Category: Government

Climate change main component of systemic collapse risk

Climate change main component of systemic collapse risk

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

A new study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) finds that human-induced environmental change is occurring at an unprecedented scale and pace. At the same time, the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic outcomes and manage the resulting risks is closing fast. According to the researchers, politics and policies are failing to recognise this urgency, eroding the foundations that enable socioeconomic stability and threatening systemic collapse of 2008-proportions if not worse.

The climate is one of six main global systems that are being altered by human activity. The increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is causing ocean acidification, melting ice sheets and sea ice, rising sea levels, and large-scale ecosystem changes. The ‘safe’ CO2-concentration boundary of 350 parts per million (ppm) has long been breached with levels currently fluctuating between roughly 405-410 ppm – the highest since the Pliocene 3-5 million years ago when average temperatures were about 2°-3° C higher and sea levels about 10-20 metres higher. And change is clearly already happening: the 20 warmest years on record since 1850 happened in the last 22 years. Last year’s devastating IPCC report highlighted this even more, emphasising large-scale change needs to happen now by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels in order to avoid catastrophic warming.

The other systems being altered include ocean acidification, biodiversity, land-use, the nitrogen cycle, and different forms of pollution. Together with climate change, the human impact on these systems has created an explosive new domain of risk. In the report, researchers write “this new risk domain affects virtually all areas of policy and politics, and it is doubtful that societies around the world are adequately prepared to manage this risk.”

The deterioration of natural systems significantly amplifies and interacts with existing socioeconomic issues. The study compares the potential risk of systemic collapse to the subprime mortgage crisis that led to the 2008 financial crisis – the deepest recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s. However, given that in this case we are talking about the very environment we depend on for living as a species, the ramifications of systemic collapse would be much more dramatic.

For example, migration from the Middle East and central and northern Africa is likely to increase as a result of longer droughts and extreme heat. In 2015, when migration caused by the Syrian war reached its highest numbers ever, European politicians found themselves completely overwhelmed by an arguably foreseeable situation of manageable proportions (there are roughly 1 million Syrian refugees in Europe, a continent of close to 750 million, with EU citizens making up roughly 70% of that). Climate change could increase refugee numbers tenfold and displace tens of millions of people. Laurie Laybourn-Langton, lead author of the study, said “There would be repercussions in Europe. Right-wing groups use the fear of migration, as we saw during the EU referendum in Britain. What is that going to look like when far more people are forced from homes due to environmental shocks? What does that mean for political cohesion?”

The report states that current policy efforts to grapple with these problems are not adequately focussed on all the different elements of environmental breakdown and completely miss the mark to provide transformational change to key socioeconomic systems. Societies are not robust enough to deal with the increasingly dire consequences of a breakdown.

The IPPR study is just the beginning of a larger project that, using the UK as a case study, will assess what progress has been made toward responding to environmental breakdown and develop policies that can help create a sustainable, just and prepared world by seeking to understand how political and policy communities can develop the sense of agency needed to overcome environmental breakdown.

Access the report by clicking here.


Cover photo by Josh Zakary/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0): Syrian Refugees in Vienna, 2015.
Climate action needs to be inclusive of women’s diverse voices

Climate action needs to be inclusive of women’s diverse voices

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

Structural and cultural discrimination of women make them more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, however, they also lack systematic representation as decision makers. Gender equality is essential for transformational climate action, thus the involvement of women in it is key.

Women are disproportionately affected by climate change impacts in a number of ways. For example, a study from 2007 showed that the socially constructed gender-specific vulnerability of women that is built into everyday socio-economic patterns led to higher mortality during and after disasters compared to men. Surviving extreme weather events can leave women with a lack of resources to rebuild their lives, this can range from a lack of legal assets to not having rights to property. The less extreme day-to-day struggles of having to collect water or food also come with their own set of gendered challenges as women often get threatened and abused.

Framing climate change as a human rights imperative, a global security threat, and a pervasive economic strain, a Georgetown University study from 2015 looked specifically at the gendered dimensions of climate impacts and how women systematically suffer more severe health, economic, social, and physical consequences. The report also recognised women as critical agents of change who provide both creative and localised solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation, but who are, at the same time, systematically excluded from decision-making processes.

