Candice Howarth and Matt Lane consider how we can better align knowledge on climate change resilience with the needs of local decision-makers, including by improving the accessibility of the UK’s Climate Change Risk Assessments.

In 2022 the UK’s Committee on Climate Change will publish its next Climate Change Risk Assessment, or CCRA (following the evidence report due 2021), setting out the climate risks and opportunities facing the country. Of utmost importance is that it is produced in a way that makes it accessible and usable at the local level.

Insufficient engagement with the local scale in past evidence reports

Historically, evidence assessments of this kind – including reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – have not been clearly aligned with local decision-making needs. This has resulted in adaptation strategies being slow to adjust to: i) the increasing emphasis being placed on cities and the local scale to take leadership in responding to the challenge of climate change; ii) the growing risks to densely populated, economically vital urban environments; and iii) the increasing opportunity to forge more resilient governance strategies through collaboration across multiple levels and scales.

In the UK past CCRAs have contained a level of granularity insufficient to inform the governance of resilience risks at the local level. Previous research has highlighted how the 2017 UK CCRA Evidence Report, for example, needed to be more operational in how it guides local adaptation policy by extending its reach beyond governmental agencies and institutions and working with local communities.

A recent report by Sustainability West Midlands to the Committee on Climate Change called for the Committee to improve the accessibility of its CCRA outputs. Our recently published research reinforces their findings. It also highlights the need to rethink how we come to understand what counts as evidence as we seek to amplify the tools at the disposal of local practitioners in responding to the urgency of the climate challenge.

What evidence is available in the UK and what are the barriers at the local level?

When it comes to decision-making related to UK climate risks, there is a significant amount of evidence available and it is improving in its adequacy and usefulness, supporting decision-making from the local to regional and national scales. Sources include climate and meteorological, social and economic, natural science, GIS and satellite data, as well as infrastructure and utilities-relevant data and risks assessments. Managing and responding to climate risks such as heatwaves or flooding requires collaboration and a significant proportion of information is shared between partner organisations, other agencies or bodies.

However, there are many barriers to the effective gathering and utilisation of evidence at the local level for more robust assessment of current and future climate risks. These barriers include inaccessibility and data-sharing issues, lack of technical capacity to utilise existing data, a lack of clear communication channels between evidence producers and users, and difficulties in knowing how to translate evidence into tangible decisions on future courses of action. Further challenges include uncertainty in climate science and a lack of understanding in how to translate this into risk assessment on the ground, where political and economic uncertainty further complicates the challenge. Producing evidence on impacts is also difficult due to missing information, and because climate impacts change and evolve over time. As a result, flexible mechanisms are needed to adapt to the evolving context and continue to inform decision-making processes for climate resilience.

Improving the local evidence base and local use of climate risk information

Our research suggests that efforts to address these evidence gaps should focus on capturing, collecting and sharing:

  • Social and economic data, including data on vulnerable people, their exposure to risks and behavioural responses
  • Assessments of policy mechanisms and other interventions that utilise evidence and inform decision-making
  • Scientific and modelling evidence aligned with decision-maker needs
  • Geographic or spatial data to better capture evolving meteorological and climatological risks
  • Local and real time evidence capturing climate processes and impacts on the ground
  • More effective communication of evidence that is translatable and transferable across scales and types of decision-maker
  • Empathy with the political and economic contexts within which local decision-making operates and the need for personal judgements that results from this.

Including local communities is paramount to promoting more robust, evidence-based local climate adaptation strategies where a variety of approaches are needed for identifying risks. Recognition is needed of how these various risks affect different decision-makers in different temporal and spatially nuanced ways. An example is in a heatwave scenario that sees elevated temperatures both during the day and at night and might require fast decision-making on a number of associated impacts. This August the UK saw temperatures rise above 34°C for six consecutive days in some areas and remaining above 20°C at night for five nights, followed by thunderstorms. Dorset and Sussex local authorities had to deal with beaches becoming quickly overcrowded, in Surrey fire and emergency services had to tackle a heathland fire, flash flooding caused parts of the M25 to be closed and a train was evacuated following a landslide in Kent.

The gathering and communication of evidence on climate change needs to move beyond a simplistic framing of risk from the top down – an approach that fails to account for the specific challenges facing local places – and instead to account for the nuanced nature of local decision-making contexts. We must recognise that just as the challenge of climate-resilient places and communities requires us to overcome siloed organisational roles, it also requires a broadening of our understanding of what ‘counts’ as a viable basis for taking a particular course of action. It is vital that local decision-making is able to respond to the evolving nature of the climate challenge and the fact that climate-related risks are context-dependent.

Climate resilience can then be truly robust and align with scales of policy governance that include all decision-makers working in the scientific, practitioner, public and community sectors, and most crucially at the local level, where the impacts of climate change are always felt.

Candice Howarth is a Senior Policy Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute, working with the Place-based Climate Action Network (PCAN). Matt Lane is a post-doctoral researcher in urban climate governance at the University of Edinburgh, School of Geosciences. 

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