2010-2011 Theme: Vulnerability and Stress

Vulnerability of social, economic and natural systems to multiple sources of external stress

The 2010/11 faculty participants will focus their attention on the vulnerability of social, economic and natural systems to multiple sources of external stress. Climate change will be an emphasis for some, but other sources of risk to humans and ecosystems will be examined in detail. The point will be to apply abstract concepts like adaptation, sustainability and resilience in their general and their discipline-specific forms to examinations of a simple "null hypothesis": the vulnerability of any system to multiple stresses can be approximated by the sum of the vulnerabilities of that system to each source of stress taken one at a time. We expect to reject this hypothesis, of course, and offer solid evidence across human systems in various stages of development and natural systems across time. 

Individual and collaborative research projects as well as new curricular offerings will explore this hypothesis in a variety of contexts - a diversity of approaches that will allow participants' work to draw from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Even before the earthquake struck, they envisioned using Haiti to ground specific case studies within which much of the CoE's work could coalesce.  It is from here that the most critical part of our efforts might emerge - gaining some insight into how best to communicate the complications of the combined risks without discouraging action.

2010-2011 Scholars' Research:

  • Dana Royer, Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences
  • Gina Ulysse, Associate Professor of African American Studies, Anthroplogy and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies
  • Gary Yohe, Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies

Dana Royer 

My main interests lie with ancient climate change, with “ancient” defined as anything older than two million years ago. The study of paleoclimates is not only important for understanding the ancient Earth system, but also for serving as partial analogs for where we are headed in the near future. I have a growing interest in the resiliency of the climate system itself. For example, are there times in Earth’s past when positive feedbacks were especially strong, amplifying a given climate forcing? And during these times was the Earth system less likely to return to its pre-perturbed state (i.e., less resilient)?

One component of the climate system that is a good integrator of climate feedbacks is climate sensitivity, which is typically defined as the amount of warming expected for every doubling of atmospheric CO2. According to the AR4, the most probable climate sensitivity for today’s Earth is ~3 °C per CO2 doubling (± 1.5 °C) (IPCC 2007). However, this assessment only takes into account fast climate feedbacks (up to centennial timescales). If slow climate feedbacks are included, for example the waxing and waning of ice sheets, 6 °C is a more probable climate sensitivity for times with large ice sheets (Hansen et al 2008, Lunt et al 2010, Pagani et al 2010). Given this behavior, can we say anything about climate sensitivity during ice-free times (i.e., most of Earth’s history)? Implicit in the Hansen et al (2008) analysis is that climate sensitivity during ice-free times should mostly reflect the fast feedbacks only (3 °C per CO2 doubling). Work by myself and others supports this position, where we calculated a mean climate sensitivity of ~3 °C for the last 420 million years of Earth history (Royer et al 2007). If correct, a comparatively low climate sensitivity during ice-free times complements well the traditional view that climates during greenhouse periods were more stable (Frakes et al 1992) and presumably more resilient.

I propose to investigate in considerably more detail the Earth’s climate sensitivity during warm, ice-free intervals. Recent studies point towards a far less stable climate during greenhouse intervals than previously considered; instead, the climate often oscillated between short-lived (<1 million years in length) hot and cool (with some ice) pulses (Royer 2006). Such behavior may reflect a climate system with high sensitivity and low resilience, but this largely remains untested. One thoroughly studied hyperthermal pulse is the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum, when global temperatures warmed ~5 °C within thousands of years ~55 million years ago; remarkably, the baseline climate state was one of the warmest over the last 65 million years of Earth history (Zachos et al 2008). Multiple lines of evidence now point to a climate sensitivity during this event of 6 °C or more per CO2 doubling (Higgins & Schrag 2006, Pagani et al 2006, Zeebe et al 2009). I propose to target other warm phases in Earth history, including other hyperthermal pulses. I will apply two approaches for quantifying ancient climate sensitivity that I have developed previously (Royer et al 2007, Royer 2010). The overarching goal is to use the geologic record to test if certain Earth system conditions lead to a higher climate sensitivity. In turn, such an analysis should have relevance for our current climate crisis.

