Rethinking Uncertainties and Vulnerabilities in the Time of Climate Change and Globalization (Academic Panel)

Uncertainties and vulnerabilities linked to climate change and globalization are often framed in a top-down manner by scientists, modellers and researchers, which then get translated to top-down policy prescriptions. The disconnect between such framings and policies and the everyday lives of communities at the margins might emerge in the form of new uncertainties and vulnerabilities. The context specific nature of uncertainties and vulnerabilities are often subsumed in the one-size fits-all type policy making from above – whether it is related to climate change or globalization. How can we understand and address this mismatch? The proposed panel will reflect on this question by discussing findings from a research project in India. India is a country characterized by high levels of socio-economic and gender inequalities, class, caste and ethnic hierarchies, as well as a range of geographical and climatic settings, and an array of livelihood practices. Therefore, the study included an urban environment (Mumbai), desert ecosystem (Kutch, Gujarat), and a low lying area surrounded by water (Sunderbans, West Bengal). The differential uncertainties and vulnerabilities were captured by including a cross-section of the population and with special focus on the gendered nature of these experiences.

Uncertainties and vulnerabilities are framed, understood and experienced by different actors differently at various levels. Therefore, ideas of/for transformation also vary. Our study attempted to understand the framings and discourses of uncertainty from above – climate experts, scientists, modellers and planners, and how uncertainty is experienced and understood from below by the people at the grassroots level. We have also identified a middle level, where actors are often engaged in translating framings from above to the below level and in the process might draw on perspectives from below and above. Climate change is as much a globalized issue as globalization itself is. Hence, the panel also seeks to understand the globalized nature of the framings and discourses of climate change uncertainties, while at the same time trying to decipher how the local experiences of uncertainties and vulnerabilities can feed into the policy dialogues at the national and global levels.

In a globalized regime, the market is increasingly called upon and relied on to address/ solve development as well as environmental issues such as climate change. However, there is an increasing consensus, at least among critics of globalization, that market is part of the problem, and call for strong state institutions and policies. This is all the more relevant when we discuss the crisis of globalization and the uncertainties and vulnerabilities precipitated by climate change. Indeed, the papers in our panel call for a new political economy of development that takes account of the lives and livelihoods in the margins and the environment that sustains humans. Our panel includes seven papers discussing various dimensions of this issue. The papers attempt to unpack ideas of uncertainty and climate change from ‘above’-, ie., actors at the national and global levels, and perspectives of transformation from the ‘above’ and ‘below’ level actors in India. The papers also address a range of local level issues such as overlapping uncertainties at the interface of climate change and the market, the simultaneity of urban development and destruction of environmental resources and ecosystems, the gendered nature of uncertainties and vulnerabilities and aspirations for transformation in the context of livelihood crisis – engendered by globalization-climate change nexus. New methodological approaches such as photo-voice method for studying uncertainties and vulnerabilities as well as raising critical consciousness of marginalized social groups such as women are discussed. The panel also falls back on historical understandings of uncertainties and vulnerabilities in marginal and dynamic environments to illuminate current discussions on transformation.

The following papers will be presented:

Paper 1
“Floods, Earthquakes and Famines: Normalising “uncertain” coastal environments in the long nineteenth century in Colonial India”, Vinita Damodaran, Rohan D’Souza and Subir Dey

While anxieties about climate change are correctly considered to be an unprecedented contemporary challenge, it nonetheless has put a fresh spotlight on the task of environmental history writing. Put differently, though the dramatic atmospheric saturation with CO2 is an entirely novel environmental context for human existence, the ‘End of Nature’ still makes environmental history writing even more relevant and urgent.
This paper explores British colonial attitudes, apprehensions and responses to coastal environments such as Bhuj (Gujarat) and the Sundarbans (Bengal). The long nineteenth century involving colonial environmental actions, in effect, I suggest, shows us how the idea of uncertainty and notions about vulnerability helped shape various discourses about political stability and about achieving the economic normal in colonial India. By trying to reorient such histories, I argue, the alarms and anxieties about nature were critical to defining social and political policies. Nature, in other words, was critically drawn into the colonial calculus for rule and the domination of people and territory.

