Category: Climate Change Impacts

Climate resilience is make or break for businesses. Here’s why

Climate resilience is make or break for businesses. Here’s why

  • Even with strong climate action, we cannot avoid all of the consequences of climate change.
  • Companies must place a greater focus on building resilience.
  • As well as averting potentially huge losses, this course of action also offers a sizeable business opportunity.

Despite steadily growing climate action by both governments and companies, we continue to fall short of the level of ambition required to curb climate change. In fact, the UN estimates that even if we meet all the climate commitments of the Paris Agreement, temperatures can be expected to rise this century to 3.2°C above pre-industrial levels, far above the 1.5°C threshold to avoid the most severe climate impacts.

While this may not seem like much, it can contribute to the manifestation of immense catastrophes, such as the ongoing wildfire crisis in Australia spurred by heatwaves and flash floods in Indonesia.

We would be wise to prepare for this – and business is no exception.

Mitigation vs resilience

Attention is often focused on the steps businesses take to mitigate climate change – reducing or preventing emissions of greenhouse gases, or removing carbon from the atmosphere, in order to limit the magnitude of future warming. This remains Plan A in the fight against climate change, and businesses must drive the transition to a low-carbon economy, as seen through initiatives such as Mission Possible.

But even with a major step up in our levels of ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is evident that we cannot avoid all the consequences of climate change. We also need to adapt to rapidly changing climatic conditions, building the resilience of society to prepare for whatever might happen next, so that we can absorb and quickly bounce back from shocks, such as storms and droughts, when they do strike.

Top climate risks to business

The first step to better managing the growing climate risks that businesses face is understanding them.

Risk of trillion-dollar losses

The potential economic costs of inaction are staggering. Damage done by climate-related disasters and extreme weather in 2018 alone cost the US around $160 billion, and the numbers are only expected to increase as hazards become more complex and unpredictable.

This is just the start
This is just the startImage: NOAA

Businesses are also bracing themselves for direct impact to their bottom lines. In 2018, 215 of the world’s 500 biggest corporations, including giants like Apple, JPMorgan, Chase, Nestle and The 3M Company reported climate-related financial risks of just under $1 trillion.

Risk to infrastructure and supply chains

With around 80% of global trade embedded in supply chains, business leaders are increasingly aware of risks that could affect their ability to move through the world, including issues of cost, speed and responsiveness. In fact, CDP data reveals that 76% of suppliers have identified ways in which climate change could increase the risk of disruptions to their business.

Globalization means climate disasters can be felt around the world
Globalization means climate disasters can be felt around the worldImage: BSR

During the severe flooding in Thailand in 2011, more than 14,500 companies dependent on regional suppliers experienced significant damage with total insured losses between $15-$20 billion. Western Digital lost 45% of its shipments, HP lost $2 billion, and NEC cut 10,000 jobs due to a global shortage of hard disk drives.

Risk of damaged communities, reputations and stakeholder relations

The first climate-change bankruptcy last year was a historical milestone illustrating how resilience inaction can destroy a business, and cause immeasurable damage to the communities around it.

Following severe drought and devastating wildfires in Northern California last year, one of the largest utilities in the US, Pacific Gas and Electric, filed for bankruptcy, leaving the company with hundreds of filed lawsuits and an anticipated $30 billion in liabilities due to vulnerabilities in its infrastructure.

The fire was one of the nation’s deadliest in modern times. It took the lives of more than 80 people, destroyed more than 18,000 structures, and caused at least $11 billion of damage. The company has been heavily criticized by its consumers, state officials, courts and advocacy organisations for failing to invest in preventative maintenance and other improvements that could have mitigated losses.

Business opportunities in building resilience

It is not all doom and gloom, however. Done right, efforts to build resilience can yield a triple dividend: not only avoiding economic losses, but also offering positive economic and wider social and environmental benefits. In fact, the Global Commission on Adaptation estimates that investing $1.8 trillion globally in five areas could unlock benefits worth $7.1 trillion from now until 2030.

Image: Global Commission on Adaptation

Climate resilience is an opportunity to create new business products. For example, Goldman Sachs’ recent report, Making Cities Resilient to Climate Changedescribes potential for “one of the largest infrastructure build-outs in history”, while a global survey of finance players highlights a nascent industry investing in natural capital – water, soil, air and living organisms from which we derive a wide range of goods and services – as investors look to build resilience against climate change.

But not only does climate resilience offer businesses new opportunities, it also offers them a chance to do things better. A study of a dairy supply chain in Mexico showed that innovations that improve climate resilience such as heat-resistant building material, drought-resistant seeds, water-harvesting services, low-drip irrigation and new insurance schemes can also generate business opportunities, including new market niches, and new local technologies, products and services – often at a lower price.

The International Council on Mining and Metals also shows that by proactively managing climate risks, mining and metals companies can reduce costs (for example, by reducing water and energy use), while improving relationships with stakeholders.

