threat of global warming adds novel dimensions to traditional planning approaches.


It has been suggested that the best way to prepare the world for climatic change is to achieve full, sustainable development. The fact that developed countries are better able than developing countries to deal with such natural hazards as droughts and floods has not been lost on those arguing for more equitable development. But development makes sense only if it does not increase a region’s vulnerability to climatic impacts. The obvious path for development planning sensitive to the threat of global warming and to losses from natural hazards is first to improve our ability to manage current hazards.

Improved planning for drought and more flexible uses of floodplains and coastal zones would begin to reduce vulnerability to climate. Working climate vulnerability analysis into current development programs requires that planners:

· Analyze selected plans for developing regions (such as the Mekong or Indus basins) for sensitivity to climate, analyzing a range of adjustments to climatic extremes. Methods are now available for such analysis.

· Work with regional planners and resource managers to increase understanding of the effects of climate change and the cause of global change, and to expand the range of adjustments they consider in development projects.

· Link mitigation of current natural hazards to concerns about climate warming so that actions taken today have both immediate and long-term benefits.

· Improve institutional ability to assess the effects of, and possible adaptations to, climate change.

This last recommendation addresses a concern expressed especially by scientists and policy-makers in developing countries: that the issue of the effects of climatic change - whether natural or from human causes - has been defined by research in developed countries. Strengthening institutions would speed the development of climate policies in developing countries, but this will occur only when climate is recognized as a natural concern and when the developing countries can calculate the risks of climate change through their own analysis of the threat.