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UN Report: Humanity Must Change The Way it Assesses and Responds to Risk, Else We Face a ‘Spiral of Self Destruction’

Summary:
By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans. It seems each week – if not each day – brings us new headlines about the numerous and  pressing disasters the world faces. What has been our collective response been to such risks? Ha. Not much i’m afraid. Yesterday, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) issued a stark report on disaster risk reduction, Our World at Risk, which is embedded below. From the summary on the UNDRR website, Our World at Risk: (hereinafter OWR summary): Despite commitments to build resilience, tackle climate change and create sustainable development pathways, current societal, political and economic choices are doing the reverse. This jeopardizes

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

It seems each week – if not each day – brings us new headlines about the numerous and  pressing disasters the world faces. What has been our collective response been to such risks?

Ha.

Not much i’m afraid.

Yesterday, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) issued a stark report on disaster risk reduction, Our World at Risk, which is embedded below. From the summary on the UNDRR website, Our World at Risk: (hereinafter OWR summary):

Despite commitments to build resilience, tackle climate change and create sustainable development pathways, current societal, political and economic choices are doing the reverse. This jeopardizes not only achievement of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, but also hinders progress towards the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out in the Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

To change course, new approaches are needed. This will require transformations in what governance systems value and how systemic risk is understood and addressed. Doing more of the same will not be enough.

Risk creation is outstripping risk reduction. Disasters, economic loss and the underlying vulnerabilities that drive risk, such as poverty and inequality, are increasing just as ecosystems and biospheres are at risk of collapse. Global systems are becoming more connected and therefore more vulnerable in an uncertain risk landscape. Local risks, like a new virus in Wuhan, China, can become global; global risks like climate change are having major impacts in every locality. Indirect, cascading impacts can be significant.

Without increased action to build resilience to systemic risk, the SDGs cannot be achieved.

Investment in understanding risk is the foundation for sustainable development. However, this needs to link to a reworking of financial and governance systems to account for the real costs of current inaction to address risks like climate change. Without this, financial balance sheets and governance decision-making will remain fragmented and be rendered increasingly inaccurate and ineffective. [Jerri-Lynn here: original emphasis.]

Alongside the dark and depressing report, UNDRR also went out a half-hopeful tweet:

This limited optimism was amplified and expanded on in the overview to  the report, OWR summary:

It is not inevitable that risk continues to grow. The best defence against systemic risk is to transform systems to make them more resilient.

Policy and personal action now can reverse this trend, but only if systemic risk is better understood and risk reduction action is accelerated. The fundamental equation that risk is a function of a hazard event combined with vulnerability and exposure has not changed. However, systemic risk occurs in today’s globalized world through interconnected digital and physical infrastructures, globally integrated supply chains and factors such as urbanization and increased human mobility.

I’ve elected not to reproduce any of the reports’s charts. The one featured in the summary shows that If current trends continue, the number of disasters per year globally may increase from around 400 in 2015 to 560 per year by 2030 – a projected increase of 40%.

Why do I omit this?  Because even these grim graphics understate the true magnitude of the problems the world faces in that. Per OWR summary:

These trend lines do not take into account future climate change impacts, which are accelerating the pace and severity of hazard events, nor the fact that current choices mean the world is set to exceed the Paris Agreement’s global average maximum temperature increase target of 1.5°C by the early 2030s (IPCC, 2021). [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

So, to reproduce a report that fails to account for future climate change impacts would, or so I think, be an exercise in propagating misinformation. Even this depressing trend line Understates the actual risks faced.

What Can Be Done?

According to the OWR summary, humanity cannot eliminate systemic risk completely. but:

Systemic risk cannot be eliminated entirely, but it can be reduced and addressed more effectively. Addressing systemic risk requires building on existing risk reduction know-how, and also developing enhanced approaches to address the characteristics of systemic risk such as its cascading effects and inherent complexity and uncertainty.

Instead, a fundamental overhaul of risk governance system is necessary. Again,from the  OWR summary::

In the face of global systemic risk, governance systems must quickly evolve and recognize that the challenges for the economy, environment and equality can no longer be separated. Conventional approaches to risk governance have tended to be based on linear or well- established cause-and-effect relationships. By contrast, systemic risk governance needs to recognize complex causal structures, dynamic evolutions and cascading or compound impacts. The recommendations of GAR2022 take the form of a call to action.

I will report the outlines of what the UNDRR recommends. These may be indeed be necessary and appropriate. But does anyone believe current political leaders are up to addressing these challenges?

Alas, I don’t.

So as to keep this post of manageable length, I’m going to confine this discussion to reproducing the bare bone categories of the UN’s discussion; in other words, more or less the headlines. Interested readers can click on the summary link above – or go to the full report itself – for a fuller discussion.

UNDRR first recommends measuring what we value, and then. per the OWR summary:

1.1 Rework financial systems to account for the real costs of risk, particularly long-term risks, and rework investment and insurance systems to incentivize risk reduction

And further, from OWR summary:

1.2 Adapt national fiscal planning and risk financing to consider risk and uncertainty

The report recognises our current predicament stems from the current faulty way in which we make decisions about risk and therefore recommends, according to OWR summary:

Design systems to factor in how human minds make decisions about risk.

I agree, this provides a promising starting point, One that’s much, much easier said than done. Recognising that at present human minds – and therefore our associated political and other decision-making systems misassess risk- would imply. Per OWR summary:

2.1 Recognize the role of people’s perceptions of risk and biases to close the gap between intention and action in reducing risk.

And, according to OWR summary:

2.2 Recognize the value of risk analytics as a tool but not a panacea.

The report makes sound recommendations, but I’m afraid, in order to head off the problems we currently confrontt, these recommendations would have needed to have been implemented years if not decades ago.

Nonetheless, in the interests of completeness, let me close with the report’s final recommendations. Per OWR summary::

Reconfigure governance and financial systems to work across silos and design in consultation with affected people.

Necessary, but not so simple, according to OWR summary:

3.1 Embrace a new “risk language” that cuts across multiple disciplines.

Followed by, which breaks down as, always talking the talk of participation, transparency, and inclusion. Per OWR summary:

3.2 Step up participation, transparency and citizen dialogue in risk decision-making to accelerate learning and necessary adjustments.

And then, according to OWR summary:

3.3 Enhance multi-scale risk management.

Let’s drill down into the discussion under that last heading, from OWR summary:

Rifts can emerge between the national and local levels during major crises, as was the case in many jurisdictions during the COVID-19 crisis. Autonomy for local-level action is essential.

More emphasis is required in scenario planning to manage extensive disasters and to handle governance issues resulting from cascading impacts. For example, adjustments made to health systems based on local knowledge and feedback were essential to building trust during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia (GAR2022, Chapter 7). In Canada, an InterSectoral Flood Network of Quebec presents modelling data and also explicitly facilitates co-training among members to promote a vision that is systemic and intersectoral, engaging universities and various socioeconomic partners and disciplines (GAR2022, Chapter 10) [Jerri-Lynn here: emphasis added].

Even this cursory discussion of this wee summary section has left me extremely depressed. As anyone whose paid even passing attention knows, the U.S. response to the covid crisis has been – and continues to be – a shambles. (To be sure, some other countries have done somewhat better, and others, much more so.)

Nonetheless, addressing other challenges requires global cooperation – and that includes the U.S.and other countries that have failed at coping with covid.

Does anyone really think the current cast of clowns – and their progeny – are up to coping with the climate change conundrum – or indeed any of the other problems the planet faces, such as the collapse in biodiversity.

Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2022_0

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