Science for a resilient future: Takeaways from the 2021 Met Office Climate Science Conference
Science for a resilient future. This theme drew leading scientists and policy makers from around the world to the ambitious virtual 2021 Met Office Climate Science Conference. The meeting discussed the need for bold and ambitious global resilience solutions to mitigate escalating risks from climate change, with an eye toward establishing priorities and a scientific agenda to inform climate policy post-26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). Presenters tackled topics such as high-impact, low-likelihood outcomes of climate change, future carbon and mitigation strategies, global climate resilient investment, and Pan-Africa perspectives.
In attendance was Dr. Mason Fried, a leading member of ICF’s in-house climate science team who is passionate about helping clients use climate analytics to evaluate risks and build resilience in the face of an uncertain future. We grabbed a few minutes with Mason to discuss key takeaways from the Met Office Climate Science Conference—an important stop on the road to COP26 in November.
Q: Looking at the agenda, this conference feels custom-tailored to ICF’s passions and capabilities. Was there a particular session that stood out to you?
A: The discussions around high-impact, low-likelihood (HILL) events were really compelling. These are events that far exceed average changes—catastrophic hurricanes, heat waves, droughts—and they’re shockingly underrepresented in risk management around the world. Folks don’t always consider worst-case events, but they're often the ones that are most meaningful and lead to the greatest post-event change.
Q. But we’ve all seen the damage that extreme weather can cause. Knowing this, why aren’t risk-prone regions preparing for the worst?
A. Some are preparing, but unfortunately, many aren’t. People often want to focus on prediction of long-term average change rather than risk assessments that consider extreme events. But if you only plan for small average temperature increases per year, or incremental sea level rise, for which we have the most confident climate projections, you can lose sight of the biggest potential threats. At ICF, in addition to considering average changes, we model the worst-case scenario for our energy utility, municipality, and international clients and then ask how likely it is, and how damaging the impacts would be. Take the pandemic, for example. If we're trying to plan for future contagions, it doesn't make sense to think exclusively about the flu. A flu outbreak happens every year within a fairly well-established bound. However, it pays to think about things like COVID-19, which are more like worst-case scenarios. And then evaluate your risk and vulnerability to an event like that.
Q. It’s a mindset shift that I imagine can have a big impact on priorities and investments.
A. Yes, and it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t always build to completely withstand the worst-case scenario (the HILL scenario) in the short-term. Financially it may not be feasible and the likelihood of such events may be low enough that you can assume some of the risk, or distribute some of the risk through insurance. But you can think of other adaptation options that can help your most vulnerable communities and systems. You may not need to build a sea wall to a Category 5 hurricane, but with that worst-case scenario in mind, you can think about other resilience measures like resilience hubs and alternative power sources that help minimize impacts.
When it comes to HILL events, the idea isn't that you're going to just spend money to completely mitigate the risk. You're going to appreciate that it could happen and think of a broader set of resilience measures to address it. And that allows us to take a more mindful approach and start thinking about solutions that are beneficial to a broader set of communities over time.
Q. Pan-Africa perspectives were also a big topic of discussion at the conference. What was the conversation about?
A. Unfortunately, climate change impacts are growing on the African continent, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. And gaps in existing infrastructure can exacerbate these risks so that when big coastal storms or droughts occur, regions that lack critical roadways and transit to evacuate people effectively or have inefficiencies in water conveyance compound impacts. That’s why there’s a dire need for ambitious adaptation projects, which is something we know well through our work in a broad range of African countries. For example, Dr. Molly Hellmuth recently led a World Bank-funded Resilient Transport Strategic Assessment for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which identified cost-effective solutions for public transit in the face of climate risks, and a USAID-funded Integrated Resource and Resilience Planning (IRRP) project supporting integration of climate risk management into Tanzania’s national power planning. These projects emphasize the application of co-production approaches to improve the uptake of climate and extreme weather services more broadly.
Q. That’s inspiring. It seems that the presentations touched on the region-specific challenges that Pan-Africa faces while also making it clear that climate change is a global problem that requires all hands on deck.
A. Yes, exactly. Which brings me to my final takeaway—setting the stage for COP26. The COP26 summit will be held in Glasgow in November of this year, and its purpose is to bring countries together to accelerate progress toward the goals of the Paris Agreement and increase shared ambition. Nationally determined contributions will play a large role in that conversation. But a key theme of the Met Office Climate Science Conference was, to put it bluntly, we need less talk and more action. For COP26, it's just not enough for countries to come to the table and make statements about their mitigation goals. We also need to think about how we're actually going to follow through on these types of adaptation and mitigation projects—particularly in developing countries.
Q. Partnering with other countries and stakeholders to devise bold solutions.
A. Right. ICF, for example, is a member of the Global Resilience Partnership, which is working to enact these kinds of solutions around the world with a diverse set of partners. Forging and nurturing these collaborative global relationships is key.
Q. Any final observations?
A. The Met was a great conference that felt very action-oriented. There was a tremendous eye toward actionable climate science and linking climate science to policy. You could feel progress being made, like we were working towards solutions rather than just spinning.
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