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FEATURE: Improved integrated risk management could help address risks posed by slow-onset processes

At the 2010 United Nations climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, the Parties to the UNFCCC recognised the need to strengthen efforts to understand and reduce loss and damage associated with extreme weather and slow-onset events, caused by climate change.

Parties requested the Secretariat organise an expert meeting and a series of regional consultations to consider ways to address loss and damage, taking into account experience at all levels. Here, Katie Harris from the Overseas Development Institute, presents Part Two of a two-part report from the Latin America and Caribbean meeting held in Mexico City, Mexico, in July 2012.

Part two examines how integrated risk management could help address the challenges posed by slow-onset processes. The first piece called for greater attention to be paid to slow-onset processes resulting from climate change.

Click here to see our report from the Africa regional meeting

As our first blog in this series explained, delegates attending the Latin America and Caribbean meeting called for more attention to be paid to slow-onset processes when considering loss and damage. However, one of the hurdles to this is use of the terminology. Throughout the discussions it became apparent that different communities were interpreting the term in different ways. For example, discussions of slow-onset processes by disaster risk management practitioners tended to focus on drought, while the UNFCCC CoP 16 decision considers slow-onset events to be ‘sea level rise, increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, glacial retreat and related impacts, salinization, land and forest degradation, loss of biodiversity and desertification’.

Delegates also felt that the term “slow onset” undervalued the importance of the topic, as it gave the impression this was a “far off” concern. Slow-onset processes are complex, intensifying existing vulnerabilities and exacerbating extreme events. Unravelling these complexities will require detailed disaggregation of their impacts over time, which, in itself, will take time. Participants largely agreed that such analyses need to be undertaken in the near term because these processes are already taking place. One participant argued that slow-onset events have not received as much attention as extreme weather events because they are less attractive to the media and politicians. They went on to argue that the fiscal impact and economic losses due to slow-onset events will likely be more significant than the costs involved in extreme events.

Harmonise approaches to loss and damage

A resounding call echoed throughout the consultation for improved integrated risk management approaches. This would mean harmonising approaches to loss and damage, as well as developing systems to link action across a range of institutions, sectors and scales. Achieving this will be no mean feat. First, what would a comprehensive, integrated risk management strategy look like and how would you define it? For many, the first step is to identify the most relevant hazards affecting any given context and to understand how those risks materialise. In technical terms, this would involve establishing a risk portfolio, including hazards from climate change and other causes. Developing a comprehensive picture of all risks being faced could help decision-makers make more informed choices.

With the quantification of economic losses dominating the conversations, many participants raised concerns over the need to better assess and quantify non-economic impacts and losses. These include lost lives, cultural artefacts and investments of time and labour for livelihoods. Many are irretrievable. One participant asked, is quantification of non-economic losses possible in any comparable or meaningful manner? Arguably missing from the discussions was consideration of how improved risk portfolios translate into more informed decisions. The challenge of translating information into action is by no means a linear or apolitical activity.

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