Aligning politics and practice for climate risks

By Thomas Schinko, IIASA Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program

Climate change is projected to disproportionately affect people in developing countries, through extreme weather events and slow onset events such as rising sea levels. Because the countries most affected by climate change are also those who contributed the least to the problem and with the least capacities to cope, one of the major issues in recent climate negotiations has been how to support those nations’ efforts to adapt and to address climate impacts beyond adaptation.

To address this problem, in 2013 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) established the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change Impacts (WIM).

Yet at the Paris climate talks in December, the future of the WIM was in limbo. The Global South argued for loss and damage to be a key part of an eventual agreement, while the Global North argued for including it under the adaptation agenda. In the end, the Paris agreement quite prominently featured loss and damage. However the Global North’s fears of signing up to a mechanism that makes them liable for unlimited damage claims in the future have been addressed by adding a specific paragraph to the agreement stating, “the agreement does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”

©Amir Jina via Flickr

A flood in Bangladesh in 2009. Flooding is project to increase with climate change, yet arguments remain about attributing specific events to the influence of climate change. Photo Credit: Amir Jina via Flickr

Building on this reconfirmed support for the mechanism, the second meeting of the Executive Committee of the WIM was held 2–5 February 2016, in Bonn, Germany. The main purpose of the meeting was to give an update on the delivery of specific activities and to consider relevant requests arising from COP21. The Paris agreement requests the establishment of (1) a clearinghouse for risk transfer to facilitate the implementation of comprehensive risk management strategies and (2) a task force to address displacement issues. On the first issue, discussions have focused on the need to move beyond focusing solely on risk transfer and the link between current disaster risk management practice and climate adaptation as there are important overlaps.

As an observer, I could feel the presence of team spirit among the committee members, all honestly committed to help the most vulnerable people. Yet one issue remained hotly debated: the degree to which anthropogenic climate change can be blamed for natural disasters and extreme weather events. I saw a strong divide between committee members from the Global North and South and between those with a strong background in disaster risk management in contrast to those coming from a climate change background. Nevertheless, even in that regard I see a good chance for a joint vision to emerge, if we can distinguish two levels of the loss and damage discourse: the practical implementation on the ground vs. the political dimension.

On the practical implementation side, a pragmatic compromise became palpable: Building on decades of experience in disaster risk management related to weather extremes and the climate variability, it was identified as an entry point to deal with current and future climate risks – whether they are triggered or intensified by climate change or not. The political level, which circles around climate finance and the question of who is going to pay for losses and damages is quite another matter. Here the anthropogenic element is existentially important, as it builds the foundation for international support under the UNFCCC. If reference to anthropogenic climate change is left out of the loss and damage discourse, the UNFCCC might lose its mandate for support, as disaster risk management falls under national responsibility. Once this door closes it could remain shut, though another one might open (e.g. via civil law).

© Asian Development Bank via Flickr

Women in Thata, Pakistan line up for water following 2010 floods. Photo Credit: Asian Development Bank via Flickr

To overcome the political barriers and to build upon the convergence with respect to the short-term practical implementation, we suggest to foster an iterative and comprehensive risk management approach, linking risk prevention, risk reduction, risk retention, risk transfer, as well as ex-post relief and reconstruction to effectively tackle different layers of climate risks.

However, it is important not to lose track of climate change as a risk driver, by consequently screening new scientific and empirical insights. This is crucial, as future risks might substantially increase due to climate change, requiring an iterative adaptation of current practices and support by the international community.

To support such an approach, rigorous scientific input, bringing together researchers from various disciplines, practitioners, NGOs, and policy makers is crucial. Together with international partner institutions, in November 2015 we initiated a scientific hub on loss and damage to provide such input. The envisaged clearinghouse for risk transfer and the task force for climate-related displacement could become key recipients for information generated by our network, packaged with further information and distributed to make it actionable; particularly addressing the needs of the most vulnerable developing countries.

