Climate Resilience and Extreme Events

Recommendations for building a resilient society

Climate change is now widely recognised as the biggest issue of our time and poses enormous risk to humans and biodiversity. Direct action by striking school children and Extinction Rebellion have resulted in the UK’s parliaments each declaring climate emergencies, alongside a swathe of councils and organisations. The UK Government has responded by committing to a net zero emissions target of 2050.

In Autumn 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report warned that by 2030 global greenhouse gas emissions should be on a sharp downward trajectory to meet net zero emissions by the 2050s. If this is not achieved, it is very likely that global mean temperature change will increase to over 2.0oC above pre-industrial levels. Even if the Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperature rise to below 1.5oC is met, the incidents and severity of extreme events will increase from today’s levels.

However, the current focus and action on emissions reduction, whilst hugely welcome, risk distracting attention from the fact that adaptation and resilience measures are essential even with ambitious decarbonisation. It is essential that the new political appreciation of the urgency of action on climate change extends to acting on resilience and adaptation, as we are already locked into considerable change which will have far reaching implications for our economy, society and environment.

We must ground our thinking and approaches in the fact that we are in a new era of rapid change, the like of which humanity has never experienced before. The associated social, economic and environmental issues mean that we will need to redesign and change much of our infrastructure and our approaches to development. We must be far-sighted; long-term in our thinking and short-term in our implementation.

Three urgent actions in the face of the climate emergency:

1.  We must reduce our carbon emissions to slow the warming of our planet (mitigation).

Human civilisation has blossomed during a period of benign and static global temperatures, the bounds of which we have now stepped outside and are rapidly moving beyond. This is placing stresses on the systems which have supported this development of our civilisation.


2.    We must build our resilience to the shocks which are occurring, and which will increase as the incidence and intensity of extreme events increase.

Resilience may be defined as “The capacity of social, economic and environmental systems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance, responding or reorganizing in ways that maintain their essential function, identity and structure while also maintaining the capacity for adaptation, learning and transformation.”i


3. We must adapt to longer-term changes in our environment brought about by climate change, recognising that we cannot protect or build resilience to an acceptable level against all impacts.

For example, impacts such as sea level rise will mean that over the course of the next century and beyond, some coastal communities will become unviable in their current locations due to the impacts of erosion or frequent flooding. Adaptation may be defined as “The process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects, in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities.”ii

With experts in managing water resources and drought, flood and coastal erosion risk, the urban environment, major infrastructure, land use and nature, CIWEM is ideally placed to convene the range of skilled practitioners and experts necessary to address the challenges faced by our changing climate.

Practitioners have described a ‘resilience dividend’ which can range from £5-12 for every £1 invested, for businesses, cities or even nations who effectively plan for resilience.

CIWEM's Climate Resilience and Extreme Incidents conference in spring 2019 identified that there are considerable opportunities to improve approaches across the UK. Adaptation is a devolved matter and there is scope to learn from the way in which devolved nations are approaching the challenge. It also illustrated that adapting to climate change, and building resilience is complex and requires a prioritised, strategic approach which is SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound).

There is considerable work going on across a range of sectors but there would be significant benefits to be achieved in greater coordination, investment and strategic planning through a government-led multi-sector approach.

Delegates and speakers were asked to consider three overarching questions throughout the conference:

a) What would a well-adapted, resilient society look like?

A well-adapted and resilient society would be well-informed and engaged with climate change. Individuals would be aware; with a clear understanding of the main risks they face and what they can do about them (e.g. where to get help and when). They would understand how to use resources wisely or access resilience measures and products (e.g. Property Flood Resilience).

There would be coherent and cohesive resilience strategies at both national and local levels, providing a framework for cross-sectoral action. Whilst extreme events would be better understood, a lack of detailed understanding of extremes would not preclude action where the consequences of not acting introduced significant risk to human life or of economic impact.


b) How do we make that happen?

Education and information are crucial to building a climate resilient society. We should develop a central advice repository focused on risks and practical actions, aimed at individuals and SMEs particularly. Promotion of exemplar sites and communities, their experiences and the benefits they achieve, would be an important element of the dialogue.

