Maarten, we conduct this interview just a few days after you returned from the Glasgow UN Climate Change Conference. What is your general view on the results?
Prof. van Aalst: I visited Glasgow in my role as a director of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, and I think this signals that the interfaces between science, policy and practice have become a lot more important. Climate change is the most farreaching problem of our era, and it requires very practical solutions everywhere in society – not only on the side of renewable energy and the avoidance of carbon emissions, but also on the risk management side. That said, I think the outcome of Glasgow is a case of glass half full, glass half empty. It was mentioned that the 1.5-degree target is still critical, but the outcome does not get us there.
On the other hand, this Conference was also expected to help us deal with what we already face today. Particularly the poorest countries, which are more vulnerable, were expecting that the Paris Agreement’s third target of 100 billion Dollars per year in financial support for developing countries would be met. The Agreement also specifies this sum “to be balanced” between adaptation for the future and mitigation of already incurred damages – with no clear definition what “balanced” means. Still, the adaptation part used to be 20 billion Dollars. Now the rich countries have committed to doubling that amount by 2025. So small steps forward, but basically not enough to cope with what is facing us.
When we specifically look at extreme weather conditions: Does climate research give a clear indication whether they will occur more frequently in the future?
Prof. van Aalst: If we look at all extremes all over the world, the answer is yes. But it depends on which extreme we look at – and where in the world. On average, we are facing a more volatile climate with more extremes. What we consider an extreme is a property of the statistical distribution of what is happening in the atmosphere. Typically, ecological as well as human systems are more or less adapted to current conditions. So, if things change, the outliers in the new distribution are going to be the new extremes.
In practice we are expecting more heatwaves almost everywhere and we are also seeing a more intense hydrological cycle – which can mean longer periods with no rainfall but also more extreme rainfall when it falls – it comes in bigger chunks. But – and this is important – it very much varies from place to place. For example, if whole Monsoon systems shift in location, some places may suddenly get much more, and others much less rainfall, regardless of changes in average rainfall across larger regions. There are also extremes that are getting less bad. For example, cold extremes will decrease. On the other hand, storms such as tropical storms are getting more intense and more frequent. So, it really varies from extreme to extreme and it also depends on the specific place we are looking at.
What does this mean in terms of risks and consequences?
Prof. van Aalst: This is where we move from the IPCC working group One, which deals with the hazards that come from the atmosphere and the oceans – such as extreme heat events or extreme amounts of rainfall – to working group Two. Here we look at impacts and risks – basically whether these changes become a problem. And this depends on exposure and vulnerability. A storm somewhere over the sea, where it hits no one, is not a problem. But if it hits a city, then it may become a huge problem – particularly if the city is vulnerable, because for example the people there live in unsafe housing like the shacks in a slum. So, what really matters is the combination of hazards, exposure, and vulnerability – this defines the specific risk.
Are we prepared for it?
Prof. van Aalst: This is where the real problem is: We are actually not well prepared for what is coming, and in quite a few places we actually see exposure and vulnerability rising. For example, in developing countries we see many urban areas grow rapidly and not being well adapted to the coming risks. At the same time, some risks have also gone down. For instance, we have made a lot of progress with early warning systems in the past decades. This means to enable people not only to understand the warning message but also to take the necessary action to save their lives. In Bangladesh last year we lost 124 people in a storm that would have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the 1970’s.
Of course, when people die, that is the first thing you want to prevent in any country, because this is a loss that cannot be repaired. But we are still losing many lives in Europe to flooding, or in Europe, the US and Canada to heatwaves. And we are not even counting the effects of heatwaves in developing countries. Even so, for example the European heatwaves in 2019 and 2020 were the deadliest disasters in our global disaster statistics. But there are also other factors that determine the impact of such hazards.
What kind of factors do you mean?
Prof. van Aalst: For instance, in cases like the flooding in Germany, the impact of financial damage is much lower than it would have been in poorer countries, simply because insurances and governments were able to help. Imagine the same event in a poor country where there is almost no safety net. The people there don’t have savings of their own – so they become reliant on humanitarian support such as from the International Red Cross.
This is why these international discussions about how we can support adaptation and preventative measures are so important – and how we can deal with the losses and damages that have to some extent become unavoidable because we are not able to manage the risk down to zero. This includes increased provision of insurances in poorer countries. However, for the poorest people, who cannot afford those insurance premiums, this is probably not going to be the solution.
