Book Review: Global Environmental Risk

In International Review for Environmental Strategies (IRES) Volume 3 Number 1(Summer 2002)
Peer-reviewed Article

Book Review "Global Environmental Risk" edited by Jeanne X. Kasperson, Research Associate Professor and Research Librarian, George Perkins Marsh Institute, Clark University, USA, and a Visiting Scholar, Stockholm Environment Institute; and Roger E. Kasperson, Executive Director, Stockholm Environment Institute.
Publisher information: Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2001.
ISBN: 1-85383-801-2, 574 pp., 24.95 GBP(pbk).

Reviewer: Michinori Kabuto, Acting Director for Health Research, National Institute for Environmental Studies, Japan.

Global Environmental Risk takes on the challenge of examining methods for assessing the risks associated with systemic and cumulative environmental changes generated by human activities at the global level. It consists of four parts: "Characterizing Global Environmental Risks," "Vulnerability," "High-Risk Regions," and "Global Environmental Futures." As emphasized in the introduction, throughout the book the editors and authors regard the imagining of sustainable futures as not a matter of wishful thinking but as an integral part of risk analysis.

It was produced by most of the participants of an international workshop, entitled Understanding Global Environmental Changes: The Contribution of Risk Analysis and Risk Management, convened at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts (U.S.) in 1989. The vice-rector of the United Nations University supported the book's publication and encouraged the researchers to focus on two important fields: risk analysis and the human dimensions of global environmental change. The editors then called on the visionary pioneers to include aspects of integrated, holistic approaches to address the myriad threats presented by global environmental change. As indicated by this process, their basic ideas originated from examining regional environmental problems and their risks to human health, including natural environmental changes as well as environmental pollution and degradation issues, rather than employing risk analyses of global climate change in terms of the possible direct impacts on human health and ecosystems.

In Part 1, the authors describe the basic concept/framework of global environmental risk, analyzing methods and limitations, in terms of uncertainties as well as their own nature, and also the complex nature of risk management, in which inconsistencies may be included in social responses, especially in understanding vulnerability, alerting systems, social amplification and attenuation, integrated assessment, adaptive management, environmental change, and international security. As an approach to evaluate global environmental risks at the regional level, however, two methods are recommended. One is to examine environmental hazards related to water, air, and chemical pollution, changes in climate, etc., such as listed by V. Norberg-Bohm, and characterize each in terms of changes in material flux, changes in valued environmental components and exposure, as well as the consequences to human health and that which we value. The author provides an example of an actual comparative case study of the Netherlands, United States, India, and Kenya, which ranked the environmental problems in each country according to scales of pervasiveness and total consequences. The details of the trial comparative study are described in appendixes A to E: "Descriptors," "Environmental Problems," "Tips on Applying the Method," "Data from Case Studies," "India, Kenya, the Netherlands, and the United States," and "Principal-Component Analysis." The other method, proposed by K. Smith, is to evaluate the net-risks by employing the environmental risk transition model, consisting of traditional and modern risks or their overlaps. Although this method is understood to be important, only the concept of risk transition and the importance of net-risk and risk-overlap phenomena are discussed, but without detailed examples. However, these two approaches may prove to be useful tools for risk evaluation, especially in developing countries. Finally, in Part 1, in the section titled "Global Risk, Uncertainty, and Ignorance," authors S. O. Funtowicz and J. R. Ravetz consider the re-invasion of the laboratory by nature and the centrality of uncertainty and quality, as well as problem-solving strategies.

In Part 2, D. M. Liverman describes the concept of vulnerability to global environmental changes, recognizing that a high priority should be placed on theory and model development for assessing the vulnerability or fragility of the receptor or affected system, which is the opposite side to assessing environmental perturbations or releases of energy, materials, or information. Some examples given include vulnerability assessment systems, such as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) and the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Famine Early Warming System (FEWS), which focus mainly on drought and famine without addressing the social causes of famine. The authors emphasize that vulnerability assessment must be a key component of research on global environmental change, and that more consideration should be given to the social context than to famine and hazards. Included are case examples of those considered in the FEWS, poverty (i.e., landlessness, lack of entitlements to trees, water, land) and inputs (i.e., health and nutrition). The onset of famine is now monitored by tracking the sales of jewellery and livestock, migration, search for alternative work, the consumption of famine foods, and the spread of diseases. In the next section, E. Ezcurra et al. attempt to assess the vulnerability of natural ecosystems (biodiversity, diversity patterns in relation to latitude). In the final section of Part 2, R. K. Kasperson, J. X. Kasperson, and K. Dow describe first the issue of equity, in relation to vulnerability to global environmental changes, with a focus on minority and low-income communities, as well as intergenerational equity, equity among countries, developing countries, the precautionary principle, improved cost-benefit ratios, and cooperation among interested parties. Then, in relation to possible indicators to characterize regional vulnerability, they introduce Lonergan's model approach, with migration flows generated or affected by environmental degradation, as well as a German model from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research called the "syndromes" approach to global change.

Part 3, "High-Risk Regions," consists of the following six sections: "Trajectories of Threat: Assessing Environmental Criticality in Nine Regions," by J. X. Kasperson, R. E. Kasperson, and B. L. Turner II; "Global Change and Environmental Risks in Mountain Ecosystems," by N. S. Jodha; "Vulnerability to Drought and Climate Change in Mexico," by D. M. Liverman; "Sea-level Rise and the Bangladesh and Nile Delta," by J. M. Broadust; "Sea-level Rise and the North Sea," by T. O'Riordan; and "Sea-level rise and the Sea of Japan," by S. Ikeda and M. Kataoka. As apparent from the titles, each of these sections are trials of assessments of environmental criticality, in general, or the sea-rise risks in some regions, while considering both aspects of predicted global changes per se and social ones, in regard to capacity to cope with or manage the risks associated with those changes.

In Part 4, "Global Environmental Futures," in the section titled "Risk and Imagining Alternative Futures," T. O'Riordan and P. Timmerman redefine vulnerability as the loss of effective power in the creation of one's future, and encourage the imagination of alternative futures as an empowering tool. "Exploring a Sustainable Future for Canada," by J. B. Robinson, introduces the Sustainable Society Project for Canada. And finally, in "Social Visions of Future Sustainable Societies," P. Benjamin et al. review the first generation of global models centered exclusively on projections of economic, technological, and environmental variables. They argue that most global assessments have had a paucity of creative thinking about the social future.

This book introduces many examples of frameworks to start to approach issues of global environmental risk, and is recommended as a basic textbook for people in various fields. Since the Third IPCC Report, issued last year, it has become more urgent than ever to promote risk analysis of the so-called global environmental risks as described in this book. In such analyses, this reviewer would like to see more emphasis on public health impacts as one of the major components of the vulnerability of human societies.

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Michinori Kabuto