Category: Features

Rivers flood, seas rise – and land faces erosion

Rivers flood, seas rise – and land faces erosion

By Tim Radford

Polar melting cannot be separated from farmland soil erosion and estuarine flooding. All are part of climate change.

Climate heating often ensures that calamities don’t come singly: so don’t forget what erosion can do.

In a warmer world the glaciers will melt ever faster to raise global sea levels ever higher. In a wetter world, more and more topsoil will be swept off the farmlands and downriver into the ever-rising seas.

And the pay-off of silt-laden rivers and rising sea levels could be catastrophic floods, as swollen rivers suddenly change course. Since many of the world’s greatest cities are built on river estuaries, lives and economies will be at risk.

Three new studies in two journals deliver a sharp reminder that the consequences of global heating are not straightforward: the world responds to change in unpredictable ways.

First: the melting of the ice sheets and the mountain glaciers. Researchers warn in the journal Nature Climate Change that if the loss of ice from Antarctica, Greenland and the frozen rivers continues, then climate forecasters and government agencies will have to think again: sea levels could rise to at least 17cms higher than the worst predictions so far.

“Avulsions are the earthquakes of rivers. They are sudden and sometimes catastrophic. We are trying to understand where and when the next avulsions will occur”

That means an additional 16 million people at hazard from estuarine floods and storm surges.

In the last 30 years, the flow from the Antarctic ice cap has raised sea levels by 7.2mm, and from Greenland by 10.6mm. Every year, the world’s oceans are 4mm higher than they were the year before.

“Although we anticipated the ice sheets would lose increasing amounts of ice in response to the warming of the oceans and the atmosphere, the rate at which they are melting has accelerated faster than we could have imagined,” said Tom Slater of the University of Leeds, in the UK, who led the research.

“The melting is overtaking the climate models we use to guide us, and we are in danger of being unprepared for the risks posed by sea level rise.”

Dr Slater and his colleagues are the third team to warn in the last month that observations of climate already match the worst-case scenarios dreamed up by forecasters preparing for a range of possible climate outcomes.

Erosion risk rises

The latest reading of glacial melt rates suggests that the risk of storm surges for many of the world’s greatest cities will double by the close of the century. But coastal cities – and the farmers who already work 38% of the terrestrial surface to feed almost 8bn people – have another more immediate problem.

In a warmer world, more water evaporates. In a warmer atmosphere, the capacity of the air to hold moisture also increases, so along with more intense droughts, heavier rainfall is on the way for much of the world. And the heavier the rain, or the more prolonged the drought, the higher the risk of soil erosion.

In 2015 the world’s farmers and foresters watched 43 billion tonnes of topsoil wash away from hillsides or blow away from tilled land and into the sea. By 2070, this burden of silt swept away by water or blown by wind will have risen by between 30% and 66%: probably more than 28 bn tons of additional loss.

This could only impoverish the farmland, according to a study by Swiss scientists in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It could also impoverish people, communities and countries. The worst hit could be in the less developed nations of the tropics and subtropics.

But the flow of ever-higher silt levels into ever-rising seas also raises a new hazard: hydrologists call it river avulsion. It’s a simple and natural process. As conditions change, so rivers will naturally change their flow to spill over new floodplains and extend coastal lands.

Survival in question

But river avulsions can also be helped along by rising sea levels. Since 10% of humanity is crowded into rich, fertile delta lands, and since some of the deadliest floods in human history – two in China in 1887 and 1931 claimed six million lives – have been caused by river avulsions, the question becomes a matter of life and death.

US scientists report, also in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that rising sea levels alone could make abrupt river avulsion more probable, especially as delta lands could be subsiding, because of groundwater and other extraction.

The dangers of avulsion are affected by the rate of sediment deposit in the river channels, and this is likely to rise with sea levels. This in turn raises the level of the river and eventually a breach of a levee or other flood defence will force the river to find a swifter, steeper path to the sea.

Cities such as New Orleans and the coastal communities of the Mississippi delta are already vulnerable. “Avulsions are the earthquakes of rivers,” said Michael Lamb, of California Institute of Technology, one of the authors.