The UNFCCC is trying to counteract this systematic exclusion through a number of measures like, for example, the Gender Action Plan (GAP). Established at COP23, the GAP recognises that “there  is  a  need  for  women  to  be  represented  in  all  aspects  of  the  Convention  process  and  a  need  for  gender  mainstreaming  through  all  relevant  targets  and goals in activities under the Convention as an important contribution to increasing their effectiveness.” The Paris Agreement also mentions the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment several times calling, for example, for gender-responsive adaptation and capacity building. Increasing women’s participation at the political level results in greater responsiveness to citizen’s needs, increasing cooperation across party and ethnic lines, and delivering more sustainable peace.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind how intersectionality adds fuel to the fire of gender inequality. Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes the way in which institutions of oppression (sexism, racism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from each other creating very unique experiences for different people. For example, a wealthy white woman and a wealthy black woman can both experience sexism, but the black woman will in all likelihood experience racism on top of that, or even gendered racism; similarly, a disabled woman encounters completely different challenges than a non-disabled woman. But also, the examples outlined further above do not apply to all women, illustrating why the representation of women in decision-making processes needs to reflect their diverse experiences making sure we are creating solutions for all, not just the few.


Cover photo by Arièle Bonte on Unsplash.
EU lawmakers move toward regulations facilitating a sustainable finance system – Part 2

EU lawmakers move toward regulations facilitating a sustainable finance system – Part 2

By Robin Hamaker-Taylor

European legislative institutions are making important progress toward facilitating a European financial system that supports the EU’s climate and sustainable development agenda. This is the second of a two-part series that reviews the legislative proposals, actions, and reports made by the European Commission, Council and Parliament in their efforts to facilitate a sustainable finance system. This article narrows focus to the progress made by the European Parliament (EP) and Council whereas the first part of the series covered the European Commission’s activities.

The EP has sent a clear signal to the finance sector and other stakeholders that it supports the Commission’s efforts in developing legislation on sustainable finance.In May 2018, following the release of the Commission’s Action Plan on Sustainable Investment, the EP passed a resolution on sustainable finance. The resolution emphasises the vital role of financial markets in the transition to a sustainable economy and the need for a policy framework to encourage investments into sustainable assets. The resolution passed easily with 455 votes to 87, (with 92 abstentions), indicating that Members of the European Parliament strongly back plans to align EU capital markets to long-term sustainable goals.

Sustainability taxonomy

As discussed in Part 1 of this series, one of the main activities the Commission is focusing on is the establishment of a standardised sustainability taxonomy. The EP is currently also actively considering this legislative proposal. As it stands, the EP’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON) and the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) have issued a draft report on the sustainability taxonomy in November 2018. Amendments have been tabled and the wider EP will now consider the proposed regulation during its plenary session to be held from 25 to 28 March. Review in the European Council is happening in parallel and is ongoing, though very little information has thus far reached the public eye. This taxonomy will help in the governance of financial markets by building familiarity and consistency around climate-related investments.

Regulation on disclosures

The EP’s ECON committee is also reviewing regulation on sustainable investment and sustainability risk disclosures, which could have implications for financial institutions involved in pension investing as it could require additional disclosures. The legislative proposal centres around amending Directive (EU) 2016/2341 on the activities and supervision of institutions for occupational retirement provision, also known as IORP II. While the current Directive requires investment firms and insurance intermediaries providing advice to act in the best interest of their clients, there is no requirement for these entities to explicitly consider environmental, social, or governance (ESG) risks in their advice nor to disclose those considerations.

The proposed regulation introduces additional requirements to existing elements of Directive 2016/2341 including:

  • A dedicated and coherent disclosure framework on the integration of ESG risks;
  • Such framework should be used by financial intermediaries both in investment decision-making or advisory processes;
  • End-investors should receive coherent and comparable disclosures on financial product and services relating to sustainable investments and sustainability risks.

In autumn 2018, a draft report was released, and amendments were tabled within the ECON Committee. The ENVI Committee have provided its opinion and the ECON committee voted to enter into interinstitutional negotiations (trilogue) in November 2018. Trilogues between the European Commission, Council, and Parliament are ongoing. The wider EP will consider the proposed regulation during its plenary session, to be held from 15 to 18 April. In the Council, in December 2018, EU ambassadors agreed the Council’s negotiating mandate on the Commission’s proposal.

Tracking the progress and next steps

The wider EP will now begin the review of proposed regulations and amendments relating to both the sustainability taxonomy and disclosure of sustainability risks in spring 2019. The EP’s consideration of regulations relating to the sustainability taxonomy have been assigned procedure number 2018/0178(COD), and regulations relating to sustainability disclosures is procedure number 2018/0179(COD). The full status of both procedures can be checked on the EP’s Legislative Observatory system.

At the time of writing, only the regulations relating to disclosure have entered trilogue. While European regulations are still unfolding, the manner and speed with which lawmakers are considering climate and sustainability disclosures provide a strong signal to financial institutions. Those who are aware of and actively preparing for future legislation in this space may be well placed when regulations drop. Getting to grips with the voluntary TCFD recommendations could be a useful place to start internal discussions and capacity building ahead of more formal regulations.

Acclimatise will be keeping a close eye on how this regulation progresses at the EU level and we will continue to reflect on its implications for financial institutions in Europe. Members of our team are actively engaged in providing technical expertise to the European Commission’s Technical Expert Group, which is developing a framework for the sustainability taxonomy.


