New Baylor Study Looks At Human Responses To Climate Change

Arts & Sciences News

June 19, 2009
While climate change has been an emerging topic of interest to the world community, little scientific data exists on the vulnerability and resilience of households to climate-related "shocks" and events like more intense hurricanes and prolonged drought. But now, a Baylor University researcher has explored various means by which individuals and communities are responding to weather and climate change.

Dr. Sara Alexander, an applied social anthropologist at Baylor who conducts much of her research work in Central America, studied different households in several large and small coastal communities in Belize. Alexander and her team identified vulnerable households in these tourism-dependent communities and examined how they adapted and coped with major climate events and shocks like hurricanes and floods. The Baylor researchers also measured each household's long-term resilience, an area that has not been extensively researched, and identified different behaviors and strategies that lead some families to cope better and emerge stronger after a weather-related event.

"This study looks into the interaction of knowledge, awareness and action as it relates to the weather," said Alexander, associate professor and chair of the department of anthropology, forensic science and archaeology at Baylor. "Overall, we found vulnerable households also responded to weather-related events, as did more secure households, they just did it in different ways."

Alexander said over the last 150 years, data shows surface temperatures have increased and the associated impacts on biological and physical systems have become more evident. Some of the more notable changes that have gradually occurred are sea level rise, shifts in climatic zones, changes in precipitation patterns and increases in frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events like droughts, floods and storms.

Alexander and her team developed a resilience-measuring index for human responses that examined certain long-term security indicators, including economic stability, health, education, social networks, environment and nutrition. The researchers then tracked those indicators as different weather-related events naturally occur.

The results show:

• Perception about climate change and weather patterns played a key role in determining whether a household prepares adequately for a harsh weather event. For instance, if a household believes that storms today are more intense than they were years ago, the household is more likely to prepare when weather forecasters predict bad weather.

• Vulnerable and more secure households differ in coping strategies when dealing with weather-related events. Those households that are considered vulnerable and not materialistic more often turn to their family, friends and faith for emotional support, but not to financially-based responses. Those households who have higher levels of security are more likely to use their savings or sell their assets to engage in a financially based response by repairing and rebuilding, many times finding emotional support through this work.

• Women with low levels of education reported low incidences of feeling empowered in making decisions about how to cope with a major weather event.

• Since women with a lower education level coped less well with climate stressors, they feel stress around weather changes more so than women with higher levels of education who also are making decisions.

• Because tourism-based jobs are more vulnerable to the weather, even those with higher levels of education who are working in tourism are vulnerable to climate stressors.

• Crime and self-reported alcohol and drug abuse increased in the coastal communities after major weather events like Hurricane Dean in 2007 and Tropical Storm Arthur in 2008.

The project is funded through a $235,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Also collaborating on this project as a co-investigator is Dr. Susan Stonich, professor of anthropology and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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