In December, geographer and U of T Professor Emeritus Ian Burton and six other current or former U of T faculty members received one of the Canadian government’s highest honours: an appointment to the Order of Canada. 

Since the 1990s, Burton has researched how people can adapt to climate change, interrogating the social, political, and economic causes of disasters. He has worked on three assessment reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a United Nations (UN) body that aims to advance climate change research — and consulted for multiple organizations, including the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and the UN Development Programme. 

To discuss how we should think about disaster and adaptation, The Varsity recently spoke with Burton over coffee. During our conversation — which has been edited for length and clarity — we discussed his work on the cultural dimension of disaster, the need for adaptation to climate change, and his hopes for the planet’s future.

The Varsity: You wrote that, at the time you were entering the field, there was a broadening recognition that we, as a society, have a lot of control over disasters, and that it’s not just punishment from God or these natural things that no one can control. How has our understanding of disasters changed over your career?

Ian Burton: There are a lot of different ideas about what causes a disaster that have built on each other. Historically speaking, these were acts of God, or maybe just acts of nature. Disaster was a punishment for something — Noah’s Flood is the classic example of that. 

Then we went into a period of post-industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, where we felt that disasters could be controlled. Classically, in the case of floods, we could build dams, dikes, and levees to keep the floodwaters contained. If there was still a disaster, it was because we had not applied enough control. But the floods and disasters still occurred, so that self-confidence declined. 

Now, explanations focus on why people are vulnerable and why people are exposed to disasters. For example, standards for building codes are set to make buildings resistant to earthquakes or floods. People building the buildings want to cut their costs, so they don’t conform to the building codes and standards. And if people try to make them conform, then they do a little bit of bribery. 

Then you can ask: what is it about the system that permits bribery, corruption, and other ways of getting around the building codes? It gets to a broader diagnosis of not what is bad about the decisions, but what is bad about the social and political context in which those decisions are made.

TV: That’s funny, because as we’ve had this increasing recognition, there’s also been a lot more disasters.

IB: [Laughs] There have been more disasters, and the cost of disasters has steadily gone up. Part of it is that there are a lot more people, and the economy has grown. Even still, it seems that the cost of disasters has been going up faster than economic growth. It’s also a systems issue. Climate change is causing the frequency and magnitude of extreme events to go up.

TV: What have you taken away from living through this?

IB: I’ve been one of the earliest and strongest advocates of adaptation. Since the climate change convention of 1992, there has been a dichotomy: either you mitigate or you adapt. Mitigation was always the popular thing to do. 

I was one of the early people to say you’re not going to be able to do that fast enough to prevent climate change. Climate change is going to occur, and it’s going to have impacts. In addition to mitigation, we need to learn how to adapt. That’s been my hope. It is quite a complicated issue. 

What do you mean by adaptation? Adapt to what? It’s a different thing if I am a farmer, a health business, or an engineer. And it depends on your location and the time dimension: am I adapting to what it is now or to what it will be?

TV: What makes you hopeful right now, if anything? 

IB: What makes me hopeful is that there is more questioning about the state of the world, the economy, and the state of society. One of the big effects of neoliberalism over the last several years has been the huge growth in inequality. At the same time, there are emerging economies in the Global South that have grown quickly, so the inequality between rich and poor countries is diminishing. As the inequality between nations has tended to diminish, the inequality within the countries has grown enormously. 

I think there’s a chance that there will be an increase in the common interest of poor people across the world. I think the hopefulness begins when you have a counterreaction to this growth in inequality, a swing to the left, or at least a swing back to the centre. 

TV: Do you have anything more to add?

IB: We need to see much more attention paid to how all sectors of the economy will adapt. We don’t know yet precisely what that is going to look like because it depends on how much climate change we get, and what kinds of climate change happen where. Agriculture, for example, is affected across the world. 

So what we’re adapting to is not clear enough, and there’s a lot of uncertainty. We also need to think about how climate change affects different parts of the country: interiors, rivers, more arid or humid areas, and so on. And you need to do that not only nationally, you also need to do that globally.

TV: I learned in one of my classes that adaptation is just a subsection of one of the UN’s sustainable development goals. There are many goals forabout mitigating environmental catastrophe, but very little space is given to adaptation.

IB: That’s right. So, I don’t have answers. I have a lot of questions. I think the questions are: get thinking about the impacts of climate change and what we need to do to respond to those impacts in different sectors, different places, and different timescales.

Disclosure: Amy Mann is an organizer with Climate Justice UofT.