Finally, the demands on businesses are changing. This year’s Global Risks Report shows that young people are considerably more concerned than older generations about climate and environmental risks. As millennials and Generation X become an increasing influential demographic, businesses who lead on resilience will be well placed to attract customers, investors and talent.

A new frontline of business leadership

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of current discussions on climate is that they are no longer exclusive to environmental experts, scientists or academics. Mainstream business is beginning to recognise the benefits of taking action.

Most recently, the World Economic Forum’s Resilience Action Platform (RAP), in collaboration with the UK Government, is supporting two new initiatives that highlight ambitious multistakeholder and business-led action on resilience. The Coalition for Climate Resilient Investment, which brings together over 30 organisations with assets totalling $5 trillion, aims to drive investment flows towards resilient assets by better pricing climate risks throughout the infrastructure investment value chain.

The Just Rural Transition, supported by six countries and 39 organizations, aims to help rural areas prepare for a shift towards climate resilient and sustainable food, land use and ecosystems.

As Børge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum, told global leaders at the third Sustainable Development Impact Summit: “It is no longer about the cost of action, but about the cost of inaction, which is far greater.”

The gauntlet has been thrown down.

Climate resilience offers business a stark choice: Prepare now or pay later.

This article is part of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
Photo by Andy Falconer on Unsplash
Environmental threats dominate 2020 Global Risks Report for the first time in history

Environmental threats dominate 2020 Global Risks Report for the first time in history

By Georgina Wade

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report finds that severe threats to our climate account for all of the top long-term risks, with “economic confrontations” and domestic political polarization” recognized as significant short-term risks in 2020. For the first time in the history of the survey’s 10-year outlook, environmental threats dominate the top five long term risks by likelihood and occupy three of the top five spots by impact.

Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2019-2020

The report provides a rich perspective on the major threats that may impact global prosperity in 2020 and beyond. The 15th edition of the report, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), draws on feedback from nearly 800 global experts and decision-makers who were asked to rank their concerns in terms of likelihood and impact.

The report forecasts a year of increased domestic and international divisions with the added risk of economic slowdown with 78% of survey respondents expecting economic confrontations and domestic political polarisation to rise in 2020. However, failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation is this year’s number one long-term risk by impact and number two by likelihood. And while other risk categories made their way into the top ten, climate risks underpin many of those identified.

Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2019-2020

Established environmental risks include:

  • Loss of life
  • Stress on ecosystems
  • Food and water crises
  • Increased migration
  • Exacerbation of geopolitical tensions
  • Economic impacts
  • Capital market risks
  • Trade, labour and supply chain disruption

With climate change striking harder and more rapidly than expected, a planetary emergency resulting in loss of life, social and geopolitical tensions and negative economic impacts is entirely plausible. The report further proves that established leaders and experts agree on one thing: climate change is the prominent long-term risk the world faces. There is still scope for stakeholders to address the identified risks associate with climate change, but the window of opportunity is closing. Citing a need for coordinated, multi-stakeholder action to mitigate against the worst outcomes and build resilience across vulnerable communities and businesses, World Economic Forum President Børge Brende warns, “The window for action is still open, if not for much longer”.

You can access the full report here.

Cover photo by Charles Wiriawan on Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The future of frankincense: a resin at risk

The future of frankincense: a resin at risk

By Lydia Messling

The nativity story tells us that when the Magi, distant travellers from ‘the east’, visited baby Jesus “they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh” – but could they do that today?

Frankincense has been used for millennia for a whole caravan of purposes – from improving arthritis, and as a pain-killer, through to aromatherapy, and cleansing body cavities in mummification. But here have been marked declines in the tree populations that produce frankincense across Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula, and now researchers have found that there is evidence of collapse of Bozwellia papyrifera – the current major frankincense producer – over all its geographic distribution, threatening the global supply.

The B. papyrifera is actually an incredible plant that has inbuilt resilience mechanisms that make it quite hardy. Before actually becoming a tree, the plant spends a lot of energy in developing deep water-seeking roots. The above-ground parts die back each season meaning that the plant is well adapted to accidental fire or being eaten by animals (known as browsing). However, this costs the tree precious soluble carbohydrates and adds mortality risk if they are over-browsed or if multiple fires occur.[1] By monitoring 21,786 trees over 23 populations, researchers found that the yield of frankincense is likely to decrease by more than 50% in the next 20 years.[2] The age of the trees also showed a large regeneration gap meaning that populations are not replacing themselves. So what’s changed?

The main change has been in the over-exploitation of the resource – from over-tapping to burning and chopping many trees down for cattle grazing and browsing. Climate change is likely to speed up the decline too, and environmental effects including droughts and strong winds have already led to the rapid decline of other frankincense yielding plants. The lack of favourable climatic conditions has shown to be a cause of regeneration failure of woody plants, however the most plausible explanation in this case is likely due to intensified cattle grazing, higher burning frequency, and unsustainable tapping practices. Whilst the Bozwellia genus is quite resilient to climate change, the environment around it is not. Other plants that cattle would usually graze on have suffered, meaning that the Bozwellia trees are the next available option. Similarly, with crop failure and other pressures on incomes, locals are tapping trees more heavily in order to trade it and earn money. Ironically, to counteract yield declines, tapping intensity needs to be reduced and even introduce tapping-rest years for the plant.

