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.

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.

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.

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.