Issue 5 Online Extra: What can governments do to better prepare the population for extreme weather events? By Jane Burston

This article is a companion piece to The New Idealist Issue Five: Doomsday Edition which you can download here.

Please note: This article was originally published in The New Idealist section of The Intelligent Review site in May 2014 before being transferred to this new site in July 2015.

What can governments do to better prepare the population for extreme weather events? Get more certainty in our projections.

Over the decade we’ve seen a number of extreme, often devastating, weather events from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to Typhoon Haiyan last year. The general consensus is that events like these are set to increase in frequency and intensity as global warming continues.

But when faced with the question of how to prepare for these, it is clear that first we need to know more about them.

Communicating the impact of climate change, as we’ve seen from some of the press coverage surrounding the publication of the IPCC reports, is a difficult task. Articles range from the apocalyptic: “Official prophecy of doom: Global warming will cause widespread conflict, displace millions of people and devastate the global economy” (the Independent) to the optimistic: “Averting catastrophe is eminently affordable” (the Guardian) to the unrealistically upbeat: “We have a new climate change consensus — and it’s good news everyone” (the Spectator).

Balanced advice about what people can do to prepare rarely features.

Don’t get me wrong, the potential consequences aren’t easy to communicate. In an effort to be clear about the extent of our current knowledge scientists need to include the uncertainties in their projections.

In past reports the IPCC has struggled with this. In the first assessment report, the Summary for Policy Makers contained statements such as:

In the case of temperatures, assuming no change in variability, but with a modest increase in the mean, the number of days with temperatures above a given value at the high end of the distribution will increase substantially.

The latest Assessment Report has done a much better job, translating uncertainties into likelihood statements, for example that “It is very likely that the Arctic sea ice cover will continue to shrink and thin”. But with so many variables to consider, and uncertainties around not only the raw data but also the model parameters, identifying the best course of action, let alone pursuing it, is a big challenge.

The potential impacts of climate change are often too far into the future, and too easy to think of as happening to other people in far-away places. If we had more certainty in our projections, we could not only do away with the emphasis on the probabilities, but also be more specific about the timing and extent of the impacts. This would help to make it real for people, and catalyse action to prepare for the consequences.

So how do we get greater certainty? The current thinking is that we wait until time has passed and see whether and which models predict the changes accurately. This is likely to take 30-40 years – far too long to catalyse useful preventative action on a significant scale.

Fortunately, there’s a way of getting greater certainty much more quickly, through a proposed European satellite mission called TRUTHS and its US counterpart CLARREO. Both missions are expected to make measurements of the Earth and Sun with unprecedented accuracy. These would feed into climate models, but also would be directly applied to testing climate models, giving us greater confidence about the most likely temperature rise and consequences of climate change three times earlier than we are currently able to do now.

The international community has highlighted the need for such a mission; ESA and NASA are exploring how best to progress. TRUTHS has recently received funding to develop a more detailed design of the technology and identify partners. At present, the major barrier is lack of resources to bring together the technologies on a small satellite platform and launch it into space. But it is a barrier that can be broken. It is hoped the satellite could be in orbit in 3-5 years.

By achieving more certainty in our predictions, more quickly, we can better judge the courses of actions that will be most effective, communicate them properly and embark on serious mitigation efforts that could minimise the impact of extreme weather events in the future.

By Jane Burston, Head of the Centre for Carbon Measurement. In 2009 Jane was a British Council Climate Change Ambassador. In 2011, Jane was named in Management Today’s 35 High-flying Women under 35 list and as Square Mile magazine’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year.

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