February 26, 2020


Joel Nodelman

4 Simple Thoughts about Climate Risk and Adapting

About the author

Joel is an engineer and risk management specialist with over forty years of professional practice. He is committed to helping his clients achieve climate resiliency and sustainability.

Today, I am taking a break from our series on climate argument fallacies. Instead, I want to reflect on four thoughts about climate risk that occurred to me after a stupid accident the other weekend.

We had a bit of snow that Friday evening. Saturday morning Joan and I went out to shovel the driveway. While we were out there, I tripped over a piece of uneven pavement and fell headfirst into the garage door jamb, cracking my head, and earning a bunch of bruises and scrapes. To make a long story short, other than a lump on my head, some bruising, abrasions, and a small case of shock, I'm was fine. But a day later I was feeling tender, sorry for myself, and somewhat embarrassed.

Thoughts about Climate Risk and Adapting - It Only Takes One

Well, as I was sitting back in my office with an ice pack on my head, I contemplated risk. I was aware of that uneven patch of concrete. I walked over it literally thousands of times over the years with no trouble.

And this is how risk works. It doesn't take dozens of accidents to hurt you, it only takes one. Just because I haven’t had an accident before doesn’t mean a thing. The risk is always there. It only takes one accident to cause life changing harm. Higher risk doesn't mean that I will have more accidents, it means that I am more likely to have that one accident that hurts me.

Thoughts about Climate Risk and Adapting - We Don't Get That Weather Here

It occurred to me that this is exactly the issue we deal with every day in climate risk. I hear folks say:

"I don't believe in climate change!" 

"We’ve always had bad weather."

Or, my favourite ...

""We don't get that weather here!" 

 … like tornadoes.

Near Misses Don't Count - It's the One that Hits You that Hurts

Concern about climate change isn't about the times these catastrophic events miss us. It's about the risk of one actually hitting us. Near misses don't mean there is no risk. We have just been lucky so far. Just like the crack in the driveway, the risk didn't change because I never tripped. Potentially, it only took one accident to change my life.

Adapting to Climate Risk - It Could Have Been Worse 

Then, my mind drifted on to climate change adaptation. It's strange where my attention wanders when I can't move around and I'm nursing an ice pack. 

The fall could have been a lot worse, but I spent the better part of my life training martial arts and I know how to fall. My training kicked in during my moment of crisis. I launched my snow shovel across the driveway, covered my head, and rolled into the fall. Had it not been for an unfortunate trajectory, I would have escaped with a few minor bumps and bruises.

My training prevented possible serious injury. But I didn’t get off scot free, and it took several days to recover.

Adapting to Climate Risk isn't Perfect

This is very much like climate adaptation. It helps us weather the storm, but there’ll still be damage. If it hits us, that one event will leave us bruised and scarred. Adaptation ensures we will minimize the damage and survive. But there will still be damage. By analogy, seat belts save lives, but it is not uncommon for folks to sufferer cracked or broken ribs in a crash. It really hurts! But they are alive!

Thoughts about Climate Risk and Adapting - Is the Cost Too High?

I can hear it now ...

"Why didn't you fix the driveway?” 

I ask myself that question.

Again, this is like the current state of climate risk. We didn't fix the driveway because we were comfortable with the risk and took it for granted. We felt that the cost to fix the problem wasn't reasonable.

In a lot of ways we doing the same thing with climate change. The most common protest abut climate action is the risk is so small the high cost of action is unreasonable. But just like my accident, when catastrophe hits, it's too late for regrets.

Thoughts about Climate Risk and Adapting - A Two-Pronged Approach

Finally, this brings me to my plea for to a two-pronged approach to climate action. We need to both adapt to a changing climate and do everything we can to fix the problem once and for all. Adaptation is only a way to weather the storm. We will still be bruised and battered. Greenhouse gas reduction is a way to stop the problem in its tracks and do away with the need for ever more aggressive adaptation action.

I hear folks saying all the time that humankind is adaptable and we can adjust to a new climate. But, even if you buy into this odd argument, the position doesn't mention that this adaptation means pain, suffering, economic chaos, and permanent damage. Just like my accident, learning how to fall is wise, but the best way to manage a fall is to not fall.

Let's Chat About Climate Risk and Adapting

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Join the conversation by commenting below. Here are a few questions to stimulate your commenting juices.

  • Are you putting off addressing a risk because it costs too much? 
  • What would motivate you to spend the money now?
  • Can you suggest cost effective ways to address climate change risk?

It seems that I have been discussing climate tactics for a while now. Here is a link to one of my earlier videos, when I first started on this theme. Once you start to see these things, it is hard to ignore them. 

If you wish to contact us directly, feel free to use our handy contact form.

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