“They are sudden and sometimes catastrophic natural events that occur with statistical regularity, shifting the direction of major rivers. We are trying to understand where and when the next avulsions will occur.” – Climate News Network

This article was originally posted on The Climate News Network.
Five innovations for a resilient built environment in Africa

Five innovations for a resilient built environment in Africa

By Olivia Nielsen and Sabine Kast

Most of the building stock that will be needed over the next century in Africa is yet to be built. As the last continent to urbanize, Sub-Saharan Africa has a unique opportunity to learn from others and adopt resilient and sustainable practices from the onset.

Africa’s cities are already booming as thousands of rural households move to find better opportunities in the cities. Though the COVID-19 pandemic may have temporarily slowed this rural-to-urban migration, the trend appears to be inevitable.

The continent is not immune to natural hazards as the South gets hit by stronger and stronger cyclones, causing devastation and loss of life, homes and livelihoods. An estimated 240,000 houses were destroyed or damaged last year alone in Mozambique. North, South and east Africa also experience regular earthquakes.

A new motto has emerged claiming that there are no natural disasters, shifting the blame to poorly designed built environment and inadequate prevention systems which contribute death, destruction and economic losses.

Yet, Africa’s building sector seems to be repeating some of the mistakes of the past. Quality control remains a major issue across the continent where buildings are known to collapse even in the absence of natural hazards.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to urgently invest in disaster preparedness and mitigation. A disaster can quickly destroy decades of economic progress. While earthquakes are a quick disaster, a pandemic is a slow moving one. Our built environment must be designed to withstand these disasters and protect us.

Fortunately, resilience doesn’t need to be expensive and new technologies and innovations are constantly bringing down costs. As we are required to work remotely, we are developing new technologies to improve risk reduction during the pandemic and beyond. A few examples:

  • Machine learning to develop risk maps.  Formal maps are rarely updated in Africa and often only cover major urban areas. Yet, local risk maps are fundamental to supporting proper urban development and reducing risks in the long term. Without risk maps, it is difficult to anticipate which properties may be vulnerable to flooding, landslides or even earthquakes and typhoons. Developing these maps should be a major priority to support planned urban development and make investments that will last. When on-the-ground data collection is time-consuming or made difficult with social distancing requirements, machine learning algorithms can be used to process satellite data and build local risk maps. This technology can help Africa overcome its major map gap and support municipalities across the continent develop urban plans that mitigate the risks of flooding, landslides and sea rise. Without access to detailed risk maps, buildings may be built in precarious ways which may lead to devastating life and property losses. Fortunately, machine learning is making this mapping process cheaper and faster.
  • Artificial Intelligence to assess the built environment. The World Bank’s Global Resilient Housing Group has developed technology to capture images from satellites and drones, which are processed through an algorithm to assess structural deficiencies. Without even setting foot on the ground, thousands of buildings can be assessed in a matter of minutes and enable policymakers to prioritize interventions. For example, buildings that present a high risk of collapsing during an earthquake or typhoon can be efficiently identified and thus retrofitted before the next disaster strikes.
  • Apps to undertake remote quality control. New apps, such as iBuild+ Miyamoto, have been developed to enable homeowners to quickly undertake a damage assessment of their home. Just like telehealth, they now have expert engineers at the tip of their fingertips- for a fraction of the cost! By uploading geotagged photos of their homes, households can access expert advice at a fraction of the costs. This app can also be used to monitor the quality of construction works and identify issues in real time before it is too late.
  • Programs to address and rate the resilience of new buildings: IFC, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, is piloting a new program, the Building Resilience Index. The Index standardizes and quantifies disaster risk, gives guidance on risk management, and creates a reporting system on adaptation and resilience for the construction sector. The new tool will enable construction developers to identify ways of improving building resilience while minimizing costs. For investors and households, the Index will provide reassurance that the building can withstand significant hazards and protect both lives and properties.
  • Low-cost retrofit solutions. Retrofits are so rarely undertaken because they are deemed too expensive by both households and policymakers. Building new homes is easier to implement instead. But now, new construction technologies, such as Polypropylene (PP) bands or fiber-reinforced paint, are emerging that will not only make these retrofits cheaper but also much easier to implement. With little training, households can easily apply these retrofits themselves and bypass engineering and labor costs- which can often be crippling. Though easy to apply, these technologies are effective and enable households to greatly reduce the likelihood of structural collapse.

