Interview with Professor Ian Burton – Recipient of the 2021 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Climate Change

June 30, 2021 by Department of Geography & Planning

For the first time since its inception in 2008, the prestigious BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the category of climate change is recognizing the social sciences, specifically the work of three geographers: Neil Adger, Karen O’Brien, and Ian Burton – U of T Professor Emeritus from the Department of Geography & Planning. While previous award recipients mainly worked in the physical sciences, Burton and his colleagues have brought to light the social conditions that shape vulnerability and response to climate change, and the necessity of incorporating adaptation strategies, in tandem with mitigation, in climate change policy and action.

Known as the “Father of Adaptation”, or now, as he jokes – “The Grandfather”, Professor Burton has long observed the merits of geography for studying climate change. In his extensive research on risk assessment of “natural” hazards, he has shown how these events are shaped by humans and looks at the array of responses – or adaptations – made through infrastructure, planning, agriculture, architecture, and economics. Professor Burton has applied a geographic perspective to the climate change problem in both his scholarly and policy-oriented roles. From 1989-96 he served for the Canadian Federal Government as Senior Policy Advisor in Environment Canada’s Corporate Policy Group and as Director on the Environmental Adaptation Research Group in the Atmospheric Environment Service. During that time, he began his ongoing work with the United Nations as Head of the Canadian Delegation to Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), where he and several other geographers have continued to place an emphasis on adaptation in response to rapidly increasing climate change.

In our interview, Professor Burton shares more about his work and research, his thoughts on geography, as well as his own hopes for the future and some parting words of advice for geographers studying climate change.

Your research and advocacy for adaptation have had a significant impact on climate change action and policy.  What made you realize that this was the thing you wanted to focus on most? (Was there a particular event or discovery that inspired it?).

Your question is rather flattering. As I have noted many people were involved, and the timing was right! There has been no particular event that inspired my focus on hazards, risks, and adaptation. Rather, it emerged through a long personal history going back to my childhood when both sets of my grandparents in England lived in houses subject to flood. I experienced floods as a child, and then wrote my BA thesis at the University of Birmingham on the agricultural geography of the flood plain in the middle Trent valley. This prepared me for my introduction to the well-known American geographer Gilbert White under whose mentorship I worked on my PhD at Chicago.

If I had to identify one source of inspiration it would have to be Gilbert White. In his classic dissertation “Human Adjustment to Floods” Gilbert showed how a much broader range of adjustments was theoretically available, including land use planning and zoning, building codes and standards and elevation requirements, forecasts and warnings and evacuation…and under certain conditions – insurance. In fact, many of the responses that now fall under the label of adaptation were identified by Gilbert White as human adjustments. Gilbert and his students, including Bob Kates and myself, went on from floods to other hazards. I worked with them and others on natural hazards and risks for many years in Canada and internationally. So, when the climate change problem came along, I was already on the adaptation side. At the time I was working as a Senior Policy Adviser in Environment Canada and immediately championed adaptation. And the rest, as we say, is history, or at least a footnote to history!

Initially your advocacy for climate adaptation was met with resistance by those who worried it would undermine the work of mitigation. What do you think finally allowed for the incorporation of both adaptation and mitigation?

Put simply it was the evolution of the understanding and perception of the problem. Climate change happened more quickly than the general circulation models initially predicted, and the protests against mitigation led by the fossil fuel industries ironically drew more attention to the dangers. The activism of the adaptation research and advocates also played a role.

[Initially] in the text of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the 196 nations or Parties that ratified it recognized that in climate change they have “common but differentiated responsibilities”… It included, almost as an afterthought, recognition of the need for adaption. This came about largely as a result of pressure from the developing countries, especially the least developed, and the small island states. They argued that they were most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change; had the lowest per capita emissions and had contributed the least to the creation of the climate change problem.

The case for adaptation grew stronger as climate change and its impacts began to be directly observed, and were seen to be taking place at a faster rate than the atmospheric science models had at first suggested. The case for adaptation also increased as resistance to carbon emission reduction proposals grew stronger especially from the fossil fuel industry and its supporters and beneficiaries. After almost two decades of neglect and resistance to adaptation the situation began to change… Underlying the change was the research and promotion by a group of individuals working mainly through the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

In your work on natural disasters you have witnessed how current economic development processes push vulnerable populations into harm’s way, specifically into unsafe geographies that are more adversely affected by climate change. Could you tell us more about this?

First, let me take issue with the expression “natural disasters”… Disasters may be triggered by extreme events in nature, but the actual magnitude of the loss of life, morbidity, economic losses… result from human behaviour and choice… Now it is evident that even geophysical events can no longer be labelled as “natural”… Floods, droughts, tropical cyclones, and other extreme geophysical events are now increasing in magnitude and frequency by anthropogenic climate change!

A widely adopted formulation for disaster risk is R = E x V; where R = Risk, E = Exposure, and V = Vulnerability. The increase in exposure results from any decisions that lead people and property to be in places where extreme natural events occur… These decisions can range from the individual and local, to national, and international, and can be made in the public or private sectors. [These decisions] can be shaped by planning or its absence. Where planning is nominally in place it may be poorly implemented and/or influenced by corruption. National level decisions by public and private decision makers may increase the level of exposure by locating or encouraging development in hazardous places. In all cases such decisions may be facilitated by short-term thinking which assume that the extreme event and the associated disaster are unlikely to occur in the near term, or while the decision makers remain in their positions of authority. Changing any of these decisions (and sometimes policies) which increase exposure is a complex and usually slow and incremental process

The issue of vulnerability is still more complex and difficult to address. Vulnerability can result from many factors or variables. To name a few; poverty, lack of employment or income, social discrimination such as against a particular gender, or ethnic, cultural and religious background. Vulnerability may also be increased by age, health conditions, handicap, and so forth. Many efforts are underway at all levels to reduce vulnerability under the banner of disaster risk reduction, (DRR). Close examination of the issues and processes has increasingly shown that DRR is being exceeded by processes and decisions that can be identified as disaster risk creation, (DRC). Vulnerability and exposure are both increasing faster than DRR.