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

Science for climate risk management and climate justice

By Thomas Schinko and Reinhard Mechler, IIASA Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program

Discussions on dealing with the already palpable as well as future burdens from climate change have moved into the spotlight of international climate policy. They are being tackled as part of the climate negotiations via the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (Loss and Damage Mechanism), a measure for dealing with impacts and adaptation related to extreme climate events and slow onset events that was agreed in 2013. Debate on the scope, framing and on how the mechanism will eventually be implemented is still continuing, and is heavily framed around moral issues such as compensation, liability, and a need for attributing disasters to climate change, which is a difficult and complex issue.

Opening of COP 21 on 29 November 2015. Photo: Benjamin Géminel via Flickr

Opening of COP 21 on 29 November 2015. Photo: Benjamin Géminel via Flickr

To help move this contentious debate forward, we recently organized a meeting at IIASA to set up a broad scientific network to support work under the Loss and Damage Mechanism with rigorous and evidence-based research.

Since the first climate negotiations, climate justice has been a major source of contention, with countries disagreeing on the level of responsibility for climate change and the extent to which developed and developing countries should contribute to the solutions. These discussions have predominantly focused on climate mitigation responses, but over the last few years, impact and risk issues have moved into the limelight.

Discussions in the run-up to the 21st Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention (COP 21) in Paris make it clear that answering key questions revolving around climate justice and climate finance will be pivotal for the conference to deliver on any global climate change agreement.

Even though some rich countries currently appear to acknowledge the central role of a mechanism covering losses and damages within a new global climate agreement to be negotiated at COP 21 in Paris, huge reservations remain. With changing climates, extreme weather events are likely to increase in frequency as well as in intensity. The global North fears exposure to soaring claims for financial compensation by countries of the global South, which will be facing the most severe risks from climate change. In fact, even the meaning and nature of Loss and Damage is still being debated – some suggest the Loss and Damage mechanism should be part of adaptation, while others want it to focus on residual risks that remain after adaptation efforts have been taken. For example, it could finance potential climate-induced migration.

Discussion of compensation raises complex issues about liability, and would presumably require attribution of losses and damages to emitters. Indeed, climate science has been making great progress in attribution research. Recent work has shown a significant human element in mega-events such as superstorm Sandy in 2013 in the US or the Australian heatwave in 2013. Yet, as our kick-off meeting reconfirmed, linking anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to extreme weather events and to risks for people and property will remain extremely complex, not least as risks from climate-related events are shaped by many factors, including climate variability, rising exposure of people and assets, as well as socio-economic vulnerability dynamics. While the basic case for climate justice has been made, the concrete, enforceable case remains much harder to establish.

A protest for "climate justice" at Quezon City, Philippines on 14 November 2015. Photo: RB Ibañez via Flickr

A protest for “climate justice” at Quezon City, Philippines on 14 November 2015. Photo: RB Ibañez via Flickr

For these good reasons and to not derail the debate by fixating on questions regarding liability, the debate has extended beyond the narrow focus on compensation – the omnipresent elephant in the room of the UNFCCC process. The meeting at IIASA, which brought together 14 researchers from 10 institutions and 8 countries, also suggested that for a productive discussion, it makes sense to focus broadly on managing various climate risks by fostering current policies and practices while keeping the climate justice debate in close consideration.

This proposal essentially suggests to build on a long history of managing climate-related (and geophysical driven) extremes by employing a broad portfolio of different disaster risk management tools, including financial instruments such as insurance or regional risk pools. As identified also by the IPCC’s 5th assessment report, building on this body of knowledge and practice for comprehensively tackling existing and increasing extremes, holds a lot of promise and has seen international support, e.g. by the Sendai Framework for Action.

The discussion at IIASA focused on these two angles – climate justice and climate risk management – and worked out the following specific foci and building blocks for an evidence-based research approach to support the operationalization of the Loss and Damage Mechanism:

  • Articulation of principles and definitions of Loss and Damage, including ethical and normative issues central to the discourse (e.g. liability and responsibility).
  • Definition of the Loss and Damage space vis-á-vis the adaptation space.
  • Research on the politics and institutional dimensions of the debate.
  • Defining the scope for dealing with sudden-onset risk versus slow-onset impacts.