Cover photo by Diliff/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0): The Hemicycle of the European Parliament in Strasbourg during a plenary session in 2014.
Ten years ago, climate adaptation research was gaining steam. Today, it’s gutted

Ten years ago, climate adaptation research was gaining steam. Today, it’s gutted

By Rod Keenan, University of Melbourne

Ten years ago, on February 7, 2009, I sat down in my apartment in central Melbourne to write a job application. All of the blinds were down, and the windows tightly closed. Outside it was 47℃. We had no air conditioning. The heat seeped through the walls.

When I stepped outside, the air ripped at my nose and throat, like a fan-forced sauna. It felt ominous. With my forestry training, and some previous experience of bad fire weather in Tasmania, I knew any fires that day would be catastrophic. They were. Black Saturday became Australia’s worst-ever bushfire disaster.

I was applying for the position of Director of the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research (VCCCAR). I was successful and started the job later that year.

The climate in Victoria over the previous 12 years had been harsh. Between 1997 and 2009 the state suffered its worst drought on record, and major bushfires in 2003 and 2006-07 burned more than 2 million hectares of forest. Then came Black Saturday, and the year after that saw the start of Australia’s wettest two-year period on record, bringing major floods to the state’s north, as well as to vast swathes of the rest of the country.

In Victoria alone, hundreds of millions of dollars a year were being spent on response and recovery from climate-related events. In government, the view was that things couldn’t go on that way. As climate change accelerated, these costs would only rise.

We had to get better at preparing for, and avoiding, the future impacts of rapid climate change. This is what is what we mean by the term “climate adaptation”.

Facing up to disasters

A decade after Black Saturday, with record floods in Queensland, severe bushfires in Tasmania and Victoria, widespread heatwaves and drought, and a crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin, it is timely to reflect on the state of adaptation policy and practice in Australia.

In 2009 the Rudd Labor government had taken up the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader, we seemed headed for a bipartisan national solution ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit in December. Governments, meanwhile, agreed that adaptation was more a state and local responsibility. Different parts of Australia faced different climate risks. Communities and industries in those regions had different vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities and needed locally driven initiatives.

Led by the Brumby government in Victoria, state governments developed an adaptation policy framework and sought federal financial support to implement it. This included research on climate adaptation. The federal government put A$50 million into a new National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, based in Queensland, alongside the CSIRO Adaptation Flagship which was set up in 2007.

The Victorian Government invested A$5 million in VCCCAR. The state faced local risks: more heatwaves, floods, storms, bushfires and rising sea levels, and my colleagues and I found there was plenty of information on climate impacts. The question was: what can policy-makers, communities, businesses and individuals do in practical terms to plan and prepare?

Getting to work

From 2009 until June 2014, researchers from across disciplines in four universities collaborated with state and local governments, industry and the community to lay the groundwork for better decisions in a changing climate.

We held 20 regional and metropolitan consultation events and hosted visiting international experts on urban design, flood, drought, and community planning. Annual forums brought together researchers, practitioners, consultants and industry to share knowledge and engage in collective discussion on adaptation options. We worked with eight government departments, driving the message that adapting to climate change wasn’t just an “environmental” problem and needed responses across government.

All involved considered the VCCCAR a success. It improved knowledge about climate adaptation options and confidence in making climate decisions. The results fed into Victoria’s 2013 Climate Change Adaptation Plan, as well as policies for urban design and natural resource management, and practices in the local government and community sectors. I hoped the centre would continue to provide a foundation for future adaptation policy and practice.

Funding cuts

In the 2014 state budget the Napthine government chose not to continue funding the VCCCAR. Soon after, the Abbott federal government reduced the funding and scope of its national counterpart, and funding ended last year.

Meanwhile, CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall argued that climate science was less important than the need for innovation and turning inventions into benefits for society. Along with other areas of climate science, the Adaptation Flagship was cut, its staff let go or redirected. From a strong presence in 2014, climate adaptation has become almost invisible in the national research landscape.

In the current chaos of climate policy, adaptation has been downgraded. There is a national strategy but little high-level policy attention. State governments have shifted their focus to energy, investing in renewables and energy security. Climate change was largely ignored in developing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Despite this lack of policy leadership, many organisations are adapting. Local governments with the resources are addressing their particular challenges, and building resilience. Our public transport now functions better in heatwaves, and climate change is being considered in new transport infrastructure. The public is more aware of heatwave risks, and there is investment in emergency management research, but this is primarily focused on disaster response.

Large companies making long-term investments, such as Brisbane Airport, have improved their capacity to consider future climate risks. There are better planning tools and systems for business, and the finance and insurance sectors are seriously considering these risks in investment decisions. Smart rural producers are diversifying, using their resources differently, or shifting to different growing environments.

