Recently a group of young professionals met in Unkel near Bonn for the Summer Academy on World Risk and Adaptation Futures, jointly organized by Munich Re Foundation and UNU-EHS in collaboration with UN Climate Change. The 30 participants got together for a week to discuss future trends in vulnerability, risk, and adaptation in the context of environmental and climatic hazards. It was the first of a series of three consecutive summer academies. This year’s special focus was on the interactions between urbanization and future risk. “Science and policy in the field of climate change have for a long time concentrated on the appraisal of future trends in hazards, such as sea level rise”, said Dr. Matthias Garschagen of UNU-EHS, dean of the academy programme. “However, future risk is also heavily driven by the ways in which social, economic and political changes contribute to the increase of exposure and vulnerability, for example, when cities spread into existing flood plains or when formal disaster response is being dodged in informal settlements.” Hence, a stronger focus on such drivers of future risk is needed for adequate risk reduction policy and action.
The academy was organized in collaboration with UN Climate Change (UNFCCC), which provided the participants with the opportunity to receive policymaker feedback on their work and highlighted ways to bridge the knowledge-action divide. “What is important for us is that the academy is not just a space where people come together and talk about science”, said Thomas Loster, Chairman of the Munich Re Foundation. “We want it to build capacity and create networks. But most importantly, what makes it successful in our eyes is that it has policy relevance and a real impact. That is why we are glad to have a partnership with UNFCCC because we can address actual political questions that they are working on.”
The group of participants was diverse. It included academic scholars, policymakers and practitioners from a variety of different countries and backgrounds, each able to make a unique contribution to the topic of the academy based on his or her specific expertise. “I like the idea of bringing together brilliant doctoral students, mid-career researchers, and people from diverse backgrounds, under the guidance of experienced researchers and professionals, to solve a common problem”, said Dr. Abdul-Lateef Balogun, a geomatic engineer from the Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) in Malaysia. “It allows us to learn from each other and have room for discussion. By doing that everyone can participate actively, leading to the generation of new knowledge.”
Dr. Balogun joined the Academy from Malaysia, however, he is originally from Nigeria. He described both countries as hotspots for urbanization, and he hopes to be able to apply what was discussed at the Academy to his work in these areas. Urbanization is considered to be one of the core factors shaping future exposure and vulnerability to environmental and climatic hazards. A big share of future urbanization is expected to occur in hazard-prone areas, such as in deltas or along rivers, driving up the potential for future damage. This holds true especially for the global hotspots of future urban growth, which are in Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Africa.
A unique angle of the Summer Academy was to not look exclusively at modeling and projecting future trends in environmental hazards, such as sea level rise or cyclone activity, but to simultaneously investigate how cities are likely to change in the future as well. “What is interesting to me about this academy is that it is not just addressing climate risks“, said Dr. Hendricus Andy Simarmata from the Research Center for Urban and Regional Studies, University of Indonesia/Jakarta. “Cities are growing fast and urban structures are not always prepared to mitigate those risks. We need to learn how we can identify barriers that limit our urban development and then create opportunities to overcome the challenges, which will probably derive from the future trends in urbanization.”
When future hazards occur they will be encountered by cities that will look different from today. However, it is not only the infrastructure that will change, it is also the people who live in these cities, due to demographic, economic and social developments that are always occurring as well. Dr. Elspeth Oppermann, who joined the Academy from Charles Darwin University in Australia, had a clear focus on people and how they deal especially with rising heat due to environmental change. “I’m interested in how climate change affects humans and how they interact with urban spaces. I want to contribute that angle and talk about how extreme heat is understood in Australia.” One example of what was important to her in this context was that policymakers need to look at humidity and not just ambient temperature when they assess heat risk, because really makes a difference for the human body.
In addition to presenting their individual work, participants were able to receive input from renowned experts in the field such as Prof. Mark Pelling of King’s College London or Youssef Nassef, Director of the Adaptation Programme at UN Climate Change, for instance. Fostering this kind of collaboration and co-creation between policymakers and practitioners is a key objective of the Summer Academy series. The participants will continue to collaborate and various outputs are being planned for the months and years to come.
The remaining two academies of the series will (in 2019 and 2020) aim to address demographic changes and social protection, respectively.