Double Exposure

Melissa Beattie-Moss
May 18, 2005

In Norway, a good idea is called a "ping" moment. That's just how economic geographer Robin Leichenko remembers the fortuitous phone call she received from Oslo several years ago. On the line: her former Penn State classmate, Karen L. O'Brien, a senior research fellow at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research based in the Norwegian capital.


Karen's "ping" that day was the idea of melding her own research on climate change with Robin's work in globalization to create a strengthened new perspective on both processes.

The result of their collaboration is detailed in their book Double Exposure: Global Environmental Change in an Era of Globalization, to be published in 2006 by Oxford University Press.

Leichenko, associate professor in geography at Rutgers University, was the first speaker in a mini-symposium on globalization sponsored by Penn State's geography department. Her talk on March 4 at University Park focused on the study she and O'Brien conducted on the impact of global economic and environmental change on Indian farmers. Funded by the Canadian government, this "double exposure" study examined the varied contextual factors that influence a region's vulnerability to shifts in weather patterns and economic downturns.

Normal fluctuation or man-made crisis?

Though it seems a given that weather and economies are unpredictable forces, there is human agency behind the double exposure phenomenon observed by Leichenko and O'Brien.

"Climate change is always happening as a natural process," says Leichenko. "But we are referring specifically to climate change resulting from human use of fossil fuels and emissions of greenhouse gases." This so-called anthropogenic climate change, Leichenko and O'Brien argue, is the direct result of the newest wave of global trade liberalization over the past 30 years.

Toxic Suburbanization

globalization graph

In this game of global dominoes, the impact of one factor—such as increased automobile dependency—can set in motion a host of related changes for a region. Leichenko points to the exporting of the American Dream as a driving force in global environmental change. She notes that "McMansions have become a pervasive new form of housing on the Indian landscape," along with gated communities and MTV.

In Leichenko's view, the implications for sustainability are disturbing, as American-style suburbanization changes the physical and cultural environments in traditionally poor nations such as India and China that have embraced liberalized trade policies and foreign investments.

The worldwide shift towards suburban living produces "increased fossil-fuel usage due to greater dependence on automobiles, construction of more energy-consumptive homes, and adoption of more energy-intensive household appliances." The net result? "The globalization of suburbia is having dramatic effects on local environments," Leichenko concludes, "including increased water pollution and loss of agricultural lands and natural habitats."

Winners and losers at the world table

Leichenko and O'Brien believe that globalization is producing winners and losers in both environmental and economic terms. Their double exposure study sought to answer the question of why and how these categories emerge. What factors, they wondered, predispose different regions within a nation to succeed or fail as globalization takes hold?

To answer this question, Leichenko and O'Brien assembled a detailed portrait of a region's economy, its physical geography, and its access to institutional and technological resources, among other factors. This "vulnerability profile" enabled them to assess and map a region's comparative susceptibility to the combined processes of globalization and global environmental change.

A map of vulnerability

To be double exposed means to experience the negative impacts of both processes simultaneously. Leichenko found that the most high-risk Indian villages in economic terms are those that have low productivity and are very vulnerable to import competition. Sensitivity to future man-made climate changes depends largely on the typical impact of drought and monsoons on a region.

The multi-layered maps Leichenko and O'Brien created graphically illustrate the number of double-exposed areas within India. For these two Penn State alums, their trips to India have made the shaded areas on their map more than an abstraction. To them, the concept of double exposure represents the human dimension of global environmental change.

In a nation where agriculture still employs 68 percent of the population, globalization and global climate change may spell double trouble for these most vulnerable Indian regions.

Robin Leichenko, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of geography at Rutgers University in Rutgers, New Jersey, The lecture reported above was given as part of the Penn State Department of Geography's 2005 Coffee Hour lecture series.

Last Updated May 18, 2005