My Climate Risk Interdisciplinary Learning Group

9 October 2023

Presenter: Coleen Vogel


Coleen Vogel is a Distinguished Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is a climatologist by training but has increasingly worked in the social dimensions of climate change, focusing particularly on climate change adaptation. She obtained her PhD in the field of climate change in 1994. She currently serves on various local and international boards. She has, for example, chaired and been the vice chair of international global environmental change scientific committees (e.g. IHDP and LUCC and involved in the Earth System Science Programme), groups that preceded the current Future Earth developments. She was also one of the lead contributors to the preparation of the Disaster Management Act in South Africa. She has been Chapter Lead Author and co-author of chapters in the IPCC (4th and 5th assessment reports). She is now also involved as a lead author in the IPBES transformative assessment. She has also received the Burtoni Award for international excellence in adaptation research and received the University of the Witwatersrand Vice Chancellor’s  award for excellence in teaching.

picture of Coleen Vogel

Paper to be presented

Title:      ‘Don’t call me resilient again!’: the New Urban Agenda as immunology … or … what happens when communities refuse to be vaccinated with ‘smart cities’ and indicators

Author:  Maria Kaika

Link to paperDont call me resilient again


Session Highlights:

For the inaugural meeting of the MCRILG our presenter was Coleen Vogel (please see her biography above for more details on Coleen’s distinguished career in climate science and its impacts on society). The work she chose to highlight was Maria Kaika’s paper “Don’t call me resilient”, as this paper sums up the difficulties in producing research that will assist understanding of the various complexities involved in sustainability science. For Coleen, the way forward lies in enhanced understanding of how various knowledges are produced, shared and co-produced. This is very different from just adding-in the voice of stakeholders and various actors, but instead structures research based on joint problem framing, input and enhanced action for change.

Highlights of the paper that Coleen was keen to share included the direct, no-nonsense writing style and the critical interrogation of the science, indicators and techno managerial solutions that we are sometimes presented with, without asking questions about what these are based on.  This was powerfully summed up in Coleen’s key questions based on reflections raised in Kaika’s paper:

  • Is there a smart solution and what might this look like (e.g. smart cities)?
  • Are indicators of sustainability, vulnerability and progress suitably relevant and do they dig deep enough, or are we sometimes too wrapped up in the indicator to look at what is being described more holistically?
  • Are we “immunising” people, by making them resilient, just to cope with ever worsening conditions, rather than addressing the root causes of problems?
  • Is dissensus, with its potential for more thorough consideration of all implications and contradictions, a better way to find solutions than only a focus on consensus?
  • Could we make action more implementable by empowering those most at risk to lead the way in tackling these challenges?

After this introduction to the paper, a fascinating and informative discussion with the MCRIRG participants took place.  Topics ranged from what we could use in the place of indicators or in addition to indicators (such as income for livelihoods), to whether smart solutions are sometimes leaving people behind, as they are only as good as the instructions that come with them and are often “handed down” from people in a position of power. To complement indicators, narrative approaches were suggested, as a way to capture detail through a transparent process, without hiding in numbers or unclear buzz words. The difficult, but no less vital balancing act between top-down and bottom-up strategies was discussed, with respect to both the issues facing those living on islands likely to become submerged as sea levels rise and the feeling that individual actions are often constrained by circumstances.

Given the closing window associated with climate change and biodiversity change, what role does incremental change play and how can we begin to think more effectively about transformative and “transgressive” change? There was agreement that something “big” needs to happen to shake up the system, but equally delegates agreed that this is not always easy and can be frowned upon, even by the academic institutions we work for.  Often it can be comforting to retire to one’s specialism and forget about the big picture, but someone will need to deal with the reality, so it could be argued that it becomes part of our responsibility, as those who have the insight and leadership skills, to enable change.

This prompted thoughts on how we cope with the asymmetrical nature of power and how one can harness the imbalance between social groups or even between academic disciplines. It was pointed out that risk assessments assume all are well-intentioned, whereas the world we actually work in tends to be very different, with the example of inaction to tackle the smog problem in Lahore raised, despite the solutions being technically quite simple. Sometimes it is not just pushing forward towards consensus that leads to solutions being missed, but also the inability of some to share their power.

It was also agreed by those present, that the most important themes underpinning climate science are the same ones faced by those outside of climate science, such as how to deal with inequality, development, migration, human rights, politics, communication and respect for cultures. When dealing with such fundamental and complex situations, a transdisciplinary approach is essential to limit the feelings of frustration and inadequacy that can result. It was mooted that perhaps rather than concentrating on the answers we should really be asking a broad cross section of stakeholders to help us to redefine the questions.

Coleen’s excellent choice of paper and perspicacious observations were the perfect way to start our My Climate Risk Interdisciplinary Reading Group. As she said, we need to understand how various people “see” the world and move knowledge into new spaces, so we can shake up the system rather than being content to tinker round the edges whilst the world is burning.

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