Recognising the risks – what do people in Lima think about climate change?

While heads of state, ministers and negotiators met in Lima, Peru, this month to try to negotiate a global deal at the UN climate talks, local people have been developing their own adaptation strategy – and seem to find it equally difficult to face up to the scale of the problem.

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22 December 2014

Peru's Quelccaya ice cap is the largest glaciated area in the tropics; glaciers play a significant role in Lima's water provision (Photo: Wikipedia via Creative Commons)

Peru is one of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, with a high likelihood of prolonged drought, erratic but more frequent and extreme cases of rainfall, and associated risks of water scarcity, flooding and landslides. Yet facing up to these risks can be difficult for people on the ground.

Liliana Miranda Sara, executive director of Foro Ciudades para La Vida (FORO), spent six months working with a diverse group from government, the private sector and civil society developing Lima's Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. While the group recognised the risks as described by experts, questioned individually they were more likely to underestimate the scale of the impact.

Mapping out the risks

The group focused on the impacts of water scarcity, erratic rainfall and flooding on the city, which simultaneously threaten the city's water supply (which is partly supplied by glaciers in the Andes, which are now melting) and the city's infrastructure.

More variable and intense rainfall is making housing on Lima's coast and unstable mountain slopes vulnerable to landslides. And it has already contributed to problems with flooding, with the River Rimac overflowing its banks following heavy rain in 2012 and 2013, causing several bridges to collapse.

These risks were then marked out by experts on a map of the city, and this was shared and discussed with the group.

Collective discussion vs individual opinion: remarkable findings

Three months later participants were asked – this time on an individual basis – to show the vulnerable areas on the map. The results were astonishing – on average, they picked only 20 per cent of the areas identified by the experts.

"We saw a huge discrepancy in what we had discussed as a technical group and what participants really thought on an individual level," Sara said. "Many of the areas we had identified as high risk, they did not identify when by themselves. And this wasn't just locals with less understanding of the issue – this included experts and academics."

Sara suggested there could be several reasons why this might happen, ranging from basic misunderstanding to more complex psychological responses.

Misunderstandings

For some, the concept of climate change is unfamiliar, and may be discussed using language that they simply do not understand. On this basis, they'd be less likely to grasp and identify the potential risks.

Nature – don't worry, we've got it under control

"Another point of view is that whatever problems climate change creates, Lima can fix it," Sara explained. "Some people here think that humans can 'build' an answer, whatever the weather."

The cliffs on Lima's Costa Verde are widely recognised as at high risk from rising sea levels, yet property developers continue to build eight-story apartments into the side of the cliffs. These apartments, with ocean views, sell for US$2 million a time. But when asked about the risks of rising sea levels, coastal erosion or even an earthquake, developers respond: "It's no problem – if that happens, we've got good engineers."

The risk of flooding is similarly dismissed, even though Lima has a notoriously poor drainage system. Sara said that some locals seem to think they can box up nature and put it on a lead: "They think: if the Rimac runs into trouble, why not try to channel it with a pipe? The pipe will solve everything. But they are wrong if the Rimac really does overflow, it would be catastrophic for the city."

Denial: it's not really happening

Others, including politicians and influential media, simply deny climate change is happening. The former president of Peru, Alan Garcia, said that in pre-Inca times Peru's glaciers had melted six or seven times but had "recovered".

On the first day of COP20, political commentators on Peru's national TV were claiming that climate change is a fabrication, asking "Why are we Peruvians spending our money on this?"

Resistance: functional cognitive dissonance

The most complex reaction, Liliana finds, is resistance – when people understand the risks but refuse to acknowledge them (also known as functional gognitive dissonance) – as seen with attitudes to the city's water supply.

"Locals say 'Well, it's nice to see Peru's mountains with snow on the top, but the most important thing is the rain  and we still have the rain for our water'. But this is illogical people in Lima know it only rains for three or four months of year; they know they get the rest of their water from another river basin in the other side of the mountains," Sara explained. "The glaciers play a significant role in Lima's water provision… and yet they refuse to recognise there is a problem. It's incredible."

Solutions and the psychology of resistance

There's no one nor easy solution to such responses. While some feel that clear, relevant and tangible information can help to bridge knowledge gaps, compelling stories about climate change that people can relate to directly can often be more effective than frightening statistics or complicated scientific explanations in tackling scepticism and denial.

Evidence also shows that people respond better to solutions, especially when they are part of that solution.

Sara explained: "We need to understand the psychology behind it, to help explain why people refuse to acknowledge something, when they have the evidence to show it is true."

She is currently exploring the issue with interest and hopes to work with social psychologists and experts from political sciences to gain a better understanding. Unless people can find ways to face up to the problem, solutions will be even harder to find.

  • Liliana Miranda Sara was the co-author of a paper on 'Knowledge-building in adaptation management: concertación processes in transforming Lima water and climate change governance' in the October issue of Environment and Urbanization. 

Teresa Corcoran (teresa.corcoran@iied.org) is a senior coordinator within IIED's Communications department.

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