However, the demand for frankincense may also be the solution. By changing how frankincense is valued, we can change how it is harvested. For example, by valuing the resin on it’s quality, not it’s quantity, the incentive will be to tap in a more sustainable way as rested trees tapped sustainably create higher-quality resin. At the moment, the market still does not operate in this way, and is largely dependent on consumer demand for sustainably sourced products. Whilst this demand change might be driven by international businesses involved in care products and essential oils, there is also a tension to be managed with local communities’ domestic, cultural and religious ceremony uses. As such, demand management is not enough, and other efforts in regional governance of tree populations needs to be taken. In doing so, governments can help the climate resilient tree provide security to communities, and make them more resilient to climate change.

[1] Muys, B., (2019) Frankincense facing extinction, Nature Sustainability, 2, p665-666.
[2] Bongers, F., et al. (2019) Frankincense in Peril, Nature Sustainability, 2, p602-610.

Cover photo by Ben White on Unsplash
What does climate change mean for your chances of a white Christmas?

What does climate change mean for your chances of a white Christmas?

By Will Bugler

2019 is looking like it will end up as the second hottest year on record, but what does warmer average global temperatures mean for your chances of experiencing a white Christmas?

Well, to a very large extent, that depends on where you are in the world. Citizens of Bethlehem will not be holding their breath for a dusting of snow, while those in Lapland would be more than a little surprised if they avoided even a few inches.

However, the chances of snow falling over the winter holiday period are changing. In some parts of the world, such as southern parts of Canada, and Western and Central Europe, snow has become significantly less likely. But in many parts of the US, for example, the chances of snow have actually gone up – especially in the West of the country, and the Appalachians.

In the UK, the chances of a full-blown ‘white Christmas’ with snow settling on the ground is pretty slim. There have only been four years in the past fifty where widespread snowfall has occurred on Christmas Day. This is in contrast to parts of the US which experience at least 1 inch of snow almost every year. NOAA even provide this handy map to show where you can be fairly certain of getting a good dose of the white stuff.

Cover photo by Reijo Telaranta from Pixabay
Christmas tree shopping is harder than ever, thanks to climate change and demographics

Christmas tree shopping is harder than ever, thanks to climate change and demographics

By James Robert Farmer

If you’re shopping for a live Christmas tree this year, you may have to search harder than in the past. Over the last five years Christmas tree shortages have been reported in many parts of the U.S.

One factor is that growers sold off land and planted fewer trees during and after the 2008 recession. In the lifespan of Christmas trees, the decade from 2008 to the present is roughly a single generation of plantings. However, in my research on the human dimensions of farming and food systems, I also see other factors at play.

Christmas trees take 6 to 12 years to mature, and consumer preferences often change more quickly than farmers can adjust. Climate change is altering temperature and rainfall patterns, which severely affects growers’ ability to produce high-quality trees and the varieties that customers seek. And like the overall U.S. population, Christmas tree growers and shoppers are aging.

Collectively, these trends don’t bode well for Christmas tree lovers, the growers or the industry. However, there are opportunities for younger farmers to enter this market, either full- or part-time. If new and beginning growers live in an area with appropriate environmental conditions, Christmas trees are a high-quality complementary crop that farmers can use to diversify their operations and provide off-season income.

Workers deliver the 2018 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree to the U.S. Capitol Building, Nov. 26, 2018, from Willamette National Forest in Oregon. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Evolving consumer preferences

As of 2017, there were about 15,000 Christmas tree farms across the U.S. Most are around 23 acres in size, and nearly half of them gross less than US$25,000 annually. A great number of Christmas tree ventures are part of larger farm operations, and many growers hold off-the-farm jobs.

Our team recently sent a survey to 1,500 randomly selected Indiana residents to see how consumer behavior could affect the state’s tree farmers. Christmas tree shoppers told us that they predominantly seek short-needle trees, such as firs and spruces (38%), followed by medium-needle varieties like Scotch pines (24%).

Over 42% of respondents purchased their tree from a Christmas tree farm, while nearly 32% bought them from a tree lot or other small business, and approximately 20% got their tree from large chain or retail stores such as Home Depot or Lowes. A national consumer survey conducted by the National Christmas Tree Association found that shoppers equally purchased trees from Christmas tree farms (28%) and large chain retailers (28%), followed closely by retail lots (23%).

According to the association’s data, from 2004-2017 the number of real Christmas trees sold stayed relatively steady, while the number of artificial trees sold more than doubled. Real tree growers have lost market share to increasingly popular artificial trees, and may have trouble seriously competing for the foreseeable future, due to climate change and an aging population.

