Resilience to Extreme Weather: It’s the Economics, Stupid?

When the Royal Society chose to launch their new report on Resilience to Extreme Weather last month, they picked the Commonwealth Science Conference in Bangalore.

Yesterday, at the Royal Society’s London HQ just along from Buckingham Palace, they held a secondary London launch. Foreign Secretary Martyn Poliakoff described the Commonwealth conference as strikingly international — scientists from all over the world mixed on unusually equal footing, not dominated by one particular national group. This was appropriate for the topic of extreme weather, Poliakoff argued — a global problem, we’ll need to work together.

The report summary leads with the possible economic cost of extreme weather (quoted as US$1.4 trillion between 1980 and 2004, if you were wondering). As Professor Georgina Mace — chair of the working group tasked with putting together the report — reflected, extreme weather events tend to show up as economic costs in the developed world, but human ones in developing world it’s a human cost. “That’s just how we account for these things, it’s not very equal.”

As Professor Peter Cox explained, the centre of their understanding of climate change risk is people, not spaces (although the report refers to assets too). Climate change won’t happen in an otherwise stationary system, so must be understood in the context of the exposure and vulnerability of increasing and increasingly aging populations, as well as considering urbanisation, and opportunities for mobility. For example, they don’t just say heat-waves are likely to increase, but that there will be a dramatic increase in the vulnerable population of over 65s exposed to heat-waves.

According to Mace, they chose the frame of resilience because it reflects “a more dynamic sense of coping”, not just surviving but moving on and positively getting on with our lives, long-term. Resilience, for Mace, offers a sense that we’re prepared for these changes, and we’re also prepared for the next one that comes along too. Partly for this reason, they put an especially strong emphasis on the power of evidence and evidence-collecting. We must learn from past problems, and set ourselves up so we can continue to learn more.

And what to they think we do about it? The report argues for a portfolio of defensive measures, including looking beyond traditional engineering options. As Professor Katrina Brown noted, any defensive measure — be it dam, mangroves or green roof — will have a host of other impacts. They will also, positively or negatively, impact on biodiversity, water, food, climate change mitigation efforts and more. With this in mind, she argued, planners must engage broadly— gather a wide range of expertise, including talking to local people — otherwise they’ll too easily miss something.

Moreover, although  the report insists on the importance of including local knowledge and the private sector, only the latter was represented at the event with sharp contributions from Rowan Douglas. Some forms of knowledge are perhaps still more  welcome in the halls of science than others.

Also conspicuous by its absence was a discussion of how economic inequality intersects with climate change, and systems currently in place for challenging such inequality. Considering recent discussions over the Green Climate Fund,  systems for redistribution of resources could have been discussed more. And, considering the context of the Commonwealth, legacies of colonialism might have been a topic too. When asked about this, UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser Mark Walport referred to the UK’s history of aid and international development work. Generous by some metrics, possibly, but some of the delegates currently arguing for climate justice in Lima might see it as woefully insufficient.


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