Monthly Archives: October 2015

Adapting our behaviour to the realities of climate change

The Chief Scientist of the UN’s Environment Programme’s ‘Division of Early Warning and Assessment’ recently commented that the UK had reduced its commitment to renewable energy. My view is that there are many ways of adapting to the impacts of climate change and what could seem as a withdrawal from one system of public commitment might actually involve structural adaptation within the context of a modern, diverse economy.

I saw an excellent illustration of this when the deputy chair of the Environment Agency (EA) sent me a copy of the new Environment Agency Pension Fund policy (EAPF). This policy, published this week (19 October), represents the culmination of over ten years of work weighing up climate issues as part of investment strategy that addresses the impacts of climate change. In producing this, the EAPF have used the growing body of available evidence and analytical tools to better evaluate the risks and opportunities presented by climate change to their pension fund.  This, in my view, shows the body that has much of the responsibility for delivering climate adaptation truly leading the way onhow to embed adaptation in to its business systems.

The EAPF has an impressive track record in responsible, sustainable investment and was named as number one in the World for managing climate risk in 2014. They predict that as the impacts of climate change materialise, the fund will deliver long term financial returns through positive investment in the low carbon economy (and through engaging others in transitioning to low carbon) and in continued decarbonisation activities.  By 2020, their objective is to ‘reducing our exposure to “future emissions”* by 90 per cent for coal and 50 per cent for oil and gas.’

Why should we worry about carbon emissions?

Why should a body like the EAPF be worried about climate risk related to carbon emissions and be taking an ethical approach to its’ investments? The reason is illustrated within two recent reports. First off, The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) showed trends in extreme weather events in Europe and analysed its likely consequences. The report provides one of the most powerful illustrations I have seen to date (in Figures 2.1 and 2.2) of the challenging facing us. This shows the increasing trends in extreme weather events and expresses these in terms of the losses incurred. It shows that, while the trends associated with storms, flooding, extreme temperatures and droughts has increased significantly since 1980 those of extreme events that have nothing to do with climate, like earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, have not increased significantly. Although it is not possible to link individual extreme climate events to climate change, when viewed in aggregate they are one of the expected signals of climate warming. This does not automatically link them to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but there is a strong thread of logic that says they are linked.

In November 2014 the Royal Society published ‘Resilience to Extreme Weather’, a stark assessment which outlines the risks and economic costs associated with climate change, alongside the work required to develop and implement appropriate resilience strategies. The report estimated that between 1980 and 2004 the economic cost of ‘extreme weather’ was US$1.4 trillion, and suggests that serious investment in resilience-building is necessary.  This equates to more than protection from specific hazards; it requires a co-ordinated approach by governments, which is reviewed and improved on over time as new evidence comes to light.

The report encourages decision makers to look beyond traditional engineering-based solutions to adaptation, and instead to consider ecosystem-based approaches that offer additional benefits to people.  It acknowledges the re-/insurance industries have come a long way in evaluating the risks posed by extreme weather, but ‘these risks now need to be better accounted for in the wider financial system, in order to inform valuations and investment decisions and to incentivise organisations to reduce their exposure. This could be done through a requirement for public and private sector organisations to report their financial exposure to extreme weather at a minimum of 1 in 100 (1%) per year risk levels’.  The report also states that more could be done to improve the understanding and communication of the risks posed by extreme weather events.

Adaptation to climate change requires us to change our behaviour. The policy set out by the EAPF is not about taking an ethical position and increasing the risk to its members. The EAPF has to take a long term view of its investments and make the best decisions in the interests of its members. As with other pension schemes the EAPF is investing now to cater for the needs of its members perhaps up to 100 years from now. The fact that it is doing this with climate impacts in mind sends two strong messages. The first is that those who are at the leading edge of the field are prepared to put their money where their mouth is. The second is that if we really want to adapt to climate change then we have to embed this process deeply in to our business and financial systems.  Market solutions – like  the EAPF policy- will be crucial in enabling us to build financially sustainable models of adaptation to climate change.

A different angle on diversity

I strongly believe everyone should have equality of opportunity in our society regardless of their gender, age, ethnicity, class, disability or sexual orientation. There is clear evidence that societies which have lower income inequality enjoy better mental and physical health, higher life expectancy, achieve more in education and their work lives and are generally happier, than those societies which, even though they may be wealthy, have a greater disparity between the richest and the poorest.

Discrimination – on any basis – is the antithesis of equality and we have to work hard to counter issues that foster unconscious bias. Being a middle-aged, white, heterosexual male from a pretty comfortable middle class, northern European background, it’s not often I feel that I am the subject of discrimination, but a couple of recent experiences have opened my eyes to some forms of bias that I believe need to be put on the table for discussion. I believe they were genuinely unconscious in nature but they reflect something that is deeply rooted in the world within which I work.

Diversity at work

I am a civil servant and an academic. I have two jobs, one in Defra as its Chief Scientific Adviser and another as a professor in biology at the University of St Andrews. Straddling the divide between these two cultures gives me a useful perspective on the extent to which these two cultures tackle inequality in the workplace. As a scientist, I like numbers and indicators and the proportion of women in the respective organisational structures I work for is a convenient indicator.

In Defra, 53% of the work force is made up of women, although at senior levels this drops to 37.9%. Universities, as many know, have a steeper hill to climb. Although 45% of the work force is composed of women, only 27% of academic staff are women and only 17% of professors are women.  At least both these sectors slightly better reflect our society than our Parliament where only 29% of MPs are women!

However statistics do not say much about underlying biases in behaviours. I have said in the past that government has a tough job. Commerce tends to tackle solvable problems that lead to profit. In academia, one can choose the problems one tries to solve; some academics will focus on those that are tractable while others might take a few more risks but in that case failure has few consequences.

In government, however, there is rarely a choice about the problems one chooses to tackle. Civil servants have to pick up the problems that often have no clear solution, that nobody else wants, and that are often ‘wicked’ in nature. The insolvability of many problems of this type requires the cultivation of a special form of intellect and capability.

An unfair view

The policy and evidence professionals in the civil service are excellent at what they do. Part of my job is to scrutinise the civil service and advise about how it can better generate the evidence it needs and how best to use it. I would be the first to say that the system of government is far from perfect, but I object to the view sometimes projected from academia that government is second class. I came across this attitude recently in two contexts, (I won’t give details to spare the blushes of those involved) and although I’m sure they had no idea of the implications of what they were doing or saying, nevertheless it betrayed a prejudice.

In essence they said that government could not possibly be excellent at its work. These guilty parties were so entrenched in a way of thinking that they could hardly even bring themselves to use the word ‘excellence’ in the general context of government. The Research Excellence Framework, one of those much-maligned civil service initiatives has both strengths and weaknesses but it has perhaps reinforced a false view within the academic community that academia has a majority on the word ‘excellence’. This is, of course, rubbish.

The thoughts and acts that fuel this kind of discriminatory attitude are rooted in the same behaviours that drive discrimination of all types. They concern self-interest from those of low self-confidence. They are a close cousin of schadenfreude but are about denigration for the purpose of self-aggrandisement. Civil servants, who often have skins of leather, tend to take this on the chin, but I see the constant, low level disparagement of the work of civil servants, whether policy officials or  scientists, as an issue that needs to be highlighted and resisted.

While this kind of pernicious bias persists, it is difficult for academia to improve its diversity record and get its own house in order. My point, of course, is not about eliminating criticism and challenge of the work of civil servants, but about making sure that it is founded on achieving the joint objective which is to make things better. Diminishing the credibility of others based on unfounded bias is as unfair and malevolent as any other form of prejudice.