Noble Mountain Tree Farm in Oregon harvests trees by helicopter.

Weather woes

Climate change is directly and indirectly affecting Christmas tree growers across the U.S. Droughts in 2012 and 2014 and spring floods in 2019 have taken a toll on plantings, particularly young saplings. A farmer in southern Indiana recently told me that 2019 was the wettest spring and the driest summer and fall he could recall over the past 29 years.

These extreme conditions decrease sapling success rate, which contribute to tree shortages when the planted stock would have matured for harvesting. In addition, higher average summer and winter temperatures are increasing tree mortality by worsening disease and pest pressures, making trees less resilient.

In a 2018 survey that our program distributed to 95 Indiana Christmas tree growers, 60% of respondents said that environmental conditions were challenging their operations. Among the growers, over 70% highlighted droughts as a major challenge. More than 50% of respondents reported having problems with disease, insect pressure, and heat waves. About 30% indicated that consumers were searching for trees that were difficult or impossible for them to grow, such as Fraser firs, which are native to higher-elevation areas of the southern Appalachian mountains.

Christmas tree production is concentrated in cooler regions of the U.S. USDA/NASS

Aging farmers and shoppers

U.S. farmers are getting older, and Christmas tree growers are no exception. Across the farming industry, the average farmer’s age rose from 56.3 in 2012 to 57.5 in 2017.

In our survey of Indiana Christmas tree growers, we found that their average age was 64 and that 62% of farm operations did not have a transition plan in place. Additionally, 28% of growers intended to stop planting trees in the next five years. These results suggest that many new Christmas tree farmers will need to enter the business just to maintain current production levels.

Buyers are also aging. In our consumer survey, shoppers buying either real or artificial trees were in their mid-50s on average, while those who did not purchase trees were 64 on average. Written comments suggested that people were less likely to put up a tree when fewer people, particularly children, were in the house and the work fell to one or two individuals.

Planting for the future

For Christmas tree farms to survive, shoppers will need to be more flexible. They may have to settle for a Scotch pine instead of a Fraser fir, or for buying a harvested tree rather than cutting their own. This is particularly true for buyers who wait until late in the season or want a tree variety that cannot be grown in their local environment.

Who will grow the next generation of trees? The good news is that for potential growers, competition is sparse and demand is stable. Aspiring Christmas tree farmers should consider working with aging local growers who are seeking to slow down or transition out of the industry. Farmers in other sectors, such as fruit and vegetable producers selling locally, might consider Christmas trees as a way to bolster off-season income.

The allure of a fresh-cut tree is unlikely to fade, so Christmas tree farming could be a gratifying venture for growers who are patient enough to plant now for customers in 2027.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Cover photo by Josh Bean on Unsplash
Flash flooding is a serious threat in the UK – here’s how scientists are tackling its prediction

Flash flooding is a serious threat in the UK – here’s how scientists are tackling its prediction

By Christopher J White, Laura Kelly, and Linda Speight

It’s becoming a familiar scene on the news: sodden British people wading through streets up to their knees in flood water. From Stirling to Sheffield, many parts of the UK in 2019 felt the impact of severe surface water flooding – often referred to as flash flooding – that followed torrential rain. As the climate changes and the UK experiences more intense summer storms, this is becoming an increasingly important issue.

Surface water flooding is what happens in built-up areas when heavy rainfall has nowhere to go. Unable to enter a watercourse or drainage system, the water instead flows over the ground causing flash flooding. Increased development means more areas are paved over, leaving fewer places for rainfall to drain away. And more frequent heavy rains overload the sewer and drainage network, which makes flash flooding more likely.

James Bevan, chief executive of the England and Wales Environment Agencysaid this kind of flooding “threatens more people and properties than any other form of flood risk”. In 2016, the UK government included surface water flooding on the national risk register.

Unlike river and coastal flooding, which can be widespread (as was seen in November 2019 across parts of northern England), surface water flooding presents unique challenges because it’s difficult to predict the location, timing and impact of what are typically localised events.

As the climate changes and urban populations grow, the number of people at risk of surface water flooding increases. This risk is particularly high in Scotland with over 100,000 properties identified at risk from flash floods. And for many people, even if their home or business is not at risk, there’s a good chance the roads or railway lines they use are.

Flash flood forecasting in Scotland

Although Scotland’s river and coastal flooding warning systems are well established, surface water alerting is still in its infancy. To address this gap, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is continually developing its flood forecasting service with the Flood Warning Development Framework for 2017-21, which aims to explore and test innovative ways to warn people about flash floods.

Developing an effective forecasting system requires hydrological models that represent surface run-off, inundation and water movement, showing how water travels via surface and urban sewerage and drainage networks. Prediction models are also needed to quantify uncertainty in forecasting the rainfall that causes surface water flooding.

