Whilst analysing the outputs of a strategic climate change risk assessment undertaken for local communes in western Albania I was interested to note a clear differentiation between the risk levels assigned to physical resources (i.e. impacts on infrastructure and land) versus social resources (i.e. impacts on local livelihoods).
In all cases, risk levels assigned to physical objects or items were higher than the risk levels assigned to social impacts.
Does this represent a failure in clearly communicating risk? Are the links between livelihoods and physical impacts unclear? Or is this a reflection of the temporal understanding of risk, where respondents consider the physical impact as the first step (or frontline), with social impacts a secondary component?
What in turn does this mean for adaptation? Is the focus solely on reducing physical impacts? When do we start to balance consideration of the social component – which is real driver of change? If social impacts were a higher priority, would the approach to adaptation planning be different? Or would managing the physical change remain the focus of adaptation efforts – on the assumption that physical changes underpin or drive social adaptation?
I believe that focusing efforts on disentangling the complex relationships between climate change and social, cultural, and institutional systems may result in a differential response to climate change adaptation. In such a response, behavioural and institutional change would be an equally valuable component of climate change adaptation; rather than a strategic response taken in the absence of detailed information on the nature of physical impacts.
Understanding how perceptions of risk influence decision-making and, ultimately, how to effectively communicate climate change risk to facilitate adaptive action, is an integral step in achieving this objective (see work, for example, by Lisa Schipper, Anthony Leiserowitz and David Etkin). Tools such as the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF) provide a useful starting point in this regard.