Paper 2
“Unpacking uncertainty and climate change from ‘above’, Lyla Mehta

Climate shocks and stressors such as cyclones, floods and droughts, changing rainfall patterns and extreme temperatures are some examples of uncertainties that planners and policy makers in the global South are confronted with regularly. It is well known that uncertainties in climate change projections are particularly high. These, combined with economic and political drivers of change, often caused by forces of globalization, have made local level effects difficult to predict.
For different reasons, uncertainty has emerged as a ‘monster’ or ‘super wicked problem’ for scientists and policy makers alike. Despite these problems, quantitative assessments (usually based on probabilities and ecological risk assessment) remain at the heart of the scientific ethod and computer models remain largely though the most important tool of climate science. In this paper we focus on how attuned expert-driven understandings of climate change and uncertainty are with how local people from ‘below’ live with and understand uncertainty and climate change. How do experts from ‘above’ understand uncertainties and vulnerabilities caused by climate change in India? Can and do their models and projections take on board major drivers of socio-economic and political change such as land-use patterns, institutional arrangements and distributional factors which can also affect climate related vulnerabilities? Are there ways in which experts can learn from local people’s experiences and perceptions of uncertainty and
vice versa? These questions are addressed through examining the perceptions of uncertainty on the part of global and Indian climate scientists, policy makers and local people in Kutch, Sunderbans and Mumbai, India.

Paper 3
“Destruction of Mangrove in Mumbai: Implications and Dimensions of Uncertainty”
NC Narayanan, Hans Adam, D. Parthasarathy

The ecological significance of mangrove ecosystems that interface land and ocean are well documented – as wind and wave breaks protecting the coasts during storm surges and as sponges that could contain floods allowing faster drainage from flood-prone areas above. Mangroves are also very productive ecosystems forming feeding and breeding grounds for commercially important fish and supply resources like wood, honey and medicines that provide additional livelihood opportunities as well. The mangroves in Mumbai city in India have been important for both these reasons since a large fisher population is dependent on the mangroves for livelihood and the rest of the citizens of the city are benefitted by the protective functions. Despite this ecological, economic and social importance, mangroves have been destroyed at a very rapid pace in Mumbai. The study will examine the implications of mangrove loss and decipher the multiple dimensions of uncertainty in the process.

Paper 4
“Urban flooding, uncertainty and transformation: Politics and Perspectives in Mumbai”, Hans Nicolai Adam, D.Parthasarathy Alankar, Synne Movik

In this research we present the case of flooding in the Indian megalopolis of Mumbai, in the context of climate change and uncertainty. We uncover the narratives, politics, discourses and practices of different actors (above, middle and below) and institutions, with special reference to the cataclysmic flood event on July 26th 2005, which caused major economic disruptions and killed more than 500 people. The lessons learnt from the Mumbai experience are likely to be of value for mitigating risks and enhancing response capacities to flood-related disasters in other Indian and Asian cities undergoing similar socio-economic, urban, and governance transformation as a response to flooding, climate change and developmental aspirations.

Paper 5
“Gendered uncertainties and vulnerabilities in the Indian Sundarbans: Implications for transformation”, Darley Jose Kjosavik and Upasona Ghosh

Livelihood uncertainties and vulnerabilities linked to climate change are often framed in a top-down manner by the scientific community as well as policy makers, which then get translated to top-down policy prescriptions. The disconnect between such framings and policies and the everyday lives of communities at the margins might emerge in the form of new uncertainties and vulnerabilities. The context specific nature of uncertainties and vulnerabilities are often subsumed in the one-size fits-all type policy making from above – whether it is related to climate change, globalization or already existing vulnerabilities. This is often the case in societies like India characterised by high socio-economic and gendered hierarchies and inequalities. This paper is based on field research on two islands in the Sundarbans, West Bengal. The Sundarbans has been globally identified as one of the most vulnerable areas to sea level rise and other climate uncertainties. This study sets out to understand the experiences and perceptions of climate change and livelihood vulnerabilities from a gendered perspective with special focus on women. We argue that these have important implications for transformative change. The study employs both qualitative and quantitative methods for data collection. The aim is to highlight the differential understandings and experiences of vulnerabilities of women and men and how policymaking might be fine tuned to address the ground realities.

Paper 6 
“Globalization and climate change and its precarity on women : A photo voice exploration of women from wetlands and drylands of India”, Shibaji Bose, Shilpi Srivastava, Upasona Ghosh

The women of wetland Sundarbans and dry land of Kutch – victims of climate change – experiences precarity of livelihood and existence. Both the sites, Sundarbans being at the proximity of megacity Kolkata while Ansirawand in Kutch being very near to the port of Jackaw bear the brunt of impacts of globalization and has led to towards searching livelihood alternatives like seasonal migration outside of the sites. In these scenario it is interesting to know how a visual action research technique like Photovoice create a gendered critical consciousness to raise the voice of the women, as representatives of the community, regarding their life experiences while handling climatic threats and related uncertainties.The study examines how Photovoice mirrors the ‘lived experiences’ and the perception of the below on climate change issues and acts as a pathway to bridge the gap between community and decision makers to link the below’s voices with the above.


Darley Jose Kjosavik, Professor, Department of International Environment and Development Studies, Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)

Hans Nicolai Adam, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of International Environment and Development Studies, Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)