Last week’s launch of the Royal Society’s report ‘Resilience to extreme weather’ at the Commonwealth Science Conference in Bangalore is the culmination of 18 months’ work. This has been overseen by a working group comprising experts in fields as diverse as ecology, engineering, social science and insurance. The road to resilience has taken us a long way and has resulted in a report which we hope will catalyse action from politicians, local communities and the private sector to protect people and property from the effects of extreme weather.
Human societies are not resilient to the extreme weather they face now
The impact of extreme weather is felt daily by people around the world, with lives lost and livelihoods destroyed every week. Last month alone saw droughts in the Tharparkar region of Pakistan leading to at least 80 deaths, while two people died following heavy rainfall on the Swiss-Italian border.
Climate change and demographic changes will dramatically increase the number of people exposed to extreme weather
While action is required to protect people from extreme weather now, a growing population, with people living longer, often in more exposed locations (such as coastal cities), will greatly increase the number of people affected by extreme weather in future. When predicted changes in the climate are factored in, the picture looks even worse. In this report we use new analyses to map the areas of the world where climate and demographic changes acting together will increase people’s exposure to extreme weather.
How to protect people? Build resilience!
The Rockefeller Foundation defines resilience as:
‘The capacity of individuals, communities and systems to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of stress and shocks, and even transform when conditions require it’
In our report we assess different approaches that could defend people against hazards like heatwaves and floods, in particular physical techniques. Traditionally, physical defences have involved engineered structures such as dams or levees. In our report we compare these approaches to ecosystem-based techniques, which use natural areas such as marshes, mangroves or forests to provide protection, and to approaches which are a hybrid of the two such as artificial reefs. We show that while engineered approaches tend to be more effective, they are usually more costly than both ecosystem-based and hybrid approaches and offer fewer additional benefits.
Science has a critical role in identifying solutions to extreme weather. An effective strategy needs to defend people against multiple hazards. To do this well it is likely to need a portfolio of approaches which may include ecosystem-based and hybrid options alongside more traditional engineered ones.
Physical defences alone are not enough to build a resilient society
For communities to successfully develop resilience a long-term view over decades should be taken and the whole system impacted by extreme weather must be considered – beyond the immediate area.
Governments have a critical responsibility to reduce the exposure and vulnerability of their populations and to develop and resource resilience strategies. These strategies should involve all sections of society from local communities to the private sector to international organisations. Investment in resilience-building, while not always vote-winning, is vital since comprehensive early action, before an event occurs, can save millions of pounds in disaster response and reconstruction and can have an immeasurable effect on people’s lives.
This report comes ahead of a big year for resilience-building globally. In 2015 agreements are expected on disaster risk reduction, the Sustainable Development Goals, and climate change. The launch of this report is only the first step. The working group together with staff in the Science Policy Centre will be working hard to ensure resilience becomes a coherent thread binding these agreements. We have a busy year ahead…
Take a look at our project webpage for more information. And join the conversation on Twitter via #RSresilience.