How can economic development processes be changed to improve the conditions of the most vulnerable?

If I have described the situation clearly enough and portrayed it accurately, there can only be one answer! “Fundamentally!”.  What is required and will have to occur sooner or later, is a transition or transformation to a fundamentally different world and a different system. The debate about what that will be, or can be, is underway now, but there are no clear answers and the dominant characteristic of the times is uncertainty, very high uncertainty.

Do you think there is something specific about geography as a discipline that enables studying climate change from this perspective?

Don’t get me started! Of course, there is! …It is the whole character of the discipline and its history. I am a generalist and an inter-disciplinarian. From my earliest days, I can remember that I resisted being driven towards specialization by the educational system in the UK… I was [interested] in science, but I could not stand the prospect of studying only chemistry, or only physics or biology. One of the great attractions of geography was that I could keep my hand in the sciences through climatology and geomorphology.

There has long been a battle in the field of academic geography between those who wanted to make it into a “real” or “hard” or “proper” discipline, and those who cherished its diversity. One of the strongest and most persistent claims to disciplinarity has been the idea of geography as spatial science…I always resisted such ideas. I did welcome the introduction of statistical methods into geography. I taught the first course in statistics at the Geography Department at the University of Toronto in 1961-62, and then published my paper “The Quantitative Revolution and Theoretical Geography” in the Canadian Geographer in 1963. I broke ranks with some of the quantifiers when they identified quantification exclusively with spatial analysis, and made spatial analysis the raison d’etre of all geography.

When “environment” began to emerge as an interdisciplinary topic in the late 1960’s and early 70’s I quickly embraced it and wanted the Geography Department to play a leading role in its development.  I was not successful in this ambition, and so turned my attention to the development of environmental studies across the campus. I helped in the creation of the Institute for Environmental Studies and served as Director (1979-84). If I had my way the Department would have become the Department of Geography and Environment…

Whatever the hyphenation, geography is by tradition and evolution a jumping-off point and a basis for research and activism in climate change generally, and for adaptation specifically. I cannot conclude my response without expressing my regret that some geography departments have in recent years dropped the physical sciences of geomorphology (including some hydrology), climatology, and bio-geography from their curriculum and their faculty appointments.

There really is something general and very special about geography. In recent years I have turned towards explaining it to those who ask, that it is the first post-discipline. May it ever remain so!

What does the recognition of geography and its focus on adaptation mean for the future of climate change research and initiatives?

It is clear that adaptation is here to stay…but the meaning of adaptation itself is changing. In the early days of the convention negotiations a frequently used mantra was “Mitigation is global; adaptation is local”. It is now well understood that mitigation is also local. What individuals and communities do is an important component of the efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Buy a hybrid or electric car; reduce travel by air; use public transport; reduce your level of home heating and cooling; seek energy supplies that do not come from fossil fuels; put solar heating on your roof; withdraw investments from the fossil fuel industry; demand more serious action by governmental authorities and the private sector, and so on. It is not yet so well recognized that adaptation too must become global. Farmers can adapt by changing crops, or varieties or times of planting and harvest, and irrigation.  This is mostly local action. Little research has yet been done of the impacts of climate change on world food supplies, and trade in agricultural products. That there are large risks is clear, but what actions might be taken, and what international cooperation will be needed is not yet on the adaptation agenda. Adaptation is still mostly local. While it is difficult to be precise about future research and actions, the general direction is clear; there is a growing need to understand that mitigation and adaptation to climate change will be part of a large transformation of human society and its relationship with the natural environment on all scales from local to global. We are in the Anthropocene and that must be reflected in climate change research and action.

You describe yourself as “cautiously hopeful” about climate change, citing today’s youth movements, and certain private sector changes, as positive. Is there anything specific that has happened recently that gives you hope?

If I were to say, “the Corona 19 virus and its variants” that would probably not be­­ specific enough! I do take hope from the pandemic that it is teaching the world, (governments and peoples alike), that fundamental and transformational changes are afoot; are essential; and can be achieved. I think we are learning both from our modest successes in dealing with the pandemic so far (April 2021) and perhaps even more from our failures. We need to prepare more for lower probability and high consequence risks. I would include major nuclear disasters; more pandemics; undetected impacts pollutants; short-term irreversibility of climate change and others. I would also include risks that can be effectively denied by those that benefit from their creation. The cigarette tobacco companies long denied that smoking causes cancer, although they knew that it did / does. The fossil fuel industry has long tried to deny climate change.

What are recent specific hopeful events? Decisions by some wealthy and private universities and pension funds to withdraw their investments from fossil fuel (coal, oil, and gas) companies. The lead being taken by a few entrepreneurs to build and market electric cars. The unintended benefits of the pandemic in reducing air traffic and car driving and thus lowering (at least temporarily) carbon dioxide emissions.

What advice would you give to current geography and planning students, especially those focussing on climate change right now?  

Maintain and strengthen your hopes and enthusiasm with and for yourself; your family, friends and colleagues, the community where you live, your province, country, and the world as a whole. Be both a generalist and a specialist. If climate is your area of interest, or research, focus on a topic where you can contribute either in adaptation or mitigation, or science. Whatever your focus remain engaged in the broader context, and participate in the debate about the great transformation that is now underway. You might enjoy reading The Parliament of Man by Paul Kennedy.