The present thesis explores the vulnerability to one of the manifestations of climate change – the augmentation of frequency and intensity of heat waves – on the territory of agglomeration of nine cities to the North of Paris, named Plaine Commune, based mainly on the participatory observations on the territory, non-structured interviews with experts on the territory, data on the so far the most detrimental 2003 heat wave and various projections made up to 2100.

Climate change is a reality today; it’s recognized and measured by scientific community. Evidence is accumulated in the works and publications of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); and the awareness and concern about it rises not only in scientific community.

The research carried out internationally demonstrates that the actions to fight against climate change require double approach aimed, firstly, at greenhouse gases emissions reduction, which is climate change mitigation, and secondly, the reduction of vulnerability of natural and social systems to climate change impacts – anticipation and adaptation. Since Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009, the interest to adaptation to climate change has rapidly grown in the climate negotiations; previously it was mostly focused on mitigation (ADEME 2011).

To mitigate climate change, the reduction of greenhouse gases emissions must remain the priority in transportation, housing, agriculture, processing waste, energy production, etc. But with regard to the amount of greenhouse gases already emitted, climate change is almost impossible to stop: the lifetime of greenhouse gases being from decades to hundreds of years (IPCC 2007), even if humanity succeeds to drastically reduce our emissions, the warming of our planet is inevitable (IPCC SPM 2007), which means that somehow effort should be focused on adaptation and actions aimed at vulnerability reduction. Vulnerability assessment of an area is the first step that leads to the development of local adaptation strategy to deal with climate change.

As already mentioned and will be further in detail developed in the first chapter, the increased frequency and magnitude of natural events, like heat waves, tsunamis, floods, etc. are characteristic demonstrations of climate change (IPCC SPM 2014).

A heat wave is a natural hazard, if combined with vulnerability it produces risk, which might cause a disaster. (Wisner et al 2003). Thus, assessment of vulnerability to heat waves is an inherent part of disaster risk prevention and management.

Vulnerability to a natural hazard has variations across territories, societies, contexts. Vulnerability combines a set of factors which determine the degree to which the life, livelihood, property or other assets can be at risk (Wisner et al 2003). In the present thesis, the factors which make the territory of Plaine Commune susceptible to heat waves are categorized and explained in detail (chapter 2).

i.i. What is the relevance and interest in choosing the particular territorial scale for the study?

There are two kinds of reasons to choose Plaine Commune, a territorial entity smaller than a department yet bigger than a city, as the object of study: there is a conceptual and a practical justification of this choice.

First of all, the conceptual justification is the fact that sustainable development of a territory can not happen without a bottom up approach (Wallner et al 1996), where local decisions not only influence the local, but have their repercussions on the global level. Adaptation to climate change follows the same logic: the top-down approach usually equated to institutional responses, allocation of funding and agreed procedures and practices (O’Brien et al., 2006) is not enough to adapt to climate change, as the institutional procedures can take too much time to introduce new methods and change strongly embedded practices (Iohe et al., 2007). So the bottom-up approach is indispensable, meaning the enhancing of the capacity of local communities, in the present case of Plaine Commune, to adapt to change and prepare to the impacts of climate change through actions like dissemination of technical knowledge and training, awareness raising, mobilizing local communities, accessing the local knowledge, bridging the gap between the scientific knowledge and its local applications (Iohe et al., 2007).

This leads us to practical reasons to choose Plaine Commune as an object of study.

Top down approach to climate change mitigation and/ or adaptation translates into the intergovernmental negotiations as the meeting of International Negotiating Committee in 1991, into UNFCCC entering into force in 1994 and further UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties (COP), into binding and non-binding documents in the UNFCCC framework: Kyoto protocol (1997), Copenhagen Accord (2009), Cancun Agreements (2010), The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (2011). Notwithstanding the effort put into the negotiations and agreements, their real effect is questionable; as despite a growing number of climate change mitigation policies signed and agreed, annual GHG emissions grow (IPCC SPM 2014).

So, one can suggest that there should be other type of bottom-up decisions made and actions taken on the local or subnational level. This suggestion was first reflected in the Cancun Agreements in 2010. More particularly, Decision 1/CP16 recognizes the crucial role of both local and subnational governments as ‘government stakeholders’ in global climate change efforts. Moreover, it invites all parties to enhance action on adaptation to climate change by undertaking among others impact, vulnerability and adaptation assessments, as well enhancing climate change related disaster risk reduction strategies. (UNFCCC 1/CP16 Decision , 2010) In the light of this decision, the undertaking of vulnerability study in Plaine Commune seems relevant.

i.ii. What is the relevance and interest in studying the vulnerability to heat waves of the particular territory of Plaine Commune?