The uncertain nature of intense storms means that heavy rainfall can happen without much warning. This coupled with the pressure that excess natural run-off puts on man-made drainage networks when there are fewer places for water to go, makes surface water flooding forecasting a real challenge.

It’s a particularly acute problem in Scotland where the climate and geography contribute to the high uncertainties around predicting the location and timing of flooding. A 2016 study found the most dangerous flash floods in the UK include those that resulted from rapidly developing thunderstorm systems. Such storms can result in sudden and dangerous flooding in urban areas – yet these are the most challenging weather systems for flood forecasters to predict.

In the past five years, there has been a rapid development of thunderstorm numerical weather prediction computer models and advances in what is called probabilistic ensemble forecasting. This means instead of making a single forecast of the most likely weather, a set (or ensemble) of forecasts is produced, giving an indication of the range of possible weather ahead. Combined with an increase in computing power and skill, it is now becoming feasible to develop flash flood forecasting systems for urban areas.

Innovative solutions

Earlier this year, we were commissioned by SEPA to review the state of the science behind surface water flood forecasting in Scotland. Based on an extensive review of published research and reports, coupled with discussions with industry experts, we show that recent advances in computing, thunderstorm models, ensemble forecasting and surface water modelling mean that it is possible for SEPA to explore and build on the accumulated global knowledge about flash flood forecasting.

The risk of surface water flooding in Scotland is communicated through SEPA’s Flood Guidance Statement and Flood Alerts, where assessment is based on predetermined rainfall amount and duration thresholds and local expert knowledge. This helped to provide the UK’s first surface water flood risk forecasts for each of the big sporting events at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

This information is useful to emergency services and the public, but the ability to provide detailed information on the location and timing of flash flooding remains limited. SEPA’s review highlights the growing need to provide more focused forecasts to help those concerned make the right decisions. It also identifies opportunities to learn how other countries respond to similar flooding that could be applied to Scotland.

The review provides several examples of initiatives that could improve the monitoring of flash flood impacts, including better use of crowdsourced data, as happens in the Netherlands, and better weather forecast visualisation tools (such as 3-D interactive displays and animations) as demonstrated in Spain.

The future

It may never be possible to prevent flash flooding, but reliable and early forecasting can help improve the capacity to prepare, respond and recover. The recent introduction of thunderstorm models and ensemble forecasting has resulted in significant advances in forecasting rainfall. This means it may now be possible to forecast flash flooding in urban areas, as well as make forecasts and warnings more focused and easier to understand, which in turn will help people make better, more informed decisions.

Producing flood forecasts for any particular location is likely to remain challenging beyond a few hours in advance – there will always be limits to the predictability of extreme rainfall. But our capacity to predict extreme weather is constantly improving, which SEPA may be able to apply to surface water flood forecasting.

Solutions for communicating uncertainty of heavy rainfall forecasts continue to develop. Our work means that a step-change in flash flood forecasting that builds on the experience of SEPA, the rest of the UK and other countries, is now possible. Making the best use of all available data – including social media and crowdsourced data – will increase awareness of flash flooding and help communities prepare and respond more effectively.

This article was originally published on the Conversation.
Cover photo by Rainbow International on Flickr.
Climate change, pandemics, biodiversity loss: no country is sufficiently prepared

Climate change, pandemics, biodiversity loss: no country is sufficiently prepared

By Gabriel Recchia & Haydn Belfield

There’s little that the left and the right agree on these days. But surely one thing is beyond question: that national governments must protect citizens from the gravest threats and risks they face. Although our government, wherever we are in the world, may not be able to save everyone from a pandemic or protect people and infrastructure from a devastating cyberattack, surely they have thought through these risks in advance and have well-funded, adequately practiced plans?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is an emphatic no.

Not all policy areas are subject to this challenge. National defence establishments, for example, often have the frameworks and processes that facilitate policy decisions for extreme risks. But more often than not, and on more issues than not, governments fail to imagine how worst-case scenarios can come about – much less plan for them. Governments have never been able to divert significant attention from the here and happening to the future and uncertain.

recent report published by Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk argues that this needs to change. If even only one catastrophic risk manifests – whether through nature, accident or intention – it would harm human security, prosperity and potential on a scale never before seen in human history. There are concrete steps governments can take to address this, but they are currently being neglected.

The risks that we face today are many and varied. They include:

The ‘Baker’ Explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a US Army nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on July 25, 1946. Wikimedia Commons

Each of these global catastrophic risks could cause unprecedented harm. A pandemic, for example, could speed around our hyper-connected world, threatening hundreds of millions – potentially billions – of people. In this globalised world of just-in-time delivery and global supply chains, we are more vulnerable to disruption than ever before. And the secondary effects of instability, mass migration and unrest may be comparably destructive. If any of these events occurred, we would pass on a diminished, fearful and wounded world to our descendants.

So how did we come to be so woefully unprepared, and what, if anything, can our governments do to make us safer?