We should implement tested recovery and emergency response plans and encourage greater strategic co-ordination of approaches, responsibilities and actions. We must look to international experience and learn lessons from locations that already frequently experience the conditions that UK society will see in the future.


c) Are the mechanisms currently in place (such as the Climate Change Act and the National Adaptation Programme) adequate to deliver this resilient society? If not, what should be put in place?

After 10 years of the Climate Change Act, adaptation and resilience is still not being delivered or prepared for extensively enough and the most recent National Adaptation Programme (NAP) falls far short of what is needed. Whilst the Climate Change Act is rightly upheld as a best practice example of national climate legislation, it does not deal well enough with adaptation and resilience; it is almost entirely mitigation focused.

The NAP should be a more active, dynamic programme, and resilience and adaptation reporting should be required far more widely. The mechanisms which do drive reporting are lacking in full coverage of risks, and there is no clear monitoring and evaluation of progress. We need a considerable increase in the level of ambition, scope, and action.

Our recommendations for building a well-adapted and resilient society are as follows:

1. Government-led

Much of the delivery of adaptation and resilience doesn’t require extensive research and thinking. The challenges for adaptation have been well articulated. Pilot initiatives will be beneficial in many areas, however in the main what is needed is a very strong policy steer from government which makes it clear that bodies at all levels of society must factor adaptation and resilience into their investment planning and maintenance programmes.

- Government should increase annual average investment funding for resilience significantly, particularly regarding flood risk management. The benefits to justify such investment should be more than just avoided damages; adaptation should be used to drive regeneration in places too for example.

- Adaptation is much more varied than mitigation and there is not a one size fits all solution. Centralised frameworks, strategies and resources are required to enable and promote appropriate local-level action.


2. Infrastructure

Government must require that infrastructure – from housing development through to critical infrastructure – deliver best practice on resilience as standard. Government must lead and enable this philosophy using all instruments at its disposal, from standard setting through to support.

MHCLG, Homes England, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Treasury, Defra and its agencies must all embed a resilience philosophy in their plans, policies and ways of working to ensure that over coming decades our infrastructure – which in many instances is likely to last to beyond 2100 – is resilient, adaptive and fit for a changing future. Resources – particularly within local authorities who are at the forefront of shaping development – should reflect this need appropriately.

- The retrofitting of 29 million existing homes, for example with flood resilience, and water-efficiency measures, to adapt them to our future climate should be an infrastructure priority.

- Further work must be undertaken to translate high-quality UKCP18 data about our future climate into a usable format for practitioners to base investment level decisions on.

- Infrastructure operators should implement a staged replacement of assets as they are retired with those which can perform better, enabling a multi-year pathway towards improved resilience.

- It’s crucial for operators to understand their exposure to risk and to establish how their operations will be impacted by climate change, in order to build resilience into their systems. 

- Agriculture can be viewed as essential infrastructure, providing an invaluable resource to society. Integrated water management is essential to build agricultural resilience, where drought and flooding are considered jointly, and silos removed.


3. Emergency response

Emergency response will become even more crucial as extreme events become more frequent, and the ability of communities to recover quickly will require a multi-level joined up approach.

- Resilience planning for extreme events must be a priority across a wider range of risk management authorities. Such events will happen more frequently, and lessons must be learned from recent experience, and acted upon. Extreme events do not comprise a single element of risk, for example, during a period of heavy snow, freeze-thaw can occur as well as freezing temperatures and transport disruptions. 

- Emergency management is vital for resilience, but it can’t and won’t stop extreme events from happening. We must therefore improve our management of them and implement effective community engagement strategies which enable individuals to cope with shocks.


4. Communities

Communities are at the heart of resilience and adaptation. They bear the impacts of extreme events and in certain places will face the need to make significant changes to adapt to climate change. These impacts are often more profoundly felt in communities which are disadvantaged.

There is a need to develop greater trust between communities and decision makers, ensuring communities are listened to and actively involved in programmes and decisions which will affect them. A clearer social contract must be developed as a foundation for this, with communities understanding that they will be listened to and where responsibilities lie.

There are many examples of highly effective community level working and government at all levels must be committed to enabling this to work more widely, thereby tapping into pools of knowledge, experience and willingness to take action as extensively as possible.

- Communities should be empowered to engage in their own resilience pathways to deliver place-based adaptation.

- Deprived communities are more vulnerable to the challenges of resilience and are unable to access information and resources. The disproportionate impact on the disadvantaged should be addressed as a priority.