First, having in mind the detrimental impact of the 2003 heat wave in Europe, especially in France, most notably in Ile-de France (32% of all the registered in France heat related excess deaths (Hémon et al 2003), the importance of the diagnostics of vulnerability to future extreme temperature events on the part of Ile-de-France territory cannot be overestimated.

Secondly, the territory of Plaine Commune is a rather densely urbanized area (8589/, (Plaine Commune 2014)). In 2014, more than a half of world’s population lives in urban areas (54%), 66% of the population is projected to be urban by 2050. With such a speedy rate of urbanization most of the impacts of climate change will affect urban areas, the more densely populated the higher the price of not adapting cities to impacts of climate change.

Thirdly, the specific socio-economic characteristics of Plaine Commune population, as for example, high percentage of unemployed 20,8 % (INSEE, 2010) and comparatively low incomes- 47% lower than on average in Ile-de-France (INSEE, 2010), make the study of the territory’s vulnerability relevant.  As will be further demonstrated in both chapters, one of the categories of vulnerability factors, which are especially important, are socio-economic factors (i.e. age, occupation, health condition, etc.) and namely poverty and inequality, which in many cases entail a chain of other vulnerability factors. For example, for a relatively poor household it is often problematic to choose a proper housing, not a low cost studio under the roof in a neighborhood far from refreshment areas like parks, or to pay additional electricity bills for air conditioning, so these conditions make those not well off more vulnerable than other social groups.

Table 1. Impact of 2003 heat wave in European countries, neighboring with France (in absolute numbers)

Source: EM DAT,

Deaths Total damage
Italy 20 089 $ 4 400 000
France 19 490[1] $ 4 400 000
Germany   9 355 $  1 650 000
Spain 15 090 $     880 000
The Netherlands      965
Austria      345 $ 280 000
Switzerland   1 039 $ 280 000
Belgium   1 175
The UK      301
Europe, total 72 225 $ 12 120 000


The fourth point, Plaine Commune is part of avant-garde (along with Nantes Métropole, Grand Lyon) in terms of its political stand regarding sustainable development and as such represents a sort of experimental ground for policies, projects and actions, which might further be analyzed and (not) used in other agglomerations, departments or municipalities. Experts of the department of urban ecology believe that environmental sustainability and therefore adaptation to climate change can’t be separated from socio-economic questions. Therefore, they develop policies aimed at climate change adaptation through socio-economic development. The very early commitment of political actors of the territory to the principles of sustainable development and deep engagement in urban ecology, mitigation and adaptation of climate change, represents a landmark of the territory. So, the exploration of agglomeration as a progressive, sustainability- oriented territorial entity is of special interest to share the experience with other territories and to elaborate best practice of sustainable territorial development.

i.iii. Hypotheses, research questions and presentation of the plan

As proved before, the assessment of vulnerability to heat waves is not only relevant in the context of today’s condition of climate change, in the context of  international and national climate politics, on the chosen territorial scale, but also on the concrete chosen territory; the hypotheses and research questions are yet to be introduced.

In the present work, we approach a heat wave itself as a mere trigger of a disaster; whether the disaster will happen or not, which impacts it will entail depends not only on the intensity of the heat event, but also on the characteristics of the territory, available resources, population and physical environment. In the present thesis territorial vulnerability is approached as having a systemic character, meaning that vulnerability is not a characteristic of a particular element at risk, but as a peculiarity of a territorial system, in which the elements are reciprocally linked. Chapter 1 presents the described conceptual framework based on the review of the relevant literature in the domains of climate change and disaster risk reduction.

First research question would be if the territory of Plaine Commune is vulnerable to climate change induced heat waves now and during the coming century and then why it is vulnerable.  Secondly, what is enquired is the variety of factors which contribute to the territory’s vulnerability. It’s also tremendously important to find out what are the possible outcomes of inaction in economic and human terms. The answers to these questions, based on the analysis of national census data, impact evaluation of past heat wave events, development strategy of Plaine Commune and the author’s personal participatory observations of the territorial system of Plaine Commune, are presented in Chapter 2 of the present thesis; will help decision-makers on the territory understand the vulnerable points of the territory and to choose relevant preventive and adaptation measures to decrease disaster risk.

The following part will explain in full detail the methodology needed for the rather technical and in-depth study in order to answer the research questions

[1] According to Inserm, the excess mortality from the 1st to 20th of August (period of heat wave) was around 15000 (Hémon and Jougla, 2003). The discrepancies between the different sources of information are supposedly due to the different methodology of mortality assessment.

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