What can COVID-19 teach us about preparing for climate risks in Europe?
Authors: Coralie Verhaegen and Katrien Witpas, RECEIPT & Cascades, Arctik SPRL
When a crisis hits, decision-makers need to react quickly and decisively. So, preparedness is key. However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how challenging it can be to respond effectively to unprecedented high-impact disruptions. It was often only through trial and error that decision-makers found effective and cohesive approaches. Local and national authorities have come a long way since the early days of the pandemic though, and the COVID-19 response can serve as an exercise in adaptive risk management strategies. It can help decision-makers to be better prepared, not just for any future pandemic, but for other global disruptions as well, like the ongoing climate crisis.
Pandemic has numerous interrelated impacts
Both COVID-19 and measures to curb its spread have had immense impacts on the global economy. Businesses shut down or tried to shift to remote work; tourism ground to a halt; the entertainment industry collapsed. Almost every sector suffered COVID-induced financial losses. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the global economy saw a 4.4% drop in growth for 2020, the worst fall since the Great Depression. Companies declared bankruptcy, millions of people lost jobs or informal sources of income, leaving many worried about paying their bills and rent. As a result, COVID-19 has also had far-reaching social impacts.
Moreover, COVID’s impacts exacerbated pre-existing cultural and socio-economic inequalities. Low-income groups are more likely to hold jobs that can’t be done remotely and often have less sick leave and poor job protection. In many cases, they were the first to lose their jobs, often along with employer-based health insurance. This made them at once more vulnerable to the pandemic and left them without the financial stability to weather other adversities. In addition, low-income groups are more likely to live in smaller homes, more crowded buildings and denser city areas. They also rely on public transportation more often. All of this has left already vulnerable groups even more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic than the general population.
COVID-19 has also shown how impacts in one country or sector cause spillover effects elsewhere. The clearest example of this is the lockdowns and travel restrictions that have had global economic, social and political impacts. Containment measures, for example, created congestion in major ports, causing delays on maritime routes, while necessary prevention measures have made shipping and lorry companies’ schedules more unpredictable. As our world is so interconnected, a COVID outbreak at a transport company in China can lead to empty shelves in Poland. Again it is often already vulnerable groups that experience the worst of these international knock-on effects. Fiji, for example, was hit by a category 5 cyclone at the start of the pandemic, while floods in informal settlements in South Africa affected sanitary conditions and social distancing. Relief aid was reduced or slowed due to the pandemic and the natural disasters in their turn produced living conditions that increased infection rates and the emergence of new diseases
Authorities need to take informed and decisive action to address unexpected disruptions
COVID-19 has demonstrated how far-reaching the events of a global disruption can be, and that authorities need to take informed and decisive action to address it. Decision-makers continue to face difficulties and tough trade-offs in taking effective action. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, they struggled to obtain reliable and verifiable data to support long-term strategies. Often, an unclear division of responsibilities between institutions and government bodies has hampered aligned efforts. They have also had to take into account the international repercussions their decisions may have but are often faced with a lack of coordination. The pandemic has revealed unexpected systemic disruptions and highlighted how interconnected our society is.
Climate change shares similarities with the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the pandemic, climate disruptions will not arise from a single event. Still, their cumulative effects are likely to impact various sectors or systems at the same time and have cascading impacts around the world. For example, simultaneous crop failures due to droughts in key production regions can drive up global food prices, triggering social displacement and causing unrest, affecting international relations.
Effective long-term strategies for dealing with climate risks
As with COVID-19, climate risk management often lacks clear ownership and cooperation. It remains unclear how responsibilities to identify, track and build resilience to climate risks are divided across institutions, nationally and internationally. Many adaptation and mitigation strategies are implemented locally, but a systemic, collaborative, national and international approach has proven far more difficult. As extreme weather events and accompanying floods, droughts, heatwaves and wildfires are set to increase in frequency, it is essential to define international strategies for effective prevention, detection and management of climate disturbances.
Effective long-term strategies build on tools that help to navigate through uncertainties and that help to better understand complex systems. That’s where the RECEIPT and CASCADES projects can help. Through stakeholder-driven climate risk storylines, RECEIPT maps the vulnerability of five key European socio-economic sectors to climatic events outside Europe. The project takes a bottom-up approach, considering the specific information needed by sectors and institutions, to create storylines illustrating chains of cause and effect. With the development of an interactive visualisation tool, RECEIPT provides fit-for-purpose insights that can be understood by diverse non-scientific stakeholders.
CASCADES combines state-of-the-art natural and social science research methods and stakeholder engagement approaches. The project develops scenarios and models that are combined with tailored macro-financial network modelling, qualitative policy analysis, and strategic policy simulations. These methods, alongside stakeholder engagement, enable CASCADES to co-produce actionable information for European actors.
Both projects map the cause-and-effect cascades from climate effects around the world to different European socio-economic sectors. They rely on collaboration with stakeholders and practitioners to diagnose, analyse, and solve specific real-life problems that require strategic decision-making. The projects visualise climate risks and response options, while dealing with the uncertainties involved in predicting the near future’s ‘new normal’. RECEIPT and CASCADES’ tools establish an effective science-policy interface for stakeholder adaptation based on solid scientific evidence. RECEIPT and CASCADES recently published a policy brief that provides more information about the lessons COVID-19 can teach decision-makers about climate preparedness.
References: van den Hurk, Bart; Otto, Ilona M.; Reyer, Christopher P.O. et al. (2020). What can COVID-19 teach us about preparing for climate risks in Europe?
This report is available here.