Struggling to cope

But much more is needed. Old buildings and cooling systems are not built to cope with our current temperatures. Small businesses are suffering, but few have capacity to analyse their vulnerabilities or assess responses. The power generation system is under increasing pressure. Warning systems have improved but there is still much to do to design warnings in a way that ensures an appropriate public reaction. Too many people still adopt a “she’ll be right” attitude and ignore warnings, or leave it until the last minute to evacuate.

In an internal submission to government in 2014 we proposed a Victorian Climate Resilience Program to provide information and tools for small businesses. Other parts of the program included frameworks for managing risks for local governments, urban greening, building community leadership for resilience, and new conservation approaches in landscapes undergoing rapid change.

Investment in climate adaptation pays off. Small investments now can generate payoffs of 3-5:1 in reduced future impacts. A recent business round table report indicates that carefully targeted research and information provision could save state and federal governments A$12.2 billion and reduce the overall economic costs of natural disasters (which are projected to rise to A$23 billion a year by 2050) by more than 50%.

Ten years on from Black Saturday, climate change is accelerating. The 2030 climate forecasts made in 2009 have come true in half the time. Today we are living through more and hotter heatwaves, longer droughts, uncontrollable fires, intense downpours and significant shifts in seasonal rainfall patterns.

Yes, policy-makers need to focus on reducing greenhouse emissions, but we also need a similar focus on adaptation to maintain functioning and prosperous communities, economies and ecosystems under this rapid change. It is vital that we rebuild our research capacity and learn from our past experiences, to support the partnerships needed to make climate-smart decisions.


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cover photo by CSIRO (CC BY 3.0): A destroyed property at Kinglake after the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires.
Drought and conflict can spur climate refugees

Drought and conflict can spur climate refugees

By Tim Radford

Austrian researchers have made it simpler to identify climate refugees, claiming to have established a direct causal link between climate change, conflict and the numbers of migrants.

They are not the first to confirm that there is a statistical association between the likelihood of drought, or heat extremes, and violence. Evidence of cause for any civil or international conflict is always complex and often disputed.

But researchers now say that mathematical techniques provide an indirect connection between formally-established drought conditions and recorded levels of applications for asylum.

“In a context of poor governance and a medium level of democracy, severe climate conditions can create conflict over scarce resources”

The link is conflict, of the kind observed in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria.

“Climate change will not cause conflict and subsequent asylum-seeking flows everywhere,” said Jesus Crespona Cuaresma of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

“But in a context of poor governance and a medium level of democracy, severe climate conditions can create conflict over scarce resources.”

Specific conditions

He and colleagues report in the journal Global Environmental Change that they looked at data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees of asylum applications from 157 countries between 2006 and 2015.

They then matched the patterns of asylum bids against conditions in their parent countries, using a measure that scientists call the Standardised Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index, which provides a guide to the gap between rainfall and heat and drought.

They next assembled a tally measure of battle-related deaths collected by the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme in Sweden. Then they modelled other factors, such as the distance between the countries of origin and destination, the sizes of populations, the migrant networks, the political status of the drought-stressed countries and the known divisions into ethnic and religious groups.

And they found that – in specific circumstances – climatic conditions do lead to increased migration as a consequence of conflict exacerbated by the more severe droughts.

Hard to establish

All conclusions about human behaviour at the political level are difficult to establish. Archaeologists and climate scientists have repeatedly linked the collapse of ancient civilisations to climate change but in most such cases the evidence is circumstantial, and incomplete.

But there is often little or no direct testimony from the faraway past, and no surviving voice to offer a challenge. The connection between climate conditions and human response is less certain in a disputed world.

Researchers have systematically found associations between climate and violence and between climate and the conditions for civil inequality.

Urgent prospect

Some have found an association between drought and the conflict in Syria, but others have disputed the conclusion. Researchers have warned that future climate change could create large numbers of migrants and climate refugees and that both issues are urgent.

But it remains more difficult to establish that climate is the only or even the most pressing factor in any individual case.

So the IIASA finding is a cautious one, backed, the scientists say, by statistical rigour. This identifies climate change, and migration flow, and finds conflict as the causal mediator which links the two, most obviously in the events in the Middle East and North Africa since 2006.

“Our results suggest that climatic conditions, by affecting drought severity and the likelihood of armed conflict, play a statistically significant role as an explanatory factor for asylum-seeking exclusively for countries that were affected by the Arab Spring,” they write.


This article originally appeared on Climate News Network.

Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.

Cover photo by Christian Michelides/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0): Refugees at the bridge connecting Braunau (in Austria) with Simbach (in Germany) waiting and freezing.
European Commission: Adapting to climate change is more urgent than ever

European Commission: Adapting to climate change is more urgent than ever

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

In a recent evaluation of the 2013 European Adaptation Strategy the European Commission (EC) asserted that adapting the regions and economic sectors of the European Union (EU) to the impacts of climate change is now more urgent than was forecasted in 2013.