Construction will be a major driver of economic recovery worldwide, accounting for around 13% of the global GDP. These innovations can be part of a global effort to build (back) better. As cities in Africa continue to grow, climate change continues to accelerate and jobs are desperately needed, there has never been a better time to invest in resilience!

This article was posted on PreventionWeb.
Coronavirus Speaker Series: Digital Technology and Resilient Cities ft. Aida Esteban Millat

Coronavirus Speaker Series: Digital Technology and Resilient Cities ft. Aida Esteban Millat

Aida Esteban Millat is the Senior Director for Urban Mobility and Smart Cities for Visa Latin America and the Caribbean. Aida leads the Urban Mobility and Smart Cities initiatives and is responsible for defining the product strategy and expansion of mass transit capabilities throughout the region’s markets. As a passionate advocate promoting cities as hubs for innovation through technology, design and entrepreneurship. Her international experience includes the development of new methods to approach urban challenges that are now used by more than 100 governments and their stakeholders around the world in cities like Barcelona, London, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico and Cape Town.

Download the presentation here.

Watch the video here.

View the rest of the coronavirus speaker sessions here.
Meet the Acclimatise Team ft. Will Bugler

Meet the Acclimatise Team ft. Will Bugler

What is your role at Acclimatise? What does a typical workday look life for you?

I manage Acclimatise’s work on communicating climate risk and resilience. We’re one of the very few climate change consulting firms that specialises in communicating risk, so I feel really fortunate to be able to work alongside colleagues with such varied skillsets, from technical risk analysists and data wizards, to policy specialists and communications scientists.

Who knows what a typical workday is anymore in these times of COVID?! Most of my time at work is spent writing about climate resilience in some form or another, interspersed with drinking tea.

What inspired you to work on climate issues?

It’s the defining issue of our times, and to some extent, I felt compelled to – we’ve got a host of these really big, intersecting challenges that are all converging at the moment: climate change, biodiversity loss, soil quality, ocean acidification – they demand our attention. The implications of inaction are hard to fathom.

What album, book, and luxury item would you take with you on a deserted island?

This is like the UK radio show “Desert Island Discs”… I’m going to assume that I get the Beatles’ records as standard (they’re already on the Island). In that case probably, The Velvet Underground’s eponymous 1967 record. The book would be 100-years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez – apt for the island, and is such an epic. Luxury item – Swiss Army knife.

What have you been up to during lockdown?

I’ve been holed-up on my folk’s farm in Herefordshire for most of the lockdown, so have been lucky to have had some space to roam. I’m a keen runner, so have been exploring some of the more isolated trails in the surrounding hills – social isolation at its finest.

Why should climate change and communications go hand-in-hand?

Climate change has always fascinated me because it’s an issue that we know a huge amount about how to solve, and yet we are collectively failing to do so. This is why I think climate communications is such a central issue, and is what drew me to it. We’ve known what causes climate change for over 100 years, we know what needs to be done to slow it down, and we know a lot about what to do to make ourselves more resilient to its impacts. The science is settled. Yet governments have been talking for over 25 years about how to fix it, without making a dent in greenhouse gas emissions. The way that the climate threat has been communicated and translated into policy and behavioural change has been a major issue. In many ways, our collective failure to successfully tackle climate change is one of communication.

What is a subject that you would love to learn more about?

Oh, so many things! Talking to my fifteen-year-old nephew about physics really lets me know how little I know about things that are just incredibly amazing. But human behaviour has always fascinated me, what influences it, how it changes, what drives us to do what we do…

View Will’s team page here.

Meet the Acclimatise Team ft. Anu Jogesh

Meet the Acclimatise Team ft. Anu Jogesh

What is your role at Acclimatise? What does a typical workday look life for you?

I am the Policy and Governance lead at Acclimatise and I also coordinate our South Asia and South East Asia projects. These days a little noticeboard hangs outside my home office, “On a call. Do not disturb!” This is for my 8-year-old who likes to pop in whenever he feels like!

