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.
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.
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.