The finding was shared in a report on the implementation of the adaptation strategy and lessons learned, published on 12 November. The recently released IPCC report about the impacts of 1.5 °C versus 2.0 °C global warming added even more urgency to the EC’s findings.

“The need to adapt remains and it has actually grown, as impacts of past emissions unfold through heatwaves, storms, forest fires at high latitudes or destructive floods.”

Miguel Arias Cañete, DG CLIMA

Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete said: “Our collective work on adaptation has shown we not only know more but can also do more to prevent the worst climate impacts projected by 2050. The need to adapt remains and it has actually grown, as impacts of past emissions unfold through heatwaves, storms, forest fires at high latitudes or destructive floods. This evaluation provides a credible basis for the EU policy on adaptation to explore new directions, improvements and also alignment with international developments since 2013.”

Expected annual damage to critical infrastructure in European regions, due to climate change, by the end of the century (million EUR). Source: European Commission.

The EC’s evaluation showed that the adaptation strategy had delivered on its objectives to promote action by Member States, ‘climate-proof’ action at EU level and support better-informed decision-making. However, it is very clear that Europe is still vulnerable to climate impacts and more work needs to be done in order to build resilience. The findings will undoubtedly provide food for thought for the upcoming UN climate change conference COP24.

Some of the key findings of the evaluation are:

  • The current adaptation strategy is still relevant, and the Commission will be guided by its objectives.
  • Major infrastructure projects financed by the EU budget have become climate-proof and will withstand sea level rise, flooding or intense heat.
  • In the future, an effort must be made to ensure most, or all, EU cities have a thorough adaptation plan to protect citizens from both extreme and slow-onset climate hazards. The plans should also cater for specific vulnerabilities of certain communities (e.g. the EU’s Outermost Regions) and the different risks faced by the very diverse regions in the European continent.
  • Adaptation must support and be supported by the protection of the EU’s biodiversity (nature-based solutions).
  • The contribution of the private sector to enhance society’s resilience must be encouraged: the Commission’s efforts will continue to be channelled through its Action Plan on Financing Sustainable Growth and the subsequent legislative proposals adopted in 2018.
  • Climate services for specific adaptation needs should develop into business opportunities, based on reliable and standardised data and the incentives provided by Copernicus and other European Earth observation initiatives.

Cover photo by  Dimitris Vetsikas/Pixabay (public domain).
New framework helps strengthen institutional capacity for planning and delivering climate adaptation

New framework helps strengthen institutional capacity for planning and delivering climate adaptation

Institutions face many challenges in dealing with the complexity of climate change: Its urgency, its cross-cutting nature, how it interacts with other societal challenges such as social inequality, and how it can stymie existing development efforts. Even translating climate science into actionable information can be challenging. The capacity constraints that exist to respond to these challenges, particularly in the institutions of developing countries, are well documented.

The urgent need for governments to build resilience has frequently led to a reliance on short-term and ad-hoc efforts to boost capacity. International organisations are often ‘parachuted’ into developing countries to provide one-off training sessions and workshops. Such support has yielded limited impact and is often unsustainable. In such situations local institutional capacity to deal with climate change remains constrained.

There is a recognition globally, on the need for more and better approaches to support the strengthening of institutions. The 2015 Paris Agreement enshrines a commitment to building long-term, in-country capacity to address climate change. The Agreement also states that capacity building must operate through appropriate institutional arrangements and be an iterative process that is participatory, cross-cutting, and gender-responsive.

The new ACT learning paper details how this capacity building goal can be achieved. It introduces and describes a new framework for strengthening institutional climate capabilities to guide stakeholders in designing, planning and delivering other development and adaptation programmes and initiatives. It provides a comprehensive picture of the changes required, involving individuals, organisations, and the wider processes, resources, norms, and values governing institutions. The framework was developed using ACT’s experience in building institutional capacity, and is also informed by wider empirical literature on governance, climate change, and capacity development.

ACT is a £23 million UK government-funded regional programme managed by Oxford Policy Management (OPM) in collaboration with many consortium partners. It works in partnership with national and sub-national governments of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan to assist the integration of climate adaptation into development policies and actions while transforming systems of planning and delivery, including leveraging additional finance. Institutional capacity building is therefore one of the main purposes of the programme.


The full ACT learning paper “Building institutional capacity for enhancing resilience to climate change: An operational framework and insights from practice” and a learning brief can be accessed by clicking here.

Listen to the abstract:

ACT (Action on Climate Today) is an initiative funded with UK aid from the UK government and managed by Oxford Policy Management (OPM).