Obviously work has changed because of the pandemic. I work from home like many others. My work typically includes research, writing, and virtual calls on ongoing technical assistance projects, as well as managing some of these projects. We’re also designing and conducting our first virtual training.

Fortunately, my 8-year-old has learnt to make my chai every morning and he brings it up in pot on a tray, which is a fantastic way to kick off the workday.What inspired you to work on climate issues?

What inspired you to work on climate issues?

My journey towards climate research and engagement has been a meandering  one! As a business journalist in the 2000s, I was keen to report on environmental issues. When I moved from a business to a general-news channel, there was an established correspondent focussing on ‘green issues’ such as forestry, water security, biodiversity, so I naturally gravitated towards reporting on ‘brown issues’ – energy, air quality, and climate change. I’ve since gone down the proverbial rabbit hole, from a climate reporter, to an academic researcher, to a full-time climate change practitioner, and I don’t regret the decision!

What is your favourite location you’ve ever travelled to and why?

My favourite location would have to be Ladakh in India. It is a high altitude trans-Himalayan desert. The scenery is otherworldly. As you climb higher, mountains take on eerie colours (because of mineral deposits) and the ground feels like a lunar landscape. I walked kilometres around a glacial lake looking for a rare species of crane, disappearing because of climate change. It was a perilous journey (some folks in our team suffered altitude sickness and had to descend) but breath-taking all the same.

What skill would you like to master?

Patience and time-management!

Tell us about a personal project/cause that you are working on outside of your day-to-day job right now.

I’m currently working with a team of climate specialists, reporters and communicators on setting up a climate school for journalists in the region.

If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do with the extra time?

Write, publish more! And a toss-up between playing indoor cricket or baking with my son.

Climate resilient public private partnerships: A toolkit for decision makers

Climate resilient public private partnerships: A toolkit for decision makers

By Written by Gianleo Frisari, Anaitee Mills, Mariana Silva, Marcel Ham, Elisa Donadi, Christine Shepherd, and Irene Pohl

This “Toolkit for Climate Resilient Infrastructure PPP” and the accompanying report “Improving Climate Resilience in Public Private Partnerships in Jamaica” are the result of an 18-month project of the Climate Change Division at the IDB in collaboration with the Public-Private Partnership team at Development Bank of Jamaica and IMG Rebel.

The aim has always been to provide DBJ’s PPP professionals and, ultimately PPP professionals in the Caribbean Region, with pragmatic, practical solutions to integrate the assessment of climate risks and resiliency opportunities in the preparation of infrastructure projects through Public Private Partnerships (PPPs).

The need to consider climate change issues in the provision of infrastructure services through PPPs originates from two key observations in the context of Jamaica, but easily extendable to other climate vulnerable countries in Latin America and the Caribbean: On one side, these countries face many risks associated with climate change, with their infrastructure stock vulnerable to hazard events like hurricanes and landslides, as well as to chronic slow changes as sea level rise and perturbations in temperature and precipitations patterns. At the same time, Jamaica and many countries as such have been seeking to develop and build its infrastructure with an increased role for the private sector, developing Public Private Partnerships models that are constantly evolving in the region. As very long-dated contractual relationships, the success of PPPs is highly dependent on an accurate, sustainable and efficient distribution of risks and benefits between the public and private counterparts of the transaction – risk distribution that could be significantly perturbated by climate change, making the task of structuring efficient 20-30 years PPP contracts incredibly difficult if those risks are not identified, assessed and managed throughout the whole process of structuring a PPP transaction.

This project was borne then of an effort supported by IDB and the Government of Jamaica to understand how, if at all, Jamaica currently considers climate change within its PPP policies and project development processes and what steps the country can take to ensure that it does so. Considering the high potential for replication for such instruments, and the common challenges that several climate vulnerable countries face when developing their infrastructure projects, this companion Toolkit has been developed, including decision support tools for policy makers and developers partaking in the PPP development process and which applies to Jamaica as well as any country government seeking to ensure their PPPs are more resilient, was developed in conjunction with this effort. Report and Toolkit as well have been developed following the typical structure of the PPP process, from Project Identification, to the Business Case, the Transaction Structuring and the Management of the Contract during the whole life of the PPP project. In each phase, climate change risks may arise, as well as opportunities for an improved design for resilient and/or more productive infrastructure, and it would be important for such cases that risks and opportunities alike would be considered and followed-through in the different phases of the transaction to ensure, for example, that critical aspects identified in the project preparation phase are then included in the preparation of the tender documents and, as well, inform the performance indicators in the contract management phase.

