Commentary

Lima's balancing act- mitigation/adaption

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Questions for Lima

Who’s managing your climate risk? Hate to break it to you but, no one.

No country, business, city or citizen can manage climate risk alone. Whilst a select few drive the making of climate change all of us experience the impacts. Our prosperity is at threat. However, with the focus resting heavily on mitigation those who bear the brunt of impacts have struggled to make themselves heard. As we approach Lima the adaptation klaxon is sounding loudly begging the question – how will the Paris 2015 agreement manage climate risk?

From adaptation to climate risk

The growing call to better address adaptation under the 2015 agreement cannot be ignored. Nor can adaptation be seen in isolation from mitigation. Planning assumptions all too often assume marginal increases in temperature trajectories which leave current and future investments, growth and development exposed to unmanageable climate risk. Climate risk management attempts to, firstly, reduce both the probability of a bad outcome and secondly the potential severity of its consequences. Mitigation and Adaptation are the results of climate risk management respectively.

Good risk management requires us to account rigorously for the full range of possible outcomes and understand the deficiencies of our institutional systems in dealing with them. It requires objective and independent monitoring of the effectiveness of our policies and actions, and updating and revising them as situations change. Simply put, for us to better address adaptation we need to understand what we are adapting to and how good we are at doing it.

Science and Uncertainty

The IPCC just released its most robust and alarming report but its results are unlikely to create a step-change in climate decision-making in Lima. The IPCC creates a rigorous scientific foundation, synthesising scientific analysis but falls-short in offering real-time monitoring. Decisions on any political issue are rarely made in the context of high certainty, for example counter-terrorism measures. But sceptics have held climate change hostage to absolute certainty. However, for decision-makers who oversee countries, cities and companies this does not prevent climate impacts landing on their doorstep.

When the West Antarctic ice sheet reached its critical threshold for collapse last May it triggered a brief scramble from the scientific community and a few customary nods from decision-makers. This hardly seems a sufficient response to the breach of planetary tipping point. Without an institution or individual with responsibility to monitor and translate these events into a plan for decision makers to respond to, they will continue to go unnoticed. The UNFCCC may not be the eventual landing point for this responsibility but the 2015 agreement is key in initiating these discussions across the international system.

To adequately manage climate risk requires a more timely, effective and consistent feedback loop between climate scientists and decision makers making them more responsive to the evolution of climate realities. If the IPCC sets the mood music, real-time monitoring can set the rhythm. At a guess the rhythm would be telling us to hurry up.

Preparing for a range of outcomes

The mitigation pledges already shared by the EU, US and China put a slam-dunk 2 degree Paris outcome out of arms reach. A ratchet mechanism to push up ambition will be essential. By taking a climate risk management approach we can outline an informed response to this overshoot. How much do we need to ratchet up mitigation efforts to limit impacts? Are we expanding adaptation efforts enough to cope with current and future mitigation trajectories? How will institutions incorporate climate risk into their planning?

In Lima we need to start asking these questions because by Paris we’re going to need some answers.

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