Better the Devil You Know: The Importance of Measuring Climate Risk

Avoiding the worst impacts of climate change requires a better understanding of what those may be and impartial ways to track them.

[This piece first appeared as an expert comment on the Chatham House Website:]

(c) Yeshi Kangrang, Unsplash

It is clear that our changing climate is creating complex, interlinked risks to the natural, social and economic systems on which we all depend.

The examples are numerous. Increasingly scarce water resources could exacerbate tensions between countries. Storms of greater and greater ferocity batter countries and might undermine their ability to provide for their citizens, leading to civil unrest. Degraded land that fails to support communities of farmers and herders could be a factor in intercommunal conflict.

Unfortunately, humans are notoriously bad at quantifying risk. We tend to overestimate dramatic, rare events (like terrorist attacks) but underestimate those risks that are more omnipresent (like car accidents or air pollution) and often are far more deadly. If we are going to be able to develop any kind of effective response to the security impacts of climate change, we first need to be able to understand, and then objectively track, the scope and severity of those risks.

Around the world political parties and parliaments have rightfully begun referring to climate change as a climate crisis. This week a number of prominent figures are gathering to urge more ambitious action.

The 4 June Berlin Climate and Security meeting hosted by Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, features, among others, John Kerry, US secretary of state under Barack Obama, Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and a dozen current foreign ministers. This meeting follows in the footsteps of multiple conferences, dozens of publications and even a handful of debates at the UN Security Council on climate change.

This is part of an effort to sustain the political space to actually deliver on the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping warming well below two degrees centigrade. It is also a bridge towards a series of even more high-profile events, in particular the UN secretary general’s Climate Summit in September and the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in December.

These events often harness the language of the security community (with terms such as ‘threat multiplier’ or ‘existential threat’) as a way of making a compelling case for more swingeing cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. This makes sense: after all, the best way to avoid dangerous climate change in the first place is to do whatever possible to persuade people and governments to change the way we fuel transport and produce energy and food.

However, this strategy could also backfire. Blanket statements, focused on making a case for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, don’t necessarily help calibrate appropriate responses to whatever security challenges may be ahead. Meanwhile, the underwhelming response of the international community to climate change so far suggests that either the scale of the risk is not fully appreciated, or that risk assessments are not being appropriately linked to risk management. 

For the past five years Chatham House has been involved in an intensive, international research project first to assess the full scale of the risks of climate change, and then to develop indicators through which these risks can be continuously monitored.  The first phase of this work culminated in a climate change risk assessment published by experts from the UK, US, China and India in 2015. They argued that instead of predicting what is most likely to happen, climate risk assessments need to ask first what is the worst that could happen, and then how likely that might become over time.  Their report was heavily cited in the Bank of England’s influential assessment of climate change risks to the UK insurance sector, and continues to generate debate in the climate science community.

The second phase of this research project has brought partners from the UK and China together to develop indicators of climate risk, under the guidance of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change and its equivalent, the China Expert Panel on Climate Change. This may sound like a journey into the far reaches of policy wonkery, but it has proven to be an important exercise.  

Avoiding the worst economic, social and environmental risks of climate change requires a better understanding of what those may be, both at a national scale as well as globally. And reacting to them in time – avoiding the sorry fate of the frog in boiling water – requires impartial ways to track their progression. In climate change, just as in traditional areas of security, consistent monitoring of risk is valuable for informing decision-makers both of changes in the real world, and of changes in expert judgement.

A key conclusion of the project is that a common framework for the regular and consistent assessment and monitoring of climate risk is a feasible proposition. We propose the active tracking of three categories of risk through a series of verifiable, independent indicators: the future pathway of global emissions; the direct risks arising from the climate’s response to those emissions; and the risks to complex human systems, such as the likelihood of conflict.

The project developed draft indicators for these risks and provided a ‘proof of concept’ for how these indicators could realistically be monitored. In mid-2019, it is hoped a new phase of this project will kick off, aiming to embed these indicators into decision-making both in China and globally.

The overall goal is to ensure that emissions reduction and resilience strategies are fully informed by a perspective on the risks presented by climate change that is incorporated into all levels of decision-making. In this case, the devil you know really is better than the one you don’t.