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Surviving climate change - the resilience challenge Ian Allison

Adapting to climate change isn’t a simple matter of ‘predict and provide’. It’s a complex challenge demanding complex skills combinations.

On 31 March 2014 the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that our warming climate is already having a dramatic effect on the man-made environment and the systems the world’s 7bn population depend on. We’re seeing increased coastal and fluvial flooding, cyclones, landslides, water scarcity and desertification are occurring at increased rates, it notes – along with their corollaries food scarcity, land erosion, conflict, forest fires, increased pestilence, economic loss and poverty, disease and premature mortality.

We are not prepared for the kind of warming-related extreme weather that we’re already experiencing, the report warns – and climate change effects will get steadily worse.

By 2050 the global population will mushroom to an expected 9bn, while the paradigm for improving human welfare and quality of life is one of energy and resource intensive economic development. The task of making power generation, buildings, transport and utilities much, much more efficient remains urgent. We can curb the worst extremes of climate change if we stop prevaricating and commit to decisive, smart and immediate action, the report says. But, it warns, as climate change becomes more pronounced, adaptation – improving our resilience – will be essential to survival.

This is illustrated by 30 years of data collated by insurer Munich Re, which show that global losses resulting from extreme weather events have risen in an ever-steepening curve from an average of US$40bn per year in 1980 to more than US$160bn in 2012. The trend indicates there is much worse to come.

Accordingly, climate change is driving investment – industry consensus is that the climate resilience market is worth £100bn per year and growing.

What does climate resilience look like?

Some ask whether it is practicable to apply adaptive engineering on a global scale. The scale and cost of interventions needed are mind-boggling but pale next to the costs of lost productivity and of building new infrastructure for people displaced by climate change. It’s almost always more cost effective to adjust than to do something brand new at short notice.

The spectrum of adaptation measures required is vast, including:

  • protection against physical threats – sea and fluvial flooding, cyclones and landslides
  • food security – irrigation and water resource management, control of pests and crop diseases, and food distribution
  • urban planning and building design – to cope with extremes of heat, cold and wind
  • education – so that the next generations understand climate change issue and are better prepared to respond by altering their lifestyles to meet new environmental challenges
  • health – the distribution of diseases is shifting, with malarial mosquitoes spreading north, for example.

In the near term, ‘climate engineering’ needs to be focused on planning rather than engineering design, per se. Yes, there is real urgency both to slow the pace of change and to protect against the consequences of change. However, what we build today will still be in use in many decades time. So it is essential to take an inter-generational view, locating people and assets where they’ll be at least risk and designing with future performance requirements in mind.

The challenge is in taking climate forecasts, weighing the uncertainties and using information to make well-targeted decisions so that the funding targeted at climate change gets used to best effect. Infrastructure, institutions and systems put in place in the next few years do not need to be fully equipped for potential climate events many years in the future – indeed, at present it is impossible to predict with precision what the future risks may be. But physical assets should be designed so that they can accept protective or adaptive modifications. Clients need to bite the climate bullet now and invest with a view to the future.

Difficult choices

This realisation is starting to bite. The growing tally in the last few years of weather events of unprecedented extremity and frequency has forced climate change onto the political and news agendas right across the world.

However, adapting to climate change forces some tough decisions, as illustrated in the UK, which is still reeling from the effects of flooding caused by the heaviest rainfall on the national record. Large tracts of land will in future be unfit for their traditional uses – areas of farmland can no longer be relied on for food production and urban areas may be unfit for human habitation. Coastal and valley areas will need to be set aside to alleviate and manage flood risk. The competing demands of demographic growth and climate change resilience will force hard decisions about land use.

As already apparent in the UK, communicating these choices to the public is challenging. People do not like living with major risks to their physical and financial security – but equally they do not like having their freedom and choice of where they live and how they use land to be curtailed.

It is clear that an integrated and holistic view of systems is required, as some UK infrastructure owners found to their cost. The winter 2013-14 flooding revealed instances where key assets were adequately protected but access roads got inundated, cutting those assets off. Understanding the connections and the knock-on consequences of failure is key to the resilience of our increasingly interlinked systems.

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