The analysis for the report and toolkit has identified several instruments and tools already used to address climate change issues in the context of infrastructure production – albeit not always in a systematic way – that could be integrated in the PPP process in a more institutionalized and standardized manner, identifying options for a low-cost and seamless implementation in a Resilient PPP model. The Toolkit, finally, is to be considered a living document; we hope it could provide initial guidance to professionals implementing PPP projects in the region, while being open to improvements and updating as we collect evidence on other instruments that can be used to manage climate change risks and/ or create resiliency opportunities for the infrastructure of the Latin America and the Caribbean.

Download the toolkit and accompanying report here.

This article was originally published on the IDB website.
Cover photo by wilsan u on Unsplash.
Meet the Acclimatise Team ft. Robin Hamaker-Taylor

Meet the Acclimatise Team ft. Robin Hamaker-Taylor

What is your role at Acclimatise? What does a typical workday look life for you?

I am a Climate Risk Consultant, focusing on physical climate risk advisory and analytics projects with large banks and investors. I get involved right from the beginning of the projects, writing proposals and building consortia, internally and externally. We work together to deliver climate risk heatmaps for portfolios or detailed analysis showing how climate hazards are and will impact investments, loans, asset classes, etc. I support our technical analyses with research, writing and presentations. I also look after the day to day management of the projects, including client requests and coordination. Drawing on our recent work with investors, I have recently completed a comprehensive guide on physical risks for investors, with the IIGCC (shameless plug! – available here).

I also participate in research-based advisory projects, using my qualitative research skills and background. I have recently worked on projects relating to Nature-based Solutions (NbS), Paris Agreement Alignment for financial institutions, and in the mining and metals sector, for example.

I write a monthly bulletin along with my colleague Laura Canevari, collating climate risk news specifically for the financial services sector. I tend to cover climate risk governance, as it’s evolving very quickly at the moment with actors like the EU, and central banks and supervisors moving closer toward climate risk and disclosure regulation.

There is no ‘typical workday’ for me, as the life of a consultant is so varied! There are days of head-down deliverable writing, days of calls and meetings, and many days where I move between both. I always make sure to start the day off with a good strong coffee, however.

What inspired you to work on climate issues?

I started university around about the time when IPCC’s AR4 was released. I was studying environmental science and interested in water issues at the time. I’d seen the ‘water wars’ of the Western United States play out in front me, being brought up in a Northern California. But soon, climate change took over the narrative in my department, and it seemed that all the extracurricular activities at my university relating to the environment involved carbon management and energy efficiency. I got heavily involved in an energy saving society at uni and then began my career working in commercial building energy efficiency, with the aim of reducing carbon emissions from the built environment. It was and is difficult to deny the urgency of acting on climate change.

The shift from working in the mitigation space to adaptation space has been more gradual. Throughout my studies, I was always aware of the adaptation elements of climate change, alongside mitigation. When I did my MSc in environmental policy and regulation, I grew increasingly interested in climate impacts. As I learned more about how historical carbon emissions from western countries like mine have contributed to climate impacts globally, I become more interested in working in the adaptation space. It was really out of concern and guilt that I shifted towards adaptation and resilience, and I knew I wanted to work with climate science and work to help ecosystems and people adapt to inevitable climate impacts. After a stint working in building energy assessment after graduation, I finally found Acclimatise and was lucky to make the jump over. I always thought I would work in developing countries on adaptation issues, but through our work at Acclimatise, I’ve come to see how the private sector (e.g. financial institutions and corporates) in developing and developed countries have an important role to play a role in building climate resilience and enabling adaptation. I’m excited to work with these organisations as they step into this role.

