Success in Durban can not disguise need for climate adaptation


DNV's Bjørn Kj. Haugland makes the case for a risk-based framework for tackling unavoidable climate risks

Earlier this month, the world's heads of state, government, industry and NGOs met in Durban, South Africa, to discuss our common future. These climate negotiations were more successful than many people had feared. A new international climate agreement will enter into force in 2020. This agreement makes life more predictable for industry and supports a future based on low-carbon technology. But we cannot rest on our laurels because - irrespective of political processes - climate forces are wreaking havoc everywhere. The authorities are drowning in information but lack knowledge about how to adapt to the climate changes we are already facing.

A number of Native Americans in the town of Kivalina in the wilds of Alaska are currently suing oil and energy companies, accusing them of destroying the basis of Kivalina's life. The town depends on ice formations which protect it against the massive forces of nature which ravage Alaska's coast. The problem is that the ice has melted dangerously fast over the past few years. Even in 2006, the US authorities' research results showed that the little society had to be relocated as a result of global warming. The so-called "climigration" lawsuit that is currently taking place in the USA may be the first of many actions for damages in which companies are made responsible for the negative effect that their operations have on the climate of local communities.

A new UN report shows that man-made climate change has already led to extreme weather in the form of heat waves and flooding. Thailand is a country that has over the past few weeks become painfully aware of how catastrophic amounts of rain can destroy the basis of existence for millions of people. Here in Norway, we were reminded of nature's inexorable forces when Hurricane Berit struck local communities along the Norwegian coast, leading to major destruction. Norwegian municipalities are now being urged to implement measures to adapt to the extreme weather resulting from climate change.

There is widespread anger, frustration and disappointment about politicians and other decision-makers. The authorities, on the other hand, are drowning in information on climate change but lack knowledge about how to deal with the risks they are facing.

Enormous losses

Optimists state that the financial crisis prevented some of the negative developments in CO2 emissions over the past few years. But to be hard and brutal - although the financial crisis may have led to lower emissions of climate gases in industrialised countries, the opposite has been true in a number of developing countries. The world's total accounts - and they are what count - are negative. And there is little to indicate that the emissions will not rise sharply again as soon as the wheels are in motion - as they did in 2010.

Our changing climate is threatening infrastructure, health and agriculture and leading to enormous losses for society. This is without doubt the greatest challenge the world is facing today.

We must act

The climate negotiations in Durban - which were saved at the last minute - were a partial victory for our common climate. A new international climate agreement is to be negotiated by 2015 and enter into force in 2020. At the same time, a new climate fund is to be established, there is to be a further commitment to the carbon markets and it is to be profitable to implement ways to prevent deforestation. These are important measures, not least because they make life predictable for industry and pave the way for a future based on low-carbon technology.

The time has come for action. Authorities, industry and NGOs must now do their best to follow up the obligations imposed in Durban a few weeks ago. And they must follow up previously agreed national and international obligations. Examples of these are the green development mechanisms and initiatives such as REDD+.

But this is not enough.

The Executive Secretary of the UNFCC is one of many who have stated that adaptation to climate change is an important part of the solution to the climate crisis.

A risk-based framework

The authorities have more than enough information about extreme weather and destruction. The problem is not access to information - it is confidence. How are we to relate to all the information we are constantly being bombarded with? How are we to make good, strategic decisions based on the prevailing information at our disposal?

The answer is to adopt a risk-based approach in decision-making processes and when implementing decisions. With the correct use of a risk-based framework, an important step is taken towards safeguarding assets and resources for this and future generations. Adapting to climate change is about seeing the overall picture - about building on experience and utilising expertise in different areas, such as climate research, economics, politics and engineering. We have repeatedly seen that those who succeed are those who handle their risks using an integrated, risk-based framework.

Important prerequisites for the success of such projects are that they must be based on climate models that are suitable for the geographical area where the project is to be carried out and that public authorities, economists and engineers cooperate in the planning and implementation work.

Climate negotiations

The Executive Secretary of the UNFCC Christina Figueres made the following statement during the negotiations in Durban: "The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has never been higher, the number of people who have lost their livelihood as a result of climate change has never been greater and the need for action has never been more essential or achievable".

The Native Americans in Kivalina live closer to nature than most of us. When they shout a warning, the world should listen. Not least the decision-makers and politicians that have just returned home from Durban. The wisdom preached by the Native Americans in Kivalina is simple but strong: "We did not inherit the Earth from our forefathers, we are borrowing it from our children."

Bjørn Kj. Haugland, Executive Vice President of risk management specialist Det Norske Veritas (DNV)

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