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Interdisciplinarity and climate change adaptation research

Wednesday 12 October 2016, 16.00-17.15
School of Earth and Environment seminar rooms 8.119
Dr Lea Berrang Ford and Dr James Ford

A seminar jointly hosted by the Priestley International Centre for Climate and the Sustainability Research Institute


Despite pronouncements on the importance of interdisciplinary approaches for understanding various dimensions of climate change, research continues to be strongly disciplinary based. Vulnerability assessments, for instance, seek to identify who is vulnerable to climate change, to what stresses, and why, accounting for exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity, and by their very nature require input from various scientific disciplines. Paradoxically, climate change work remains fragmented across disciplinary silos, and interdisciplinarity is not a prominent feature of climate research. Assessments continue to approach vulnerability from a specific disciplinary specialization, epistemologically framed by the social, health, or biophysical sciences.  The adaptation field meanwhile is dominated by small-n qualitative case studies which seek in-depth, context specific insights on adaptation. This is necessary and important work but such approaches are not well suited for developing a broader understanding of adaptation. Is adaptation taking place? Are we adapting more over time? What drives adaptation progress? Such questions require the kinds of inductive and confirmatory research designs and quantitative methodologies that have been largely eschewed by the adaptation community to date.
In response to the challenge of interdisciplinarity, over the last decade we have jointly catalyzed and led a number of cross-disciplinary research collaborations on vulnerability and adaptation from our specializations in human/social geography (Ford) and epidemiology/health sciences (Berrang-Ford), and integrating collaborators from medicine, public health, climate modeling, and political science. In this talk we reflect on the experience of two of these projects – the Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change Project, and the Adaptation Tracking Collaborative – arguing that methodological diversity is central for advancing understanding of vulnerability and adaptation. Our theme is that interdisciplinarity alone does not guarantee impact but must be accompanied by a working ‘architecture’ for collective impact including team building, identification of common goals and meaningful engagement of knowledge users.


Dr Lea Berrang Ford is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at McGill University (Montreal, Canada) and a Canada Research Chair in Global Health and Environmental Change. Her research tackles two grand challenges in climate research and policy: 1) how do we integrate social and climatic determinants within health adaptation research? 2) How can we track adaptation to climate change? With a background in epidemiology, environmental change, and geography, Dr Berrang Ford’s work integrates quantitative and qualitative approaches and seeks to cross-fertilize conceptual and methodological tools between the social and health sciences. Her place-based work has primarily been in Uganda, with comparative research in Peru and the Canadian Arctic, and has focused on vulnerable and Indigenous communities (predominantly in the global south). She is a co-founder of the ATC: Adaptation Tracking Collaborative, and her research on climate change adaptation is widely cited in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report (WGII, 2014). Dr Berrang Ford has been a strategic advisor on climate change and health research and policy for the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Auditor General’s Office of Canada, and the United States Centres for Disease Control. She is an Associate Member of the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy and a former Trottier Fellow in Science and Public Policy.

Dr James D. Ford is an Associate Professor and CIHR Chair in the Department of Geography at McGill University, where he leads the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group ( His research takes place at the interface of science and policy, and has a strong focus on understanding what makes Indigenous communities vulnerable or resilient to climate change (Arctic focus), using this understanding to identify and evaluate pathways for adaptation. Dr Ford’s work also has a strong focus on evaluating adaptation policy at regional to global levels, including tracking adaptation progress, linking with the stocktaking process through the Paris Agreement. He is the author of >135 scientific articles, including papers in Nature Climate Change, PNAS, and Global Environmental Change, and has advised national governments on program and policy development for adaptation. A lead author on national and international climate change assessments including the Arctic Council’s Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic, he was recently involved in the IPCC scoping meeting to develop the outline of Special Report on 1.5C of warming. Dr Ford is Editor-in-Chief at the journal Regional Environmental Change, and is also on the Steering Committee developing a proposed Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) on adaptation in Canada, and is on the Research Management Committee of the ArcticNet NCE.