A modern problem

Dealing with catastrophic risks on a global scale is a particularly modern problem. The risks themselves are a result of modern trends in population, information, politics, warfare, technology, climate and environmental damage.

These risks are a problem for governments that are set up around traditional threats. Defence forces were built to protect from external menaces, mostly foreign invading forces. Domestic security agencies became increasingly significant in the 20th century, as threats to sovereignty and security – such as organised crime, domestic terrorism, extreme political ideologies and sophisticated espionage – increasingly came from inside national borders.

Unfortunately, these traditional threats are no longer the greatest concern today. Risks arising from the domains of technology, environment, biology and warfare don’t fall neatly into government’s view of the world. Instead, they are varied, global, complex and catastrophic.

Global and local. Maksim Shutov/UnsplashFAL

As a result, these risks are currently not a priority for governments. Individually, they are quite unlikely. And such low-probability high-impact events are difficult to mobilise a response to. In addition, their unprecedented nature means we haven’t yet been taught a sharp lesson in the need to prepare for them. Many of the risks could take decades to arise, which conflicts with typical political time scales.

Governments, and the bureaucracies that support them, are not positioned to handle what’s coming. They don’t have the right incentives or skill sets to manage extreme risks, at least beyond natural disasters and military attacks. They are often stuck on old problems, and struggle to be agile to what’s new or emerging. Risk management as a practice is not a government’s strength. And technical expertise, especially on these challenging problem sets, tends to reside outside government.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that any attempt to tackle these risks is not nationally confined: it would benefit everyone in the world – and indeed future generations. When the benefits are dispersed and the costs immediate, it is tempting to coast and hope others will pick up the slack.

Time to act

Despite these daunting challenges, governments have the capability and responsibility to increase national readiness for extreme events.

The first step is for governments to improve their own understanding of the risks. Developing a better understanding of extreme risks is not as simple as conducting better analysis or more research. It requires a whole-of-government framework with explicit strategies for understanding the types of risks we face, as well as their causes, impacts, probabilities and time scales.

With this plan, governments can chart more secure and prosperous futures for their citizens, even if the most catastrophic possibilities never come to pass.

Governments need to look further into potential futures. FotoKina/

Governments around the world are already working towards improving their understanding of risk. For example, the United Kingdom is a world leader in applying an all-hazard national risk assessment process. This assessment ensures governments understand all the hazards – natural disasters, pandemics, cyber attacks, space weather, infrastructure collapse – that their country faces. It helps local first responders to prepare for the most damaging scenarios.

Finland’s Committee for the Future, meanwhile, is an example of a parliamentary select committee that injects a dose of much-needed long-term thinking into domestic policy. It acts as a think tank for futures, science and technology policy and provides advice on legislation coming forward that has an impact on Finland’s long-range future.

And Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures is leading in “horizon scanning”, a set of methods that helps people think about the future and potential scenarios. This is not prediction. It’s thinking about what might be coming around the corner, and using that knowledge to inform policy.

But these actions are few and far between.

We need all governments to put more energy towards understanding the risks, and acting on that knowledge. Some countries may even need grand changes to their political and economic systems, a level of change that typically only occurs after a catastrophe. We cannot – and do not have to – wait for these structural changes or for a global crisis. Forward-leaning leaders must act now to better understand the risks that their countries face.

This article was originally posted on The Conversation.
Cover photo by aladdin hammami on Unsplash.
Climate crisis could reverse progress in achieving gender equality

Climate crisis could reverse progress in achieving gender equality

By Nitya Rao, University of East Anglia

People who directly depend on the natural world for their livelihoods, like farmers and fishers, will be among the greatest victims of the climate crisis. In vulnerable hotspots, such as the arid lands of Kenya and Ethiopia, farming communities are already struggling with droughts and water scarcity that kill their cattle and threaten their very survival. The glacial-fed river basins of the Himalayan mountains, or the deltas of Bangladesh, India and Ghana, are increasingly prone to floods, landslides and powerful cyclones.

As a result, men are often migrating further to keep their families going, looking for casual work in neighbouring towns or villages for a few days or weeks at a time, or to cities further away. Many try to return home when they can, with whatever they have earned. But during their absence, the entire burden of maintaining the family is on women.

Researchers are in a race against time to predict how climate change will affect these communities and help them adapt, with drought and flood resistant crops and cattle breeds for example. But it’s often overlooked that climate change will affect one half of humanity significantly more than the other. Longstanding gender inequality means that within regions of the world that are particularly vulnerable to climate change, women are likely to suffer more than men.

A woman leads goats to grazing and water in the Moyar Bhavani Basin, India. Prathigna Poonacha, Author provided

Isolated and overburdened

In a recent study, we found that extreme weather and unpredictable seasons disproportionately weaken the agency of women to find well paid work and rise above rigid gender roles, even when these appear to be bending after decades of reform and activism. Without support in the form of assured drinking water, energy, childcare or credit, women end up working harder and in poorer conditions for lower wages.

