Commentary

Who’s responsible for managing climate risk?

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Short answer – no one.

To date, discussions on who is responsible for stress testing our economic and social development to projected temperature increases resulting from climate change is both fragmented and disconnected from efforts to curb emissions. The level of exposure our communities, economies and planet face from climate risk is not yet considered a core national interest debate in most countries.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report details the plethora of risks brought about by climate change, but the institutional landscape proactively managing climate risk both nationally and internationally is broken. The current institutional capacity is not fit for purpose, there is no comprehensive risk management occurring internationally and in most cases domestically.

Adaptation ≠ Climate Risk Management

Adaptation is crucial for preparing and adjusting to climate impacts. Adaptation provides a shock absorber for many of the primary effects of climate change. In the short- and medium-term a dyke or levee can protect a community from flood waters. However, a dyke serves only one purpose, and cannot guarantee a community’s social and economic security against multiple levels of uncertainty brought about by climate change – it cannot build resilience.

The cross-cutting nature of climate change means that its impacts are diverse and widespread. Climate risk management necessitates a comprehensive approach that considers the full range of potential scenarios; there are multiple levels of uncertainty involved in addressing and planning for climate change. Adaptation will play its part, but be warned – it has its limits.

Climate Risk Unmanaged – the UK floods

The recent floods across southern England provide a compelling example of the failure to manage climate risk adequately. As communities felt the brunt of the flood impacts, the institutional response quickly reduced to a blame game. Community Secretary Eric Pickles pointed the finger at the Environment Agency promptly starting a public squabble that further deepened frustrations from affected communities. The debate was reduced to a binary discussion on whether choosing to dredge the rivers or not was the right approach. Although climate change did briefly emerge into the political news reel it failed to translate into an effective political challenge linking the UK’s levels of exposure to climate risk and our efforts to curb emissions. There is no mechanism, no institution responsible for connecting these dots.

Managing Global Climate Risk

As no country can manage climate risk alone, an international strategy is fundamental. To date, no institution has taken a comprehensive approach to managing climate risk. The Hyogo Framework for Action has formulated processes for limiting the impacts of natural disasters, but falls short of taking a proactive approach to reducing their incidence or intensity[1]. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) manages the process of decarbonisation, but adaptation and climate risk are considered an orphan child and decoupled from the mitigation debate and as such the implications of inaction are not well understood.

The post-2015 process could provide another opportunity to align development pathways with climate risks, but these continue to be marginalised in discussions. Hopeful signals have been expressed in recent rhetoric, including the report from the High Level Panel, which acknowledged the reality that poverty eradication efforts will fail if we do not address climate change[2]. However, if countries fail to take a comprehensive approach at home, it is more likely that climate stability will become a marginal issue, as opposed to integral to provide prosperity and eradicating poverty

As the climate impacts intensify, addressing climate risk is becoming economically and politically inescapable. It should not be forgotten that every government party to the UNFCCC agreed in Cancun, that 2°C marks the threshold of dangerous climate change. Governments declared climate change a significant threat, but this has yet to be internalised. Climate risk management requires leadership at all levels, with decisions being stress-tested against the latest IPCC data to ensure the security of our collective futures.

References

[1] http://www.unisdr.org/we/coordinate/hfa

[2] http://www.post2015hlp.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/UN-Report.pdf

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