Climate change missing from government risk agendas

By Leena Ilmola-Sheppard, IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program

When government officials speak about risks, they are usually referring to natural disasters. And it seems in these discussions that the increasing frequency of flooding, droughts, snow storms, and hurricanes have no link to climate change nor mitigation of it.

Last week,  I had an opportunity to sit and listen to discussions at the fourth annual Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) High Level Risk Forum.  The objective of the forum is to initiate joint development of the national level risk management tools and procedures.  National risk directors form their Prime Minister’s Offices and OECD ambassadors spent three rainy days from December 10-12 discussing risk.

The most of the time, the discussion centered around disaster risks.  Whatever the theme of the  session, the discussion ended up on disaster management, disaster costs, or best practices. This is a theme that was recognized to be of importance in every government.  The other risks that were presented were terrorism, the Ebola epidemic, and illicit trade. The missing themes–that I had expected to be on the agenda–were technology related, financial risks and political risks.

Photo Credit: Ched Cheddles via Flickr

Governments usually take risk to mean natural disasters – but missing from most discussions are climate change, technology, financial, and political risks. Here: storm clouds over England in September 2014. Photo Credit: Ched Cheddles via Flickr

Margaret Wahlstrom, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction, gave the best presentation. Her key message war that climate change related issues were not integrated well enough with risk management.  Kate White from the US Army Corps of Engineers supported Wahlstrom by stating that the climate change will radically change disaster management goals, procedures, and volume of investment.  There should be a strong motivation for that, she said, as disasters are coming more expensive.  According to her data, the total cost of hurricane Sandy was 65 billion US$.

The Australian government calculations presented in the meeting are very revealing as well; from Australian government is spending around 400 million AU$ for disaster prevention and response, and 2.6 billion AU$  for recovery.  As the Australian example shows, governments have a long way to go from words to action. Governments have not yet realized the role of mitigation, at least not in the budgeting level.

The main theme of this year’s forum was “risk and resilience.”  So the word was used a lot in all of the presentations.  However, the concept of resilience seems to have many meanings and concrete substance behind the word is ambiguous.  Margaret Wahlstrom pointed out that there is a need for a cross-discipline understanding of resilience, as well as for a generic resilience measurement system.   Concrete quantitative indicators would help policymakers to assess the development actions needed, improvement achieved, and provide justification for development actions.

The most vivid discussion concerned the relationship of the national risk management and public involvement. Countries such as the United Kingdom promote full transparency and active risk communications, while some of the governments such as Singapore focus on communicating the vision and improvement ideas instead of risks.  My interpretation of the discussion is that many of the represented government experts perceive risks to be too complicated to communicate to a general audience.  The Nordic countries even go beyond communication, to encourage and support self-organized actions. For example the government supported people when they started to offer shelter and places to sleep for those that got stuck on the road during the October storms of this year, the worst to hit the region in decades.

Read the forum’s summary document draft (PDF)

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

How can Europe cope with multiple disaster risks?

Interview with IIASA risk expert Nadejda Komendantova

In a new study, IIASA Risk, Policy, and Vulnerability Program researcher Nadejda Komendantova and colleagues from Germany and Switzerland examined how natural hazards and risks assessments can be incorporated into decision-making processes in Europe on mitigation of multiple risks. 

A cyclist rides along the flooded Danube River in Braila, Romania, in 2010. Credit: cod_gabriel on Flickr

A cyclist rides along the flooded Danube River in Braila, Romania, in 2010. Credit: cod_gabriel on Flickr

Why did you decide to conduct this study?
European decision makers currently have a number of methods that they can use to assess natural hazards and risks and apply to the decision-making process. These methods include risk and hazard assessments, probabilistic scenarios, and socio-economic and engineering models.  The variety of tools is enormous and volume of knowledge and data is growing. However, the process of communication  between science and practice leaves a lot of open questions for research.

Researchers have developed a few tools to provide multiple risk assessment of a given territory. But even though these models have been tested by operational and practicing stakeholders, there is limited information about how useful the models are for civil protection stakeholders to use in practice.  In order to communicate results from science to practice and make it possible for decision-makers to use such tools, it helps to involve decision-makers in the development process. Participatory modeling, which is an important part of risk governance, allows us to not only to take into consideration the facts, but also values and judgments that decision-makers bring to their actions.

What questions did you aim to answer in your study?
The decision-making process becomes even more complex when we talk about situations with multiple risks – multi-risks – which involve interactions between several risks. How will decision-maker will prioritize their actions on risk mitigation or on resources allocation when facing not single but multiple risks? We also wanted to find out if the tools developed by science such as decision support models could be suitable for these tasks. Another question is if there are differences in perceptions of the usability of decision-support tools between different stakeholders, such as academia (based on more theoretical considerations) and civil protection (based on practice).

What are the multiple risks or hazards that face Europe?
Across Europe, people suffer losses not just from single hazards, but also from multiple events in combination. The most important hazards for Europe are earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, wildfires, winter storms, and floods along both rivers and coastlines.

What methods did you use to conduct your study?
To answer our research questions we collected feedback from civil protection stakeholders on existing risk and hazard assessment tools as well as on the generic multi-risk framework to understand interrelations between different risks, such as conjoint and cascade effects. The new study was based on a method developed by Arnaud Mignan at ETH Zürich, with a decision-support tool developed by Bijan Khazai at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Through a participatory approach, the decision-support tool allowed  stakeholders to assign relative importance to the losses for different sectors for each of the scenarios likely to occur in the region.

We collected data through questionnaires on existing risk assessment tools in Europe and their implementation. Then, using the new framework, we conducted focus group discussions in Bonn and Lisbon, and decision-making experiments applying the developed tools. Afterwards we had a chance to collect feedback from stakeholders.

What did you find?
The study showed that general standards for multi-risk assessment are still missing—there are different terminologies and different methodologies related to data collection, monitoring, and output. According to stakeholders from practice, this variety of data, assessment methods, tools and terminology might be a barrier for implementation of the multi-risk approach.

The study also found a sharp divide in understanding of the usability of the tools and areas for their application. Academic stakeholders saw the risk-assessment tools as being useful to understand loss and communication of multi-risk parameters. The stakeholders from practice instead saw  the tool as more useful for training and educational purposes as well as to raise awareness about possible multi-risk scenarios.

What should be done to help decision-makers make better decisions?
The study made it clear that we need to work on training and education, both for policymakers and the public. The models we have developed could be useful for educating stakeholders about the usefulness of a multi-risk approach, and to disseminate these results to the general public. It was recommended to use the tools during special training workshops organized for decision-makers on multi-risk mitigation to see possible consequences of a multi-hazard situation for their region. Participatory modeling, involving cooperation between scientists and decision-makers from practice, could not only improve communication processes between science and policy. In addition, decision-support models can become a part of dialogue to help to avoid judgment biases and systematic errors in decision-making and to help in complex decision-making process grounded on human rationality and judgment biases.

Reference:
Nadejda Komendantova, Roger Mrzyglocki, Arnaud Mignan, Bijan Khazai, Friedemann Wenzel, Anthony Patt, Kevin Fleming. 2014. Multi-hazard and multi-risk decision support tools as a part of participatory risk governance: Feedback from civil protection stakeholder. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221242091300068X

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.