For more information, please contact:

Cover photo by Terry Boynton on Unsplash
CCC: England’s coastal defences need ‘urgent’ rethink to cope with climate change

CCC: England’s coastal defences need ‘urgent’ rethink to cope with climate change

By Jocelyn Timperley, Carbon Brief

New policies are “urgently” needed to protect homes and landscapes from coastal flooding and erosion in the long term, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) says.

These coastal risks will increase in the future due to climate change, the committee says in a new report to government. But long-term action can help to manage their impact, it adds.

The current approach to protecting the coastline in England “really isn’t fit for purpose”, Chris Stark, chief executive of the CCC, tells Carbon Brief. “We’re trying to encourage an honest conversation about that.”

One metre

England will “almost certainly” have to adapt to at least 1m of sea level rise at some point, the report says. Some model projections indicate that this will happen over the next 80 years – within the lifetime of young people alive today. [Sea levels are expected to rise 48cm by 2100 – if global temperature rise are kept to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels].

Rising sea levels will increase the frequency of the most damaging coastal floods, the CCC says, and increase rates of coastal erosion. It adds:

“Many of England’s coastal defences are likely to be at risk of failure as sea levels rise. For example, a sea level rise of 0.5m is projected to make a further 20% of England’s coastal defences vulnerable to failure.”

The CCC says these changes must be accounted for in long-term land-use and coastal defence plans. But the public are not clearly informed about current or future risks of coastal erosion and flooding, it says.

There is also a possibility of accelerated ice sheet melt – and, thus, higher sea level rise than 1m – in the absence of more mitigation on climate change, Professor Jim Hall, who leads on flooding and coastal erosion at the CCC, tells Carbon Brief. “What we’re talking about here very much has a global mitigation context,” he says.

Damage

Losses from coastal erosion and flooding are already being felt today, the CCC says, with damages amounting to an average £260m per year. There are 520,000 properties in England in areas at risk from coastal flooding and 8,900 properties are in areas at risk of being lost through coastal erosion, the CCC adds.

The CCC estimates the total value of assets at risk from coastal flooding to be around £120-150bn, though it says this is difficult to quantify.

By the 2080s,1.5m properties – including 1.2m homes – may be at risk of coastal flooding, it says, with a further 100,000 at risk from coastal erosion. Around 1,600km of road, 92 railways stations and 12 substations and nuclear power stations could be at risk from coastal erosion or flooding by 2100, the CCC adds.

[All of the UK’s operating nuclear power plants are on the coast; they are responsible for their own coastal defences and, according to Hall, they look a lot further into the future with respect to sea level rise than is typically done for coastal communities.]

The population at risk of coastal flooding could almost quadruple by 2080, according to the CCC’s earlier 2017 risk assessment, as shown in the chart below.

Population at 0.5% or greater risk of coastal flooding in England in any given year up to the 2080s. The lower range shows a 2C, low population growth and higher adaptation scenario; the higher range shows a 4C, high population growth and lower adaptation scenario. Source: CCC Climate Change Risk Assessment (2017), using data from Sayers et al. (2015).

Other research has shown the damage from coastal flooding in the UK could be very high in the absence of upgrades to protection. One Nature Climate Change study found the UK could see up to €236bn in annual damages and 1.1 million people exposed to coastal flooding by 2100. It found the UK to be the worst hit European country by far, although others will also be severely affected.

The CCC notes that the risks of harmful coastal flooding and erosion “cannot be eliminated altogether”. However, stronger actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change could reduce the risk for 400,000-500,000 people in England by 2100, compared to a “baseline” level of climate adaptation, it adds.

Shoreline plans

Strategic responsibility for overseeing English coast rests with the government’s Environment Agency, Hall tells Carbon Brief. But local authorities also have some responsibility, in particular in areas of coastal erosion.

These two groups work together to develop local Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs), which identify responses to future coastal changes using a 100-year policy framework. They were first developed in the mid-1990s and revised between 2006 and 2011. The map below shows how they are split up into 22 separate areas.

Shoreline Management Plan areas in England and Wales. Source: CCC, using Environment Agency data.

But as they stand, these plans “cannot be relied” on to reduce the risks from coastal flooding and erosion, the CCC says. This is because they are not legally binding and contain unfunded proposals. Implementing current policies to protect England’s coast would cost £18-30bn in total, the CCC adds, depending on the rate of climate change.

Importantly, many of the unfunded coastline protection plans are far less “cost-effective” than the measures funded by government today. Hall says current plans for around 150 kilometres of coastline are not cost-beneficial to implement. This raises the need for honest conversations with those affected about “the difficult choices they face”, he says.

“There genuinely will be homes that it will not be possible to save,” said Baroness Brown, chair of the CCC’s adaptation sub-committee, at a briefing for journalists on the new report. “That’s why we need those discussions, that’s why people need information, so they can take rational decisions about the level of risk they are prepared to take.”

