The term Lupang Pangako means promised land—the sardonic name given to a garbage dump outside the city of Manila inhabited by almost 100,000 people. I visited Lupang Pangako about 15 years ago in a different life as a geologist, and the place really is hell on earth. As you drive through the Promised Land, you see stygian mists rising from the hillsides, the mountains of garbage, and if you look closely you see movement everywhere in the distance. You soon realize that the mountains are covered with people scavenging for their livelihoods.
You may remember that in July 2000 torrential typhoon rains caused a huge landslide in the Promised Land that buried more than 200 people under a mountain of garbage. To me, this horrific event provides a powerful indicator of how we should be thinking about the impacts of climate on people and about human adaptation. The problem was not whether the typhoon was an above-average or below-average event. It was not a problem whose root causes could be revealed through a better understanding of anthropogenic climate change. The problem was that 100,000 people were living in poverty so deep that they could survive only by culling garbage.
The results of humanity’s mistreatment of the environment fall disproportionately on poor people, on developing countries, and on tropical regions. Although these impacts are most severe in their chronic forms, they are most spectacular in their catastrophic versions, such as this landslide. As Figure 1 shows, the number of disasters has risen sharply throughout the world in the last 30 years, most markedly in the developing world. This trend does not reflect a changing climate; it reflects changing demographics—growing numbers of poor people living in urban areas, living in coastal regions, living on garbage dumps. Unlike changes in climate, this trend is something we can control. These are not natural disasters; these are intersections of natural phenomena and complex sociopolitical and socioeconomic processes.
The number of disasters will continue to rise because we know that demographic trends are pointing toward more urbanization and greater numbers of impoverished people moving from agrarian areas to cities—often to areas in harm’s way. Megacities like Jakarta and Manila that have nearly 10 million people apiece are subject to typhoons, volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides, epidemics, and floods, for example. Because generating more knowledge on climate dynamics cannot help us in the short term, it is worth talking not just about the behavior of the climate and our capacity to modify it by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also about the interactions of social systems with climate and the engineered systems that sustain human beings. These systems are not sensitive to emissions of carbon dioxide but are very sensitive to demographic and socioeconomic trends. We have much less control over the future behavior of the climate than we do over the behavior of human beings.
Given the complexity of these interdependent systems, the practical challenge is to learn to operate in ways that minimize our impact on the planet and maximize our resilience in the face of unpredictable events and the ever-changing