In the coming months the novel network effort will tackle these issues and questions in order to provide actionable but research-based input into the Loss and Damage deliberations.

Note: The authors thank the researchers present at the kick-off event at IIASA for their input on the topic and this blog post: Florent Baarsch (Climate Analytics, Berlin), Laurens Bouwer (Deltares, Delft), Rachel James (University of Oxford), Stefan Kienberger (University of Salzburg), Ana Lopez (University of Oxford), Colin McQuistan (Practical Action, Rugby), Jaroslav Mysiak (FEEM, Venice), Ilan Noy (University of Wellington), Joeri Roegelj (IIASA), Olivia Serdeczny (Climate Analytics, Berlin), Swenja Surminski (LSE, London), Koko Warner (UNU-EHS, Bonn)

Bouwer LM (2013). Projections of future extreme weather losses under changes in climate and exposure. RiskAnalysis 33(5):915–930

Herring, S.C., Hoerling, M.P., Peterson, T.C., Stott P.A. (eds) (2014). Explaining extreme events of 2013 from a climate perspective. Special Supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 95(9)

James, R., Otto, F., Parker, H., Boyd, E., Cornforth, R. Mitchell, D. and M. Allen (2014). Characterizing loss and damage from climate change. Nature Climate Change 4: 938-39

Mechler, R. Bouwer, L., Linnerooth-Bayer, J., Hochrainer-Stigler, S., Aerts, J., Surminski, S. (2014). Managing unnatural disaster risk from climate extremes. Nature Climate Change 4: 235-237

Peterson, T.C., Hoerling, M.P., Stott, P.A., Herring, S.C. (2013). Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 94: S1–S74. doi:
Trenberth, K.E., Fasullo, J.T., Shepherd, T.G. (2015). Attribution of climate extreme events. Nature Climate Change 5: 725–730. doi:10.1038/nclimate2657

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

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.

Risk-based planning in developing countries—CATSIM training in Cambodia

By Junko Mochizuki, IIASA Risk, Policy, and Vulnerability Program

Catastrophic natural disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan of 2013 and Thailand’s flood of 2011 have highlighted the need for improved preparedness and proactive planning in developing countries. As population and economic activities continue to grow in hazard-prone areas, the economic costs of natural disasters are expected to rise globally, threatening the prospects for poverty alleviation and sustainable development.

Workshop participants.

Workshop participants learn to use IIASA’s CATSIM tool.

Cambodia is no exception. Frequent natural disasters continue to strain the country’s meager fiscal resources. Flood-related expenditure in particular has increased in recent years. In 2013, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, in charge of major road construction, diverted approximately 20% of its non-maintenance budget for recovery and reconstruction. Ministry of Rural Development, in charge of rural sanitation, health and agricultural projects, faces similar constraints. Some of the costliest disasters have occurred in recent years: the 2013 flood cost $1 billion and the 2011 flood $624 million in damage and losses. The World Bank recently estimated that the annual average expected cost of natural disasters in Cambodia is approximately 0.7% of GDP.

On June 10-11, I participated in an IIASA workshop on this topic in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, along with IIASA researcher Keith Williges. Our goal was to train Cambodian policymakers on the concept of disaster risk and need for better fiscal preparedness, using IIASA’s CATSIM model. Like many low-income countries, Cambodia’s ability to access resources through taxation and external loans is limited. Using CATSIM, policymakers can evaluate alternative options for preparedness including hazard mitigation and reserve fund and assess how further accumulation of economic assets may raise risk in the longer term.

In 2011, Cambodia experienced heavy flooding after strong typhoons and heavy rain. Photo credit: Thearat Touch EU/ECHO

In 2011, Cambodia experienced heavy flooding after strong typhoons and heavy rain. Photo credit: Thearat Touch EU/ECHO

Risk-based planning is still uncommon globally and particularly so in developing countries like Cambodia. Year after year, scarce resources are wasted because national and local policymakers do not have access to good risk information such as risk maps and timely weather forecasts. This could change, however, as detailed risk maps are becoming available and a new standard operation procedure for early warning system is now being prepared under this project. The CATSIM workshop has also familiarized policymakers with the concept of economic and fiscal risk of natural disasters.

