Climate extremes call for risk-aware sustainable development – now!

21. Oktober 2019
Reports on extreme events such as droughts, heatwaves, heavy rain, and violent storms are now part of the daily news. More than 130 multidisciplinary scientists and practitioners from 30 countries and UN organizations emphasized at a recent conference that climate extremes are the top threat to human well-being and sustainable development. They also agreed that risk-aware development towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nation can significantly reduce the societal risks associated with climate extremes. To achieve this, the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, the SDGs and Disaster Risk Reduction strategies have to be brought together. The conference entitled “Extreme Events – Building Climate Resilient Societies” was supported by the Volkswagen Foundation and took place in Hanover at Herrenhausen Palace from October 9 to 11, 2019.

Internationally renowned keynote speakers from science and independent bodies led the way to parallel sessions dealing with resilient infrastructures, food systems, conflicts & security, data science for human wellbeing, and compound events. Necessary knowledge acquaintance, obstacle identification, as well as a collection of best practice examples were the central guidelines for a vision of better societal resilience. “This is of crucial importance both in low and high-income countries as has been shown by numerous disasters such as the repeated European summer droughts, the frequent flooding in Asia and the recent Tokyo hurricane.” said Prof. Markus Reichstein, head organizer of the Conference.

Weather related disasters are increasing in number and magnitude and so do the economic losses. There is more and more scientific evidence for causal links between global warming and rising frequencies and intensities of natural hazards as evidenced by Prof. Peter Hoeppe, former Head of Geo Risks Research/Corporate Climate Centre, Munich Re. Yet, by reducing factors such as exposure of people and infrastructure and in particular their vulnerability, some risks caused by climate change can be managed and reduced.

Procrastination increases risks and costs

There was clear consensus that every bit of warming matters and that any delay of adequate adaptation increases the risks and costs involved. “Investing in resilience is sound, profitable and urgent” as emphasized by Dr. Stephane Hallegatte, lead economist at the World Bank, as there is a “net benefit of $4 for each $1 invested in infrastructure resilience” resulting in “$4.2 trillion net benefit from building new infrastructure to higher resilience standards” which implies “$100 billion cost of delaying action by one year”. With intelligent investments into societal resilience, every dollar and every effort now will pay back later multiple times. Procrastination will cause increased future costs, both in high- and low-income countries. “Yet, the awareness of this fact among decision makers is still low, as reflected in many national strategies on sustainable development.” added Markus Reichstein. “Knowledge is not awareness, and only a necessary but not sufficient ingredient for change.”

Integration of data and trans-disciplinary knowledge needed

Knowledge needs to be integrated from both scientific processes and cultural memory. On the one hand climate research and disaster risk reduction research both rely on global big data. A crucial question, also within the context of artificial intelligence (AI), will be how to use data and algorithms safely, ethically, and sustainable. “We will need a new paradigm for using private data for social good.” stated Dr. Emmanuel Letouzé, Director and co-Founder of Data-Pop Alliance. On the other hand, “Over the course of human existence, the complex relationship between nature and society has created diverse cultures and knowledge, and multiple and diverse ways to cope, prevent and adapt to adversity” explained Mexican anthropologist Dr. Virginia García-Acosta, “resilience is a constantly evolving process of learning and adaptation to new and accumulated knowledge”.

Be prepared for unknown and systemic risks

Yet, data and cultural memory does not necessarily help when we have to deal with future extreme events that societies have not recorded before. “In particular, in a more and more connected world with increasing pressures through climate change, sea level rise, and societal processes such as urbanization, and population growth it is more likely that compound events occur, and that risk cascades threaten whole societies in unprecedented ways. Thus, when designing measures for disaster risk reduction we need to consider also indirect and long-term effects.” summarized Prof. Reichstein. Dr. Lisa Schipper pointed out that “the key driver of risk is the societal vulnerability with its underlying factors of (in)equity and discrimination related to factors like gender, age, political affiliation and ethnic groups, and these need to be addressed head on in order to build climate resilient societies.”

Finally, the concluding panel discussion revealed that science needs to be more integrated and worked into a close science-policy interface to increase societal resilience. The concept of forecast-based financing, where science-based and often AI-enabled forecasts help humanitarians like the German Red Cross to plan and direct their activities according to an expected near future disaster, was mentioned as a successful, yet extensible example.

Contact at Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry:
Prof. Dr. Markus Reichstein
Ph: +49 (0)3641 57 6200

Dr. Dorothea Frank
Ph: +49 (0)3641 57 6284

Contacts to the speakers can be arranged upon request.
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