What hobbies have you picked up while in lockdown?

Sewing and running. I had been sewing for ages before lockdown but hadn’t touched my sewing machine in years. A few weeks into lockdown I got the machine out again and have been making cushions and things for our home. I’ve also made loads of face masks and have been sending to friends and family. I’ve also been running in the mornings to keep myself from going stir crazy, which works with varying success!

If you could have dinner with anyone (past or present), who would it be and why?

I’ve assembled a dream team of guests that I think would get a house on fire:

  • For quality environmental and climate content: Mark Carney and Mary Robinson
  • For general wit and artistry: Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Luke Wright, Poet
  • For humour with a political slant: Charlie Brooker, Ian Hislop, and Deborah Francis-White
  • For proper political discussion: Bernie Sanders, his campaign manager Senator Nina Turner, and Ezra Klein
  • To keep us all grounded: Jeff Bridges (in his role as The Dude) and Tara Brach

What do you think the Coronavirus pandemic can teach us about climate change?

It has shown us what can happen if leaders don’t heed the warnings scientists have been giving them. The pandemic, then, should be a wake-up call us all re: climate action. The science is clear about climate change, and we are still woefully unprepared. The pandemic has shown us that we still don’t manage systemic risks very well. I will quote a brilliant article my colleague wrote about this recently:

“Like climate change, COVID-19 is a systemic risk that requires the simultaneous application of complex conceptual and analytical models capable of appraising multiple hazards and systems’ interdependencies in order to be fully understood. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has demonstrated the limits to our current risk management practices, which are centred on a hazard-by-hazard and fragmented appraisal of risk.”

On a more positive note, COVID-19 demonstrated that we can all take action together globally to manage something together. We can all rise to the challenge if we really want to. It was unifying in that way, and this unified spirit is what we need to cultivate as it is ultimately a key ingredient to really tackling climate change.

What can’t you live without?

Cheese, humour, empathy, good interior design, sunshine, family. Not always in that order.

Increasingly arid future faces the American West

Increasingly arid future faces the American West

By Tim Radford

The great American West is becoming inexorably more parched, with an inescapably arid future ahead. The winter snows will be lighter, and the spring melt much earlier. The river flows will slow, in some cases to a trickle, trees will die, and catastrophic wildfires will become more frequent. Agricultural harvests will be affected, and droughts will become more protracted.

The trend is clear and – without dramatic action by global governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming – is likely to be costly for one of the world’s richest nations.

“The impact of warming on the West’s river flows, soils and forests is now unequivocal,” say Jonathan Overpeck, of the University of Michigan, and Bradley Udall of Colorado State University, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“There is a clear longer-term trend toward greater aridification, a trend that only climate action can stop.”

They make a point other researchers have repeatedly made over the last decade: that droughts will become longer and deeper in the US West, that climate change can only harm the US economy, and that the areas of increasing aridity are slowly shifting eastward: once rich soils could soon no longer sustain the crops of American farmers.

“The sooner emissions of greenhouse gases are halted, the sooner the aridification of North America will stop getting worse”

The comments were triggered by a recent study in the same journal by a US Geological Survey team. Scientists used tree ring records and data for the first decade of this century to measure change in flow in the Upper Missouri River basin.

They concluded that recent regional warming, driven by increasing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, aligned with “increasing drought severities that rival or exceed any estimated over the last 12 centuries.”

The US West, and the Southwest, is used to drought, sometimes sustained. In the past the snows have returned, the rivers have swollen again. But Dr Overpeck and Dr Udall think this is now a wrong assumption.

“We now know with high confidence that continued emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere guarantee continued warming, and that this continued warming makes more widespread, prolonged and severe droughts almost a sure bet. Greater aridity is redefining the West in many ways, and the costs to human and natural systems will only increase as we let the warming continue.”

The rivers of the US Southwest are the only large, sure water supply for 40 million Americans. But since the late 20th century the flows of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande have fallen, and this is in large part due to ever higher temperatures, driven by ever greater consumption of fossil fuels. Higher temperatures mean that the atmosphere can absorb ever greater levels of water vapour, to dry out the soils.

