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Human behaviour is the missing link in adapting to climate risk

By Nidia Martinez | September 24, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a scale of economic hardship not seen for generations. This had made it hard to think about a problem like climate risk right now. When disaster strikes, it is human nature to worry only about meeting our most immediate needs.
Climate Risk and Resilience|Pandemic Risk and Response

Climate risk is a big and complex issue that has struggled recently to compete for people’s attention, as the effects of COVID-19 continue to rip through societies and economies. Is it realistic though to try and park one systemic risk in order to address another? We have seen climate risk colliding with the consequences of COVID-19 multiple times, as an onslaught of natural disasters continue to disproportionately impact vulnerable communities all over the world, as they simultaneously attempt to manage a global pandemic.

In contrast to the immediate urgency of COVID-19, many people continue to perceive climate risk as a problem that affects others in distant places and in a far-away future. They lack a sense of urgency and, despite the growing consensus that climate change is rooted in human behaviour, few are willing to significantly adapt their lifestyle.

The challenge then for risk specialists is to find the most efficient and effective approach to funnel the public’s emotions and anxieties into practical solutions that can help build physical and financial resiliency to climate risk. In place of the dominant, technocratic approach to climate risk that considers emotions irrational and excludes them from decision making, human behaviour could be considered the missing link in effective communication on climate risk.

The complexities that surround the measuring of climate risk need to be harnessed and broken down, through the integration of scientific expertise and analytical capability, but crucially also with an understanding of human behaviour - how people assess, assimilate and make their own life choices. This means quantifying and articulating climate risk in a way that is less abstract and makes more sense, empowering individuals, companies and governments to understand not only the pieces that make up the climate puzzle, but also the available solutions and the part they can play.

Getting ahead of the curve

Just like climate risk, the pandemic has been a systemic tidal wave, ripping through countries at speed, leaving behind profound socio-economic destruction. Its systemic nature means the effects are swiftly magnified, highlighting how interconnected our world has become. We also knew a global pandemic was long overdue, consistently flagged as a high impact, high probability risk. Yet, just as we understand the threat a changing climate presents and how we can mitigate its impact, many countries and individuals were underprepared.

If anything, the pandemic reinforces the view that an effective response to climate risk is more important than ever. COVID-19 has dramatically highlighted what happens when countries and businesses do not prepare for long-term resilience, prioritising instead short-term considerations.

It has also shown with terrifying clarity that the fall-out cost can far exceed the upfront protective investment. Yet, progress has so far been too slow in closing the protection gap that exists between insured and uninsured losses, which goes beyond simply being an economic issue, as it literally protects people’s lives, livelihoods, shelter and key assets. Mitigation must be implemented to prevent us crossing catastrophic thresholds – the point of no return. Positive future outcomes depend on tough policies to mitigate climate change being actioned now. As former US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel once said, climate change is the ultimate security “threat multiplier”, intensifying “hunger, poverty and conflict”.

Our ability to adapt

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a tragic number of deaths, made people afraid to leave their homes and led to a scale of economic hardship not seen for generations. This had made it hard to think about a problem like climate risk right now. When disaster strikes, it is human nature to worry only about meeting our most immediate needs.

If this year has shown us anything, however, it is that as individuals and a society we do have the capacity to transform when needed. Almost overnight, the pandemic forced us to dramatically alter our behaviour to protect ourselves and others. In the face of natural disasters occurring with less predictability, higher frequency and more intensity, this ability to evolve quickly to the ‘new normal’ will prove even more critical in our response to climate risk.

We already know the “how-to” and what needs to be done to build resilience against future climate risk shocks. But one of the most important lessons we have to learn from COVID-19 are the consequences of inaction. Scientists warned for years that a pandemic was virtually inevitable. The world did not do enough to prepare and now we are trying to make up for lost time. This is a cautionary tale for climate risk.

If we start now to better understand and address the underlying causes of the problems connecting society and our environment, we will have a better chance of moving in the same direction and with the same sense of urgency that we have for COVID-19. We can then begin to transform words into real progressive action and systemic change that improves our short, medium and long-term resilience to climate risk.


Director, Climate and Resilience Hub
Willis Towers Watson
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