World Resources Institute WRI

Weaving the net: Climate change, complex crises and household resilience

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Complex crises produce impacts that cascade across space and time in unpredictable ways, and create severe hardship among vulnerable groups in developing countries. This paper uses the food crisis of 2008 as a basis for exploring the impacts on households and their efforts to build adaptive capacity. A main finding is that household-level impacts tend to manifest in similar ways, regardless of the origin of the crisis.

Executive Summary

The unexpected rise in food prices in 2008 had a complex causality, with climate variability acting as an important trigger. This was followed by the financial meltdown in 2009 and high food prices again in 2011-12. These complex crises, with impacts that cascade across space and time in unpredictable ways, produce severe hardship among vulnerable groups in developing countries.

Household impacts tend to manifest themselves in similar ways regardless of the crisis origin, thus offering the possibility of a robust policy response for a broad range of crises. Based on an analysis of the food crisis, a review of coping strategies used by vulnerable groups, and their subsequent efforts to build adaptive capacity, this paper presents a set of four policy conclusions.

Heat stroke, saltwater intrusion, and harvest failure-these are discrete phenomena that can be directly related to a warming and more variable climate. But climate change impacts also occur as complex system changes, where the climate signal interacts with other factors in unpredictable ways.

In 2008, weather, ecology, and food and energy markets combined to produce a sudden and unexpected spike in food prices that triggered a global crisis. Followed by a financial meltdown in 2009 and new food price spikes in 2011 and 2012, these global events profoundly affected the livelihood of millions of people in developing countries. As an expression of their complexity, it is only now, long after the fact, that we are gaining a fuller understanding of the causes and effects of the food, energy, and finance crises. Among poor and vulnerable households across the globe, however, the unexpected events produced an all too familiar outcome: loss of household assets and income, higher malnutrition rates, a heavy burden on women, and extreme psychological stress and strain among poor families (Heltberg et al. 2012), outcomes that are similar to the impacts of natural disasters and other shocks and stresses (for an extensive review of the impacts of natural disasters on households, see UNISDR 2009).

Vulnerable urban and rural communities are systems within systems, open to an interconnected and interdependent world where global changes in the supply and demand of services and commodities are transmitted to the local context. To understand the climate vulnerability of these com - munities, we must see how systems at different levels interact and how global events are expressed as local realities. Indications are that climate change will lead to more disturbances in global food systems, where supplying nations are few and harvest failure will have high impact, leading to global price spikes and volatility (von Braun and Tadesse 2012) and thus reducing not only food availability, but also access to food for those that already spend a high proportion of household budgets on food (Hossain et al. 2013). The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), established by the World Commit - tee on Food Security (CFS) as part of global institutional reform in the wake of the food crisis, finds that climate change will make it even harder to overcome the already huge challenges to global food security, as it reduces the productivity of the majority of existing food systems and harms the livelihoods of those already vulnerable to food insecurity (CFS 2012a).

Climate change impacts have a global dimension, but their manifestations are local and contextual, affecting men, women, and children who lack the resilience to maintain access to food of sufficient quantity and quality. Families enter or move out of poverty depending on a set of factors over which they have limited control, and where illness often erodes household income and leads to indebtedness and destitution (Krishna 2010). Continuous and unrelenting strain will ultimately take them across thresholds beyond which the effects of malnutrition, lost opportunities, and productive assets will become irreversible. They will enter a new state of deprivation, where recovery will become difficult or impossible. It is in this dynamic downward movement that direct or systemic effects of climate change can become determinants of dwindling resilience, as they increase the risk of ill health and eroding household assets.

Research on the effects of the food crisis has given us a new under - standing of how households manage crises, what coping mechanisms and adaptive strategies are at their disposal, and which policies enhance their resilience. Although climate- induced crises are difficult to predict, understanding how household adaptive capacity is constructed is the basis for adequate support. Since different kinds of shocks and stresses-such as extreme weather events, price hikes, or disease-tend to produce similar outcomes at the household level in terms of asset loss, malnutrition, and lost opportunities, it follows that similar supportive policies could protect against a wide range of threats, not only those triggered by a changing climate.

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