While policymakers understand the potential costs rising from natural disasters, the real challenge is to link such risk information strategically.  Without concrete advice on how risk maps can prioritize budget allocation, for example, it is unlikely that decision makers will change their old practice of non-risk based planning. In addition to quantifying and communicating economic, social, and environmental benefits of risk reduction and management, further barriers including financial, institutional and cognitive gaps must also be addressed. Bridging science with policy implementation requires strategic linking, and the CATSIM training marked an important first step for improved risk-based planning and co-production of knowledge in Cambodia.

More information:

Systems analysis for risk and resilient development

By Junko Mochizuki, Adriana Keating and Reinhard Mechler, IIASA Risk, Policy, and Vulnerability Program

Flood in Davao City, Philippines, January 20, 2013. Photo credit: Jeff Pioquinto via Flickr

Flood in Davao City, Philippines, January 20, 2013. Photo credit: Jeff Pioquinto via Flickr

The year 2015 will mark a crucial milestone for the international development, climate change, and disaster management communities. Negotiations are currently underway to hammer out three landmark decisions: a much anticipated global climate deal to be agreed at the COP21 meeting in Paris, a new agreement on post-Millenium Development Goals  known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the post-Hyogo disaster risk reduction framework (HFA2) to be adopted at the 2015 World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai. The outcomes of these three international forums will largely shape the global agendas for the next few decades.

The HFA2 builds on the knowledge and experience gained from 10 years of implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) 2005-2015, the first international initiative to offer a global blueprint for disaster risk reduction. Since its inception, 22 core indicators have been developed to monitor global progress across five priority areas, including building a culture of safety and enhancing national and local institutional architecture. The implementation has thus far shown mixed progress. The key remaining issue is the underlying drivers of risk and that the HF2 must address both the correction of existing risk and prevention of future risk creation.

On 10 and 11 February, the world’s leading experts on disaster risk management gathered at IIASA to begin designing an effective HFA2 monitoring system. At the meeting, co-organized with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), participants deliberated how the HFA2 monitoring system could address the remaining issues of risk creation, mainstreaming, and resilience building, and inform ongoing discussions on SDGs and climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The meeting participants emphasized that the notion of resilience to  natural disasters or other unexpected events offers a unique entry point for shared discussions across the development, disaster, and climate change research and policy communities. The resilience notion of “bouncing-forward” stresses that societies must understand the risks they face, and be prepared use both pre- and post-disaster opportunities to implement policies that can reduce risk and advance development objectives. These are important additions to the disaster risk management debate which are essential to the post-2015 approach.

But many challenges remain. We need a concrete set of indicators to measure the multi-dimensional concept of disaster resilience. While we expect to see the adoption of quantitative disaster risk reduction targets—such as mortality, affected population, or economic loss reduction, we do not yet have a globally agreed methodology to measure disaster loss and damage. More fundamentally, an emphasis on loss data could send the world a wrong signal that disaster loss is all that matters. This speaks contrary to IIASA’s ongoing research. What we have found time and time again is that what matters most is a country’s steady management of underlying risk and resilience, whether or not a disaster has occurred.

As negotiations continue towards the climate, development, and disaster goals, it is clear that effective framework must be organized around a holistic understanding of well being and its systemic components. Over the coming months, researchers and analysts including IIASA staff will work with UNISDR to develop a global framework linking the concepts of risk and resilience.

About the authors

Junko Mochizuki and Adriana Keating are research scholars and Reinhard Mechler is the deputy program leader in IIASA’s Risk, Policy, and Vulnerability Program. Their current work at IIASA focuses on advancing the notion of disaster resilience, evaluating how novel and participatory system  analysis tools may be used to inform policy on disaster resilience building.

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.