Faltering action

This extra vapour would normally fall as rain or snow – and it certainly has in some parts of the US – but all the evidence suggests that droughts in the Southwest will increase both in frequency and intensity.

All nations have been slow to act decisively on climate change: President Trump has notoriously denounced climate change as a “hoax” and promised to withdraw the US from the only global agreement that promises concerted action.

“Perhaps most troubling is the growing co-occurrence of hot and dry summer conditions, and the likely expansion, absent climate change action, of these hot dry extremes all the way to the East Coast of North America, north deep into Canada, and south into Mexico,” the two scientists write.

Extreme dry spells, flash floods and droughts will become part of the new normal.

“Unfortunately, climate change and this aridification are likely to be irreversible on human time scales, so the sooner emissions of greenhouse gases are halted, the sooner the aridification of North America will stop getting worse.” 

This article was originally published on the Climate News Network.
Cover photo by Zachary Weston on Unsplash.
How important is building collective intelligence to better manage systemic risks?

How important is building collective intelligence to better manage systemic risks?

This is the sixth in a series of eight articles co-authored by Marc Gordon (@Marc4D_risk), UNDRR and Scott Williams (@Scott42195), building off the chapter on ‘Systemic Risk, the Sendai Framework and the 2030 Agenda’ included in the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2019. These articles explore the systemic nature of risk made visible by the COVID-19 global pandemic, what needs to change and how we can make the paradigm shift from managing disasters to managing risks. 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”, Margaret Mead

Risk is a human construct. It is created in language and meaning to describe the felt or feared volatility and uncertainty of human life. In other words, it describes the experience of complexity and of complex systemic effects. Humans in many societies have become accustomed and attached to the illusion of control that the construct of risk has given us. But as the COVID-19 pandemic develops, it becomes clear that the effects of interdependent, globally connected systems and vulnerabilities may be beyond accurate human measurement or effective management. We must acknowledge the limits of that illusion and the limits of present systems of governance and organization of human knowledge.

This requires a new paradigm for understanding and living with uncertainty and complexity. One that activates the power of human, social and contextual intelligence, and where possible, leverages it through appropriately designed artificial intelligence. This is at the core of systemic risk governance.

Developing the capability for contextual understanding and decision-making is a far more effective way of dealing with uncertainty and complexity than the present reliance on extrinsic frames of reference and categorical technical expertise, siloed into disciplines. In part, such capability is built using a lifelong learning approach to grow an aware, internalized ability to notice the relevance of context and the role of self, and in doing so, to recognize and anticipate interdependencies and nonlinear effects. That is demonstrably not wide-spread across populations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Human decision-making is emotional, not rational. It is thus more successfully activated by mental models based on meaning attached to values and beliefs. Over time, the use of narrative and meaning to negotiate the changing relationship between identity and context has proven to be an effective mechanism to build resilience and to enable rapid sensing, understanding and sensemaking. In this way, collective intelligence becomes possible as an essential precondition for collective responsibility. Collaboration with and through that intelligence holds the key to building systemic resilience to challenging, complex and dynamic risk events such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Collective intelligence

‘Collective intelligence’ is the powerful combination of human intelligence, artificial or machine intelligence and processing capacity.

Building resilience is necessary to reduce risks and prevent disasters, and when necessary, adequately respond. Resilience requires:

  • Planning and preparation based on assessments to avoid or minimize risk creation and reduce the existing stock of risk;
  • The development of capacity to restore functions in the face of disruptions; and,
  • The capacity to adapt and change after a shock.

By addressing these complex systems challenges, every individual, organization or group involved in resilience building could thrive by tapping into a “bigger mind” through collective intelligence. This could be by drawing on the brain power of other people with diverse cultural experience, age, education or occupation and gender, combined with the processing power of machines.

While needed for processing big data about the functioning of complex systems, machine learning and artificial intelligence do not help people to solve more complex coordination and governance problems – like physical distancing – that need trust between people. They cannot decide on how people want to live human lives, for example in densely populated cities. This is a complex human dynamic problem, solvable only by humans making decisions and taking action.

