Climate science

Education is "top priority" for climate change adaptation, study shows

  • 27 Nov 2014, 19:00
  • Robert McSweeney

Education does more to reduce deaths from climate-related disasters than economic growth, a new study finds. The researchers say education helps reduce vulnerability to disasters and enhances adaptation to climate change.

Financing adaptation

It's hard to pin down exactly how much money developing countries need to adapt to climate change. But some estimates suggest that it could be as much as $100 billion a year.

Countries have so far pledged $9 billion to the UN Green Climate Fund, which will provide money for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries.

Spending on climate change adaptation tends to be focused on large infrastructure projects, such as flood defences and irrigation systems. But new research, published in Science, suggests that investing in education could be a better way to reduce vulnerability to climate-related disasters.

Improving education reduces disaster deaths

The researchers argue that previous studies have concentrated too heavily on how economic development has reduced vulnerability to disasters such as floods, droughts and landslides.

They point to recent case studies that show improvements in education can give people the skills and knowledge to be better prepared for, and better able to recover from, natural hazards. For example, better-educated people in Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were faster at responding to hurricane alerts and recuperated more quickly once one had struck.

The researchers compare the influence economic growth and education have on the number of deaths from disasters for 167 countries across the world. They use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person as an indicator of economic growth and the number of women completing at least secondary school education as an indicator for education. They then cross-reference these with a database of climate-related disasters.

The results suggest that rising GDP has not reduced the number of deaths from climate-related disasters in the past four decades, while having a greater number of women in education has.

Better awareness of risk

So how does education reduce vulnerability to climate-related disasters? In an accompanying press release, co-author Dr Raya Muttarak explains:

"Education directly improves knowledge, the ability to understand and process information, and risk perception. It also indirectly enhances socioeconomic status and social capital. These are qualities and skills useful for surviving and coping with disasters."

Educated people have a better awareness of risk, the authors argue, and it gives them the knowledge and skills to adapt flexibly.

This is important because while scientists can make long-term projections of climate change, year-to-year weather variations mean they can't say exactly when a disaster will hit and how severe it will be. So a flexible approach to adaptation gives people and communities more capacity to cope when a disaster occurs.

Projecting future disaster deaths

When the researchers run simulations of future climate-related disasters, they find a similar pattern: improved education significantly reduces the number of deaths from disasters.

The results are shown in the graph below. The researchers use two pathways of how global education might change in the future: rapid expansion (red lines) and limited expansion (blue lines), which indicate, respectively, either substantial or minimal investment in education around the world.

The study models each education pathway against three scenarios of future change in climate-related disasters: no change (solid line), a 10 per cent increase (dashed line) and a 20 per cent increase (dotted line).

You can see that for each scenario of climate-related disasters, the improved education pathway results in fewer deaths.

The results suggest how "education is key in reducing disaster fatalities and enhancing adaptive capacity," says lead author Professor Wolfgang Lutz in the press release.


Climate change set to increase extreme weather risk to UK population

  • 27 Nov 2014, 00:01
  • Robert McSweeney

The risk of heatwaves hitting the UK will increase ten-fold by 2100 if we don't cut greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study of how climate change will affect extreme weather.  The UK will also be more at risk from flooding and drought says the new report, published by the Royal Society.

But the report also finds there are ways to prepare ourselves for what's to come, with a mix of large-scale engineering and natural measures to adapt to climate change making it possible to manage some climate risks.

Rising risks

The study uses climate models to estimate how the frequency of floods, droughts and heatwaves will change worldwide by the end of the century. It assumes population rises to around nine billion globally by 2100, and overlays projections of population growth to map where in the world the most people will be at risk from extreme weather.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, places with high populations tend to have more people at risk from climate extremes. For the UK, the combined effects of climate and population changes will increase the risk of exposure to heatwaves by a factor of more than 10 by the end of the century, the report says.

If we don't cut emissions, the risk of exposure to floods in the UK will increase four and a half times by the end of the century, and the risk of drought three times.

The risks posed by heatwaves grow particularly rapidly because older people who are more at risk from extreme heat will make up a larger chunk of global population by the end of the century, the report says.

The study produced maps which show how exposure to extreme weather will change. The areas of dark red show the greatest increase in people exposed to risk - in India, southeast Asia, parts of central Africa and western Europe.


Scientists dig deep into earth's history for clues to El Niño past, present and future

  • 26 Nov 2014, 18:00
  • Roz Pidcock

The Pacific weather phenomenon known as El Niño has attracted a lot of attention this year as forecasters have puzzled over its 'will it or won't it' behaviour.

In May, scientists were confidently predicting a  90 per cent chance of an El Niño materialising by the end of the year. But it's proved elusive, with the odds of even a weak event dropping to 58 per cent earlier this month.

El Niño brings extreme rainfall to some parts of the world and drought to others. So predicting when one will make an appearance and how big the effects will be is important.

A new study just published in Nature uses a diverse array of different data sources, from corals to computer modelling, to unravel what's been driving changes in El Niño over the past 21,000 years.

Pinning down this  enigmatic phenomenon is tricky, the study concludes. But there's reason to believe climate change could lead to stronger El Niño's in the future, say the scientists.

El Niño and climate-readiness

Every five years or so, a change in the winds causes a shift to warmer than normal ocean temperatures in the  equatorial Pacific Ocean - a phenomena known as El Niño.

Together, El Niño and its cooler counterpart La Niña are known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Cycling between the two phases is responsible for much of the variation we see in global climate from one year to the next.

Knowing if and how climate change will affect El Niño and La Niña is an important scientific question, says Professor Kim Cobb, co-author on today's paper. She  told us recently:

"Preparing for large swings in temperature and rainfall is critical to adaptation strategies, especially if such variability will increase in the future."

In theory, human-caused warming could increase the strength of ENSO events, Cobb continues:

"It is important to remember that climate change is much more than "global warming" … Because ENSO involves feedbacks between the wind strength, ocean temperature, and circulation, a change in any related climate parameter would arguably have some effect on ENSO strength".