Therefore, another element of the puzzle is to reduce inequality: if we manage to lift people out of extreme poverty, this would also solve some of these problems. Over the past decades we have seen a steady decline in extreme poverty, but recently due to the Covid pandemic we are seeing a hundred million people falling back down again – so now we have a much higher vulnerability to the climate shocks coming our way.
What might be strategies for individuals and organisations to cope with these risks?
Prof. van Aalst: We see a lot of interdependencies – a compound nature of risks. For example, in poor countries people are coming to the larger cities to make a livelihood. If they can earn more money there, that should make them more resilient to climate shocks. But if they move to large coastal urban areas, they come to exactly the places where they are most exposed to rising sea levels or rivers coming into a delta or threatening storms. And this is not only true for developing countries.
If we look for example at the most recent heatwaves in Canada, which have taken many lives – would the same heatwave have happened in Las Vegas, there would hardly have been so many casualties. Because there are measures in place even for vulnerable parts of the population – in Canada they just were not used to these kinds of extremes. These heatwaves were even improbable with climate change. You could say they were bad luck. But in the past climate they would just not have happened at all. So, our societies are going to be hit much harder by things they have never seen before. We will have to struggle to be better prepared for “low frequency but high intensity events”. This means that we are dealing with unprecedented events where the past is no longer a guide for the future. We must be prepared for more bad surprises. And I’m afraid that even the rich countries have not yet grasped this change.
Can you give us an example of this kind of “bad surprise”?
Prof. van Aalst: Here in the Netherlands, 20 years ago the main concern about climate change was the rising sea levels. Even since the Middle Ages we have built all these diked polders. But then it turned out that the problem is not only the rising levels on the coastal side but also the runoffs of the rivers in the deltas. And it’s even more difficult to get rid of this water when the sea level is higher – so it’s a combination of challenges.
But we have taken on this and started a program called “room for the river”, implementing nature-based solutions, although providing more space for the rivers is very costly in a densely populated country like the Netherlands. Now in the last couple of years, we had very dry and very hot summers. Then suddenly the problem was no longer getting rid of the water but retaining it. So, you get an idea of the complexity of challenges that lie ahead of us.
What role do companies play in this process?
Prof. van Aalst: When we are looking at enterprises, managing climate change is the defining challenge of our time – it happens on all fronts. Along with governments and individuals, companies also play a critical role in reducing their carbon footprint. Everybody needs to play their part in bringing down emissions in order to achieve the very important 1.5-degree goal.
But enterprises also have to be mindful about the changes that already took place. As I already mentioned, although climate change is a global problem, the effects on an individual organisation depend on where you are. If you are in an area where the permafrost is melting, the risk may be that your building slides away. If you are at the edge of a desert, the risk may be desertification. If you are in a coastal urban area, the risk may be flooding both from the sea and the rivers, but it might also be the water supply getting too saline.
And all these risks can have various effects. For example, in many companies, the IT systems used to be in the basement – if this is the part of your building which is most prone to flooding, that may well be a risk to your busi-ness. If you purchase a new office, you should not only think about energy efficiency but also how you are going to deal with heat. The answer may be air conditioning, but it may also mean proper shading for example by putting plants around the building.
Are there any other risks which companies have to face?
Prof. van Aalst: And besides the local risks to their settlements, companies should also think about their supply chains. We have come to realize this particularly during Covid, when suddenly all kinds of supply chains did not work anymore. But we are facing this also due to climate shocks.
There are many reasons behind the current shortage of semiconductors – but one of them is a drought in Taiwan, so that the chip manufacturers there cannot work at full production. So suddenly we see an effect of climate change in Taiwan affecting for example the car industry in Germany. If a company wants to be more resilient, it must spread these risks. This applies to many industries – for example, food companies have started to shift their agricultural supply chains over other continents. What I hope is that as a world we will manage to become more resilient by spreading the risks – but that we will also invest in the more vulnerable places.
Prof. Dr. Maarten van Aalst, holds the Princess Margriet Chair in Climate and Disaster Resilience at ITC (Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation) at the University of Twente, Netherlands. He is Coordinating Lead Author at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC for Working Group II, Chapter 16 (“Key risks”). In addition, he is director of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre – where he oversees the support for climate risk management and its links with scientific and policy communities on climate change, disaster risk management and development planning. Maarten has over 20 years of experience bridging climate science, politics and practice, from local to global.