Truly global collective intelligence is a long way short of being able to solve global problems. It is now important to assemble new combinations of tools that can help the world think and act at pace, as well as at the scale commensurate with the complex problems we are currently facing, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate and ecological crises.

In too many fields, the most important data and knowledge remain flawed, fragmented or closed. They lack the context and organization required for them to be accessible and useful for decisions. As yet, no-one has the means or capacity to bring them all together into a universal, pluralistic data ecosystem, let alone into a dynamic three-dimensional topographical map of risk through time. 

The critical interdependence among human health and well-being, ecology and technology is highly complex. The complexity lies both in the dynamic nature of connections and in responses in time and space. To effectively manage and govern a complex risk event like the COVID-19 pandemic, we need an improved understanding of human–ecological–technological system interactions. This is starting to be achieved in some fields through the application of new types of sophisticated multi-layered computer modelling.

Thanks to this revolution in systems modelling, it is now possible to begin modelling the interlinkages and interdependencies among the economic (values), societal (health, welfare and productivity) and environmental impacts of decisions and investments driven by the live interactions between weather, Earth crust shifts, soils, land, and ocean ecology and human activity. Geodata at many scales support this approach to better understand the interactive nature of the drivers of risk and for long-term risk reduction. But its practical application remains limited for complex, systemic risk events. As evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, this needs to change, and change quickly.

Technology-based solutions to coordination problems need to be combined with human-based solutions, made by or involving humans for solutions at a human scale. Unlike machines, which need to operate with probabilities, humans – within a social network of trust – can make decisions under radical uncertainty by attaching values to decisions. This ability in healthy human beings is due to emotional responses to highly complex decision situations. In such situations there are no solutions from purely calculative and value-free accounting or analysis of costs and benefits.

Under conditions of extreme, systemic risk – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – humans can (and should) decide on changing deeply embedded values that define higher level rules, and shape attitude, choices and behaviour.

We are now living a critical time calling for fundamental reflections on the impacts and consequences of individual and collective choices, and the accountability for those impacts and consequences. Otherwise, societies may continue to create financial and economic wealth at the expense of human health and the declining ecological life support functions in a positive spiralling feedback loop. This will further create systemic risks with cascading effects making overarching economic, ecological and social systems increasingly susceptible to collapse.

The next article (#7 of 8) in this series discusses the challenges and opportunities of generating relational information to inform a systemic perspective. It explores how to help decision makers, including government officials, to be more sensitive to interdependencies and the dynamic nature of risks and to ultimately improve whole-of-society outcomes during and after complex systemic risk events, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

This article was originally posted on PreventionWeb.
Cover photo by Gabe Pierce on Unsplash
Adaptation Futures webinar series highlights the need to accelerate adaptation in today’s uncertain times

Adaptation Futures webinar series highlights the need to accelerate adaptation in today’s uncertain times

A new webinar series organised by Adaptation Futures focuses on the issues of accelerating adaptation in uncertain times, climate justice and health. Designed as a precursor to the Adaptation Futures 2020 conference and an additional platform to feed into the global adaptation dialogue, the three webinars saw insightful informative discussions on topical issues by leading experts in the field of climate change and adaptation. Over 250 participants from across the globe joined in each day from 28-30 April 2020.

Webinar 1: Advancing the Adaptation Agenda in Times of Uncertainty

Adaptation to climate change is essential. However, the future is plagued with substantial uncertainties, which makes anticipatory adaptation difficult. The COVID-19 emergency has ushered in a new era, where it has become all the more essential to adapt and plan for an uncertain future.

Webinar 2: Adaptation with a Human Face

Through this virtual event, Adaptation Futures brings to view climate change adaptation through a human lens, furthering the discourse on safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people and on ensuring the equitable and fair sharing of burdens and benefits of climate change and its impacts.

Webinar 3: Climate change and health

Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. Areas with weak health infrastructure – mostly in developing countries – will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond. This webinar seeks to lay emphasis on these pressing issues of climate shocks/change, its overlapping impacts with the uncertainties stemming from disasters and the role of adaptation in addressing the same.

Download the full webinar proceedings here.

Cover photo of Adaptation Futures 2016/ by EU2016 NL on Flickr.