Women already in poverty are increasingly finding themselves in a vicious cycle of low productivity, indebtedness and food insecurity as crops and livestock fail, as we found particularly in semi-arid parts of Africa and India. Women in northern Kenya complained that they could no longer afford meat, so ate rice and potatoes instead, even when this wasn’t enough to satisfy their hunger.

As environmental stresses accumulate, community support networks break down. When people are displaced and have to settle elsewhere, men search for work and women are left behind at home, often in unfamiliar surroundings and lacking support from friends and relatives. But even if they do know people, with all the challenges of running the household in a strange environment, there is little time to help others.

As men migrate to find work, women have to shoulder the burden of housework, farming and childcare. Prathigna Poonacha, Author provided

With full responsibility for household chores, farming and caring for the children and elderly, women have less time to socialise or take part in community events, including meetings of the elected village government. If the state or charities can help, there’s often competition for securing those benefits. In Namibia, people tend to stick with their ethnic groups to guarantee access through collective effort, but this means that ethnic minorities in the region are often excluded.

In Mali, heavier burdens are placed on women who are young and less educated. In India or Pakistan, women belonging to a lower social class or marginal caste suffer the most. Gender relations differ in each place and according to each situation – they’re often too variable to emerge in broad national and global assessments. We tried to find a way to generalise our findings across 25 very diverse locations, in Asia and Africa, without losing the nuance of each woman’s experiences.

The bare necessities

If much of the problem is structural, then short-term solutions like cyclone shelters or drought relief won’t address the underlying causes of poverty and precariousness. Social safety nets that can ensure the basic necessities of food and shelter are needed, like the public distribution system for cereals in India, or the pensions and social grants available in Namibia.

To ensure that the health of people in these places doesn’t irreversibly decline, women need to be supported with child and healthcare services, but also drinking water and cooking fuel. The role of community support is crucial during crises, but there’s little that women can do to help themselves without resources and skills.

A woman collects drinking water from a well in Bangalore, India. Prathigna Poonacha, Author provided

Competitive labour markets are also undervaluing the labour of poor women. Ensuring minimum wages and fair working conditions would help, but these are hard to implement across borders. As climate change causes traditional livelihoods to collapse, migrant men are similarly exploited by new employers. Deprived of adequate food and rest, many end up sick and spend their earnings on medical treatment.

Tackling the climate emergency and making sure these women and men live meaningful lives will take more than overcoming gender stereotypes. If given support, they can find creative solutions to the disruption that climate change has brought. But this support must mean the guarantee of universal access to food, shelter and basic services. At COP25 in Madrid, world leaders should help vulnerable communities to adapt to climate change with resources and solidarity, not warm words and rhetoric.

This article was originally posted on The Conversation.
Cover photo by Asantha Abeysooriya on Unsplash
Arctic’s oldest ice shows signs of change

Arctic’s oldest ice shows signs of change

By Tim Radford

Stretches of the Arctic’s oldest ice, and its thickest – the last refuge ice that should survive even when the Arctic Ocean technically becomes ice-free in summers later this century – are now disappearing twice as fast as the rest of the Arctic icecap.

Although the north polar ice is vulnerable to global heating, and has been thinning and retreating at an accelerating rate for the last 40 summers, researchers have always expected some winter ice to survive: they define an “ice-free Arctic Ocean” as one with less than 1 million square kilometres of surviving ice pack.

But this supposedly ancient remnant of the polar winters, concentrated north of Greenland and the Canadian polar archipelago, is showing signs of change.

Researchers do not explicitly finger climate change driven by ever-greater human use of fossil fuels as the direct agent of this change: this is an area of polar ice difficult to observe and explore, is little known, and may always have been subject to change.

“This area will be a refuge where species can survive and hopefully expand their regions once the ice starts returning”

But scientists know why it is important. From submarine algae to polar bears, an entire Arctic ecosystem is dependent on the ice sheet. As the ice disappears, so will the seals, and their predators too.

Conservation-minded governments that want to establish protected areas need to know where protection will work best. “Eventually, the Last Ice Area will be the region that will repopulate the Arctic with wildlife,” said Kent Moore of the University of Toronto in Canada. “This area will be a refuge where species can survive and hopefully expand their regions once the ice starts returning.”

Dr Moore and his colleagues report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that they used computer models and satellite observation data to build up a picture of what they call “spatiotemporal variability” in their Last Ice Area.

They found two distinct places where ice thickness fluctuated by up to 1.2 metres from year to year. In some patches, the ice was thinning by the decade: a loss of 1.5 metres since the late 1970s.

No monolith

Most north polar ice is youthful: seldom more than four years old. The Last Ice Area is certainly more than five years old, and has been measured at a thickness of four metres. It is not a static region: ice moves with the ocean beneath it.

And even the levels of melting are affected by natural cyclic ocean shifts as well as higher temperatures fuelled by greenhouse gas build-up in the atmosphere.