Shoreline Management Plans the core reason why the CCC’s concludes that England’s current approach to protecting the coastline “isn’t fit for purpose” says Stark. “They are non-statutory, they’re unfunded, and they give this kind of illusory protection,” he tells Carbon Brief.

Adaptation

Sustainable coastal adaptation is possible with long-term commitment and proactive steps by the government, Stark says.

The report sets out several ways forward, from simple acknowledgement and communication about changing coastal risks by the relevant authorities to the development of more rigorously implemented local plans. There is also a need for more evidence-based, quantified outcomes, the CCC says, since much of government policy fails to outline actions that can be assessed in terms of their impact on overall exposure or risk.

However, the government will also need to make long-term funding and investment available in the face of coastal risks, the CCC says, including to help affected communities cope with inevitable changes.

This funding needs to be based on a “broader and more inclusive economic case” than is current practice, the report adds, since areas where investment in hard defences is uneconomic tend to lose out. It says:

“[T]hese places also need funding to assist them to adapt to inevitable changes, so whilst hard defences may not be fundable they still need support for a broader package of adaptation actions, including community engagement, asset relocation and compensation to move households where appropriate.”


This article was originally published on Carbon Brief and is shared under a Creative Commons license, click here to access the original article.

Cover photo by David Baird, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Government-funded buyouts after disasters are slow and inequitable – here’s how that could change

Government-funded buyouts after disasters are slow and inequitable – here’s how that could change

By A.R. Siders, Harvard University

Destructive storms like Hurricanes Florence and Michael prompt difficult conversations about whether to rebuild or retreat. Retreat is an established part of U.S. flood management: Government agencies have been paying people to move out of harm’s way for several decades. But the process is flawed and needs to be improved.

Across the United States, “repetitive loss properties” that have been damaged and rebuilt multiple times using federal flood insurance payouts have cost the government, and taxpayers, more than US$12.1 billion. And the challenge is growing. Rising seas due to climate change may inundate 400 to 1,100 U.S. coastal cities in this century, affecting some 4 to 13 million Americans.

Sometimes the surest way to keep people safe is to relocate them out of the floodplain, a process called managed or strategic retreat. But when I reviewed some of the largest retreat programs in the United States, I found that the process is much less straightforward or fair than it should be. I also found ways to improve it.

Workers prepare a home for demolition in Spanish Grant, Texas, April 14, 2010, as part of a buyout program in the wake of Hurricane Ike. FEMA/Patsy Lynch

Thousands of buyouts over 25 years

Since 1993, FEMA has spent just over $4 billion to buy roughly 40,000 homes in 1,100 communities across 44 states. The buildings are demolished and the land is required to be maintained as open space, perhaps a park or a wetland to absorb future flood waters. Other federal agencies also fund buyouts.

Some whole communities have relocated. They include midwest river towns such as Pattonsburg, Missouri, Valmeyer, Illinois and Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin. According to one 2017 report, 17 U.S. communities – mainly Native American – are in the process of relocating from low-lying islands and coastal areas to avoid flooding. Overall, FEMA does not have enough funding for buyouts to meet demand.

I recently reviewed eight of the largest U.S. buyout efforts to see how officials decided which homes to buy. It was a question I’d encountered while living in New York City during and after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. More than 2,500 people in New York City and state expressed interest in receiving buyouts, but only a few hundred received offers. I wanted to know why.

New Jersey residents whose homes suffered major damage from Superstorm Sandy have diverse reactions to buyout offers in this 2014 report.

Working the system

Buyouts typically are offered after disasters, when people are deciding whether to rebuild severely damaged homes and businesses or relocate away from the floodplain. Local and state governments have the authority to offer buyouts, so residents who can organize in groups and engage government agencies have the best chance of obtaining purchase offers. Officials don’t want to make offers until they’re sure a group of residents is willing to sell. They want to buy up big sections of land that can be converted to parks or wetlands, rather than scattered lots that are hard to maintain.

Even when communities ask to be bought out, officials may say no based on cost or potential property tax revenue losses. In such cases, residents may need to organize and petition, as some Staten Island neighborhoods did after Sandy.

A slow and confusing process

Multiple layers of government are involved in funding and awarding buyouts. Harris County Flood Control District

The buyout process is not transparent. Many people struggle to figure out whether their homes are eligible, based on information from websites, press releases and public documents. Some less-than-clear criteria include: “compatibility with community and natural values,” and “mutual (local and state government) understanding of the benefit” of the buyout.

Lack of transparency makes it hard for homeowners to make decisions about whether to wait for a buyout offer, or to trust the process. Even if they receive offers, it can take three to four years to finalize the purchase, which is longer than many people can afford to wait after losing their homes.