A second goal, which presently I consider more provisional, is to explore linkages between climate sensitivity and patterns of extinction and origination. Mass extinctions aside, there has been little-to-no effort to study the “background” patterns of extinction and origination (i.e., not during times of mass extinction) against climate sensitivity and climate resiliency. A null hypothesis is that periods of high climate sensitivity are linked to high extinction rates and possibly high origination rates. Beyond extinction and origination rates, a complementary data set that bears on the putative link between climate sensitivity and resiliency is the size and ecology of organisms, because small, generalist species typically dominate during times of high physical stress and weak system resiliency (Lilliput effect) (Wade & Twitchett 2009). I anticipate using the Paleobiology Database (www.paleodb.org; e.g., Alroy et al 2008) to mine information about organism size and ecology, and patterns of extinction and origination.

Alroy J, Aberhan M, Bottjer DJ, Foote M, Fürsich FT, Harries PJ, Hendy AJW, Holland SM, Ivany LC, Kiessling W, Kosnik MA, Marshall CR, McGowan AJ, Miller AI, Olszewski TD, Patzkowsky ME, Peters SE, Villier L, Wagner PJ, Bonuso N, Borkow PS, Brenneis B, Clapham ME, Fall LM, Ferguson CA, Hanson VL, Krug AZ, Layou KM, Leckey EH, Nürnberg S, Powers CM, Sessa JA, Simpson C, Tomašových A, Visaggi CC. 2008. Phanerozoic trends in the global diversity of marine invertebrates. Science 321: 97-100

Frakes LA, Francis JE, Syktus JI. 1992. Climate Modes of the Phanerozoic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hansen J, Sato M, Kharecha P, Beerling D, Berner R, Masson-Delmotte V, Pagani M, Raymo M, Royer DL, Zachos JC. 2008. Target atmospheric CO2: where should humanity aim? Open Atmospheric Science Journal 2: 217-31

Higgins JA, Schrag DP. 2006. Beyond methane: Towards a theory for the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 245: 523-37

IPCC. 2007. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Lunt DJ, Haywood AM, Schmidt GA, Salzmann U, Valdes PJ, Dowsett HJ. 2010. Earth system sensitivity inferred from Pliocene modelling and data. Nature Geoscience 3: 60-4

Pagani M, Caldeira K, Archer D, Zachos JC. 2006. An ancient carbon mystery. Science 314: 1556-7

Pagani M, Liu Z, LaRiviere J, Ravelo AC. 2010. High Earth-system climate sensitivity determined from Pliocene carbon dioxide concentrations. Nature Geoscience 3: 27-30

Royer DL. 2006. CO2-forced climate thresholds during the Phanerozoic. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 70: 5665-75

Royer DL. 2010. Fossil soils constrain ancient climate sensitivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107: 517-8

Royer DL, Berner RA, Park J. 2007. Climate sensitivity constrained by CO2 concentrations over the past 420 million years. Nature 446: 530-2

Wade BS, Twitchett RJ (eds). 2009. Extinction, dwarfing and the Lilliput effect. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 284: 1-114

Zachos JC, Dickens GR, Zeebe RE. 2008. An early Cenozoic perspective on greenhouse warming and carbon-cycle dynamics. Nature 451: 279-83

Zeebe RE, Zachos JC, Dickens GR. 2009. Carbon dioxide forcing alone insufficient to explain Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum warming. Nature Geoscience 2: 576-80


Gina Ulysse 

An anthropologist by training, theories of structure and human agency (Bourdieu 1977; Hill-Collins 2000; Sivararnakrishnan 2005; Williams 1977) are one of my main areas of interest. I remain concerned with understanding how agents confront, reinforce and challenge structures that they are predisposed to restructure. With various aspects and branches of my previous research, I have elaborated on this topic and explicated how people maneuver within the environment that they inhabit and how in turn their environment actually impacts upon them. My definition of environment to date has been mainly socio¬cultural with what I call a reflexive political-economy (Ulysse 2008) and symbolic dimensions

During the year of the COE fellowship, the project "C'est Mon Devoir (It is My Duty): Stories of Civic Engagement, Self-Making and Urban Degradation" that I initially sought to develop focused on how individuals, members of a community forum in Cite Soleil, one of the most overpopulated (350,000) and impoverished areas of Port-au-Prince, dealt with various environmental pressures that they confronted in their daily lives. The plan was to collect and document oral histories of those who are actively engaged in working towards addressing such problems.  In their immediate communities, I plan to undertake an historical development of the community forum. It began three years ago. As I have done with my work in the past, I intended to do theory from below by placing the individuals at the center and asking them to define the terms, adaptation, resilience and sustainability which form the COE's inaugural theme. Since the earthquake, these individuals have been displaced. Several lost their lives. I will continue to pursue this project but will shift the focus primarily to the earthquake and its impact. I will collect and document stories from the now displaced individuals from Cite Soleil on how they are dealing with the earthquake and its aftermath. My research plan is to make several trips to Haiti starting late March and work with the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development (INURED) as they are my connection to this community. Moreover, they recently conducted a rapid assessment of the impact of the quake.