The race is on to understand the forces at work in what might be – one day – the only surviving ice in the polar summer.

“We can’t treat the Last Ice Area as a monolithic area of ice which is going to last a long time,” said Dr Moore. “There’s actually lots of regional variability.”

This article was originally posted on The Climate News Network.
Cover photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
The flooding emergency in Northern England is a policy failure not a freak of nature

The flooding emergency in Northern England is a policy failure not a freak of nature

By Will Bugler

Last week the government declared a national emergency as devastating floods affected parts of Northern England. Communities living on the River Don were particularly badly affected. The speed of the river’s response to a period of very intense rainfall seemingly caught authorities off guard. People were forced to evacuate their homes, businesses were forced to close their doors, and one person lost their life. The tragedy of these floods is compounded by the fact that they were both predicted and preventable. Their impacts represent a failure of policy.

Residents living in the flood affected areas have been in this position before. The River Don has burst its banks on several occasions, causing devastating flooding in 2007, then again in 2012

The previous severe floods provided ample warning of the vulnerability of communities to flood risk. This was reinforced by the UK Government’s own Climate Change Risk Assessments in 2012 and 2017. In 2012, Acclimatise led the work for part of the Risk Assessment, the document explicitly warns that “we currently expect a shift towards generally wetter winters, and a greater proportion of precipitation to fall as heavy events.” Flooding was also identified as a top risk for each of the sectors analysed in the report. Five years later in 2017, the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Evidence Report presented “compelling evidence that climate change may lead to increases in heavy rainfall and significantly increased risks from fluvial and surface flooding”.

Image 1: The Adaptation Sub-Committee’s assessment of the top six areas of inter-related climate change risks for the UK. Source: Committee on Climate Change (2016) UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 Synthesis Report,

One of the businesses flooded this year was the Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield. The Centre was featured in a 2007 Acclimatise report on climate risks to commercial property after it was badly flooded that year. The risks that flooding poses are not just foreseeable, they are foreseen and even experienced.

Image 2: An excerpt from Acclimatise’s report Understanding the investment implications of adapting to climate change (2007) which featured the Meadowhall Shopping Centre as a case study.

Data from the UK Met Office shows the amount of rain from extremely wet days has increased by 17%, when comparing 2008-17 records with those from 1961-90. They calculate that an extended period of extreme winter rainfall in the UK is now about seven times more likely because of climate change.

A lack of action

Despite these repeated warnings, government action on flooding has been piecemeal. According to the government’s official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change there were no areas where the government was preparing properly for climate impacts. This is evident from the reduction in staff numbers working in key departments. In 2013 the number of staff working directly on climate adaptation at Defra was counted in dozens, by 2018 only around five remained. Government support for important services including the UK Climate Impacts Programme, the Environment Agency’s Climate Ready programme and the Regional Climate Change Partnerships was also cut, and reporting on adaptation, mandatory in 2011, has since been made voluntary.

This year’s Committee on Climate Change’s progress report on the government’s record on flooding was damning. It found that “vulnerability and exposure to climate change are increasing across a range of priority areas; including terrestrial and freshwater habitats; development in flood risk areas; risks to health from heat and cold; and risks to health from changes in air quality. Urban greenspace, which has a host of benefits for reducing flood and heat risks, continues to decline, from 63% of urban area in 2001 to 55% in 2018. The proportion of impermeable surfacing in towns and cities, which increases flood risk, has risen by 22% since 2001.”

Building flood resilience

As implied by the Committee on Climate Change’s report, dealing with flood risk requires a systemic approach in order to be truly effective. After severe flood events in the UK, there are a lot of calls for measures such as flood walls and levees to be constructed and for rivers to be dredged. Treating the symptoms of flooding in this way is unlikely to be effective in the face of climate change.

In a 2014 report on dredging as an approach for flood management, the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) said that “claims that the widespread use of dredging can act as a flood prevention measure are not only unsupported by both science and evidence, they are a cruel offer of false hope to those living in flood prone communities.”

Dredging targets just one small part of the hydrological system (the river), temporarily increases capacity and the speed of flow of the water. This can have serious unintended consequences for towns as flood waters move faster through them.

Only a small proportion of water in a river basin is held in the river itself. An effective flood prevention strategy should take a whole systems approach, implementing measures that slow the flow of water as it moves through the catchment. These might include tree planting in upland areas, more green spaces in cities, more water stores and floodable areas outside of towns, and improved farming practices to prevent runoff.

The floods on the River Don this year were made a lot worse by poor land management in the Peak District and the upland areas in the Pennines. Over the past decades the areas have seen huge amounts of peat cutting, drainage and heather burning. With nothing to stop it the water now runs very quickly from the hills into stream and river channels. Flooding remains one of the most significant climate risks to the UK. Without significant investment in systemic flood resilience building, events like those experienced by the residents living along the River Don will continue.

Cover photo of The River Don, in Attercliffe Sheffield. Photo from Dan Cook Archived on Flickr