Managing Risk in a Changing Climate: Making the Case

by Stephen Zebiak

We live in a time of rapidly escalating concern about climate change. Although scientific evidence on climate change has been steadily building over many years, only recently has the consensus concerning observed impacts and future scenarios reached a level to capture the world’s attention. Increasingly, the question of whether or not climate change is happening is being replaced with the question of what we can and should do about the problem. The response will require concerted efforts not only to control atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions, but to adapt to and manage the effects of climate change as well.

Climate shocks in the form of droughts, floods, cyclones, and related problems such as epidemics, food insecurity and infrastructure loss have been playing out throughout recorded history, but with increasing severity as populations become increasingly vulnerable. A growing body of evidence, much of it captured in the 2007-2008 Human Development Report by the United Nations, points to the direct effects of climate on economic and human development, particularly in low-income countries. Scan the headlines of recent weeks, and you’ll undoubtedly come across stories about the ongoing food crisis in Niger caused by irregular rainfall, which threatens the lives and well being of at least seven million people. You’ll see pictures from the extremely harsh winter in Mongolia, which wiped out nearly 20% of the country’s livestock, leading to food shortages and loss of livelihood for tens of thousands of families. You’ll read about how hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors in Haiti are still living in relief camps and other temporary structures, under threat of a hurricane season forecasted to be unusually active. The ability to cope better with climate is thus a paramount issue of the present, and a potentially even greater issue in the foreseeable future. We need ‘win-win’ approaches to better manage current climate risks and to build capability to cope with the climate of the future.

Many of the world’s leading development institutions — including the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank and major foundations — recognize that efforts to meet development goals, in particular the Millennium Development Goals, are threatened by climate risk. As a result, they have begun reviewing their programs from the perspective of climate-related risk assessment and risk management. Similarly, national governments and decision makers at the local and regional levels are now asking how they can better manage climate-related risk.

There is a great deal of relevant information now available to assist these efforts. Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and particularly through the work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), authoritative assessments of the current climate and possible future climate scenarios are readily accessible. In addition, routine monitoring information and seasonal-to-interannual climate forecasts are available in several centers, including the IRI. In practice, however, it is difficult to cast this information in terms that can inform decisions and policies in key socioeconomic sectors. As a result, little uptake has been achieved and livelihoods and economies remain vulnerable to climate risk.

The work needed to provide problem-specific information and to advance innovations in the use of such information is the science of climate risk management practice. Put simply, climate risk management is the process of climate-informed decision-making. It involves the use of strategies that reduce uncertainty through the systematic use of climate information. This work is especially challenging because it involves a complex interplay between physical, natural, and social systems and requires that practitioners engage with good science, good policy, and good practice. At present there are some organizations working to connect these disparate disciplines — but while their work has provided examples of practical ways to manage climate risk, the demand for useable knowledge and information far outstrips what can be provided.

If the global community is to become serious about managing climate risks, it must close the gap between knowledge and practice. In addition to major programs in climate assessment, international policy, and development assistance, the global community must also provide a mechanism to advance climate risk management practice.

In the next installment, I’ll discuss in detail what we mean by climate risk management and what the current challenges are to its implementation.

Stephen Zebiak is director-general of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, which uses a science-based approach to enhance society’s ability to understand, anticipate and manage climate risk to improve human welfare. He leads an interdisciplinary team of more than 40 scientists specializing in climate prediction, agriculture, health, water, economics and development policy. Dr. Zebiak has worked in the area of ocean-atmosphere interaction and climate variability since completing his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and Mark Cane authored the first dynamical model used to predict El Niño successfully.

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Millennium Development Goals