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Monday, April 15, 2013

Committed Vulnerability

A pre-publication version of one of my recent articles became available online last week. Published in Global Environment Change, the paper, Local path dependence of U.S. socioeconomic exposure to climate extremes and the vulnerability commitment argues that understanding the future implications of climate change will require improved attention to socioeconomic processes that contribute to vulnerability. In particular, the article looks at trends in physical vulnerability in the United States and projects future vulnerability under the assumption that path dependence dictates future geographic patterns of development. The article places these projections in context by projecting the economic losses that could be anticipated by 2050 given such path dependence. Hence, even in the absence of climate change, the costs of climate extremes are going to continue to rise. 


Despite improvements in disaster risk management in the United States, a trend toward increasing economic losses from extreme weather events has been observed. This trend has been attributed to growth in socioeconomic exposure to extremes, a process characterized by strong path dependence. To understand the influence of path dependence on past and future losses, an index of potential socioeconomic exposure was developed at the U.S. county level based upon population size and inflation-adjusted wealth proxies. Since 1960, exposure has increased preferentially in the U.S. Southeast (particularly coastal and urban counties) and Southwest relative to the Great Plains and Northeast. Projected changes in exposure from 2009 to 2054 based upon scenarios of future demographic and economic change suggest a long-term commitment to increasing, but spatially heterogeneous, exposure to extremes, independent of climate change. The implications of this path dependence are examined in the context of several natural hazards. Using methods previously reported in the literature, annualized county-level losses from 1960 to 2008 for five climate-related natural hazards were normalized to 2009 values and then scaled based upon projected changes in exposure and two different estimates of the exposure elasticity of losses. Results indicate that losses from extreme events will grow by a factor of 1.3–1.7 and 1.8–3.9 by 2025 and 2050, respectively, with the exposure elasticity representing a major source of uncertainty. The implications of increasing physical vulnerability to extreme weather events for investments in disaster risk management are ultimately contingent upon the normative values of societal actors.

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