My goal is to work with my fellow colleagues at the COE where our interests intersect to produce a journal article that will consider, for example, the findings that Yohe's proposal yields. The larger part of my project is to assemble people's stories of "adaptation" and "resilience" (however defined) to the earthquake into a book that I would aim to complete within a year following the fellowship. I also hope to collaborate with individuals in the Cite Soleil community forum on using some of this material for a performance project that will recount some of these moments. 

Citations Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. London: Cambridge University Press.

Hill-Collins, Patricia. [1991] 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Sivaramakrishnan, K. 2005. "Some Intellectual Genealogies for the Concept of Everyday Resistance." American Anthropologist 107 (3):346-356.

Ulysse, Gina A. 2008. Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers: A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica. Chicago; University of Chicago Press. 

Williams, Raymond 1977. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.


Gary Yohe 

Climate change is my point of entry, but the interface between the determinants of adaptive capacity, mitigative capacity, and sustainable development has been a focus of some of my work since highlighting the synergies and sources of potential impediments in Smit, et al. (2001) and Weyant, et al. (2001).  Continued evidence of interest in this topic and the challenges it brings can be found in Yohe, et al. (2007).  It is now time to bring the notion of resilience (in its many forms) into the working definitions of vulnerability (post adaptation) and sustainable development (across multiple metrics); and work in this area could emerge as one of the more important synthetic results of the year’s collaboration.  

Insights that support this synthesis will emerge from specific and more detailed projects, of course, and I can foresee at least two even now.  I have, first of all, been working for the past year with colleagues (including Kenneth Strzepek, who is interested in two one-week visits over the course of the year) to produce distributions of changes in drought risk (driven by changes in both temperature and precipitation) for three slices of time over the next century for all 99 river sub-basins that span the continental United States. The various panels of Figure 1 display some representative results; the maps depict summary results, but the “box and whisker” display the ubiquitous uncertainty that will cloud the vision of any forward-looking decision-maker. It is now time to consider vulnerability, but it is impossible to move from physical impacts (like drought frequency) to vulnerability (including reflections of resilience, adaptation, and development planning) everywhere at the same time. The next step in this research must therefore involve surveying derivative social, economic and physical impacts (within the rivers and across their basins) quickly but accurately so that research effort can be devoted to exploring adaptation options and resilience first in places where “key” vulnerabilities will be most severe. Schneider, et al. (2007) provided selection criteria for the adjective “key” that can be applied to both natural and human systems; they were approved in Summary for Policy Makers of IPCC (207b), and so they are widely accepted. Their application to research projects like this is just beginning, but they include many of the factors that lie in the nexus of our theme – to name just two: distributional impacts (so asymmetric vulnerability across sub-populations that face other stresses must be part of the selection process), for example, and the potential for irreversible effects (so making investment decisions under uncertainty cannot be ignored). I expect to be involved with students and outside collaborators in taking the first steps in this selection process and initiating the downstream vulnerability analyses in many locations; and I expect to see a series of publications emerge.

Haiti is, of course, on the opposite end of the development spectrum from the United States, but similar analyses of climate-born risks could nonetheless support a parallel initiative. The confluence of enormous stress from other sources of vulnerability could be explored even without detailed analyses of climate change of the sort referenced above. Changes in the intensity and frequency of hurricanes (or their prevailing trajectories) and their manifestations in terms of storm surges would be sufficient to bring climate change into development and recovery discussions. But how to communicate this added source of risk productively without being so pessimistic that people give up – that is the question. I foresee, in that regard, creating a “burning embers” – “reasons for concern” diagram for Haiti (of the sort that I will publish shortly for the United States in Yohe (2010) based on the updated global version in Smith, et al. (2009) – both are attached). The Haiti version would, though, have to show more than lower thresholds for extreme concern. To convey any new information, the embers would have to depict assessments of “reasons for concern” that are germane to Haiti in 2010 – concerns that would most productively be expressed in terms of potential impediments, challenges and opportunities for programs, projects and investments – initiatives that are being designed by governments and non-governmental organizations to improve resilience and support sustainable development for a society already facing enormous challenges from non-climatic sources.