Inequitable outcomes

Seemingly straightforward policies can have unintended consequences. Federal flood risk management programs are required to be “cost-effective” in order to prevent overspending. However, it’s rarely cost-effective to build a $34 million floodwall in front of $100,000 homes, so flood management projects like this often end up protecting wealthy areas. Lower-income areas are left more exposed to damage from storms and flooding.

Similarly, buying out a $1 million home after a disaster makes less sense than buying 10 $100,000 homes. As a result, low-income areas are more likely to be targeted for managed retreat after disasters. These communities tend to have high numbers of minority residents, due to past discriminatory policies and historic inequalities.

Helping communities that are at most risk and have the fewest resources could be a good policy, if it were done intentionally and in a way that addresses social equity. However, if these issues are not considered, flood mitigation policies can exacerbate racial and economic segregation by displacing low- and middle-income residents who can’t afford to spend large sums on climate-resilient homes.

Discrimination can also arise in other ways. After storms, assessors determine how much damage each house has sustained. If a house is “substantially damaged,” meaning that repairs would cost 50 percent of its assessed value, it must be relocated or elevated, which can be cost-prohibitive for owners. Low-value homes are more likely to sustain substantial damage. And owners who can’t afford to move or raise their houses may feel pressured to accept a buyout, although these offers are technically voluntary.

In some cases, officials have purposefully found more substantially damaged homes in low-income areas. Others have chosen not to enforce substantial damage findings in order to let people move back into their houses. This may seem charitable in the short term, but in the long run it leaves residents vulnerable to the next disaster.

Other researchers have found still more problems with U.S. buyouts. Purchased land is often left as derelict lots because local governments lack resources to maintain it. People whose homes are purchased may relocate to other floodplains, or to areas that are more socially vulnerable, reducing their children’s future earning potential.

Worst of all, even though more than a thousand communities have participated in buyouts over 30 years, research suggests there has been little effort to learn lessons and improve these programs over time.

Improving the process

Managed retreat is an important tool, and will only become more so as climate change intensifies storms and flooding. But the process needs reform.

Better communication could greatly improve the buyout process. Government officials need to make decisions more transparently about where and when to retreat, and should involve communities in these decisions to improve trust in the process. Conversations about retreat should address social inequality explicitly and discuss where people might relocate. Having these discussions before disasters strike would give people time to reflect without the emotional and financial stress of post-disaster recovery. It could also speed up the buyout process.

Federal agencies should facilitate peer-to-peer learning about the innovative ways some communities are using buyouts proactively to make people safer. And purchases can be structured to minimize local tax revenue losses.

Most importantly, Americans need to start having conversations about where federal tax dollars should be spent to protect coasts and where to retreat, before climate-driven disasters become the norm.The Conversation


A.R. Siders, Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cover photo by NOAA (public domain):Aerial view of catastrophic damage in Mexico Beach, Florida which suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Michael on October 10, 2018
USA among top countries to suffer highest economic damage due to climate change according to new research

USA among top countries to suffer highest economic damage due to climate change according to new research

A recently published study indicates climate change is costing the USA hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

The results, which were published in Nature Climate Change, use climate model projections, empirical climate-driven economic damage estimations and socioeconomic forecasts to estimate country-level contributions to the social cost of carbon (SCC). SCC is an estimate that adds up “all the quantifiable costs and benefits of emitting one additional tonne of CO2, in monetary terms” and is used to weigh the benefits of reducing global warming against the costs of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The study shows the global SCC is significantly higher than that used by the US American government to inform policy decisions. The latest numbers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for global costs range from US$12 to US$62 per metric tonne of CO2 emitted by 2020. However, the new data shows the SCC to be as high as US$180–800 per tonne of carbon emissions.

The country-level SCC for the USA alone is estimated to be US$50 per tonne, which is much higher than the global value used in most regulatory impact analyses. This means that the nearly five billion metric tons of CO2 the USA emits each year is costing the US economy about US$250 billion.

“Evaluating the economic cost associated with climate is valuable on a number of fronts, as these estimates are used to inform U.S. environmental regulation and rulemakings,” said lead author, University of California San Diego assistant professor Kate Ricke, who holds joint appointments with UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

CO2 is a global pollutant and previous analyses have always focused on the global SCC, but this paper offers a country-by-country breakdown of the economic damage climate change will cause.

“Our analysis demonstrates that the argument that the primary beneficiaries of reductions in carbon dioxide emissions would be other countries is a total myth,” Ricke said.  “We consistently find, through hundreds of uncertainty scenarios, that the U.S. always has one of the highest country-level SCCs. It makes a lot of sense because the larger your economy is, the more you have to lose. Still, it’s surprising just how consistently the US is one of the biggest losers, even when compared to other large economies.”


Ricke, K., Drouet, L., Caldeira, K. and Tavoni, M. (2018). Country-level social cost of carbon. Nature Climate Change. Available here https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0282-y. [paywall]

Cover photo by Antonio DiCaterina on Unsplash