A cross-community effort to assess extreme events from climate to society

The Seine River overflowed its banks in Paris in May and June 2016 as fierce rains hit much of Europe, causing 20 casualities. Photo: Ardash Muradian via Flickr
Jul 2016

At a workshop in Berlin in February, participants from a range of disciplines and sectors of society gathered to discuss the most burning research questions around how communities are dealing with extreme events like flooding and droughts.

Extreme events like droughts, intense precipitation and storms have always been a part of the Earth’s climate, but most recent evidence shows that they may be growing more common and severe. Such an increase will pose threats to the sustainability of infrastructures and homes and to the people that depend on them for food, livelihood and other needs. That was evident when flooding in late May and early June 2016 led to 20 casualties across Europe and when recent droughts in Venezuela fueled an electricity crisis. Because of these links between human society and ecosystem properties, studying extreme climatic events requires a new approach to research. A cross-community approach involving scientists from the natural and social sciences together with stakeholders from governments and the private sector is necessary for researchers to identify the most urgent questions and associated research.

The Extreme Events and Environments – from climate to society (E3S) project, one of nine Future Earth initiatives that support global sustainable development, aims to foster the formation of such a cross-project community. It integrates different aspects of extreme climatic events, such as responses to such events from the natural and social sciences, as well predictions of future events.

This February, scientists and stakeholders gathered in Berlin at an E3S cross-community workshop on extreme events and environments from climate to society. Their goal was to draft a common research strategy to address the implications of extreme climatic events for both human societies and natural ecosystems. During sessions on topics ranging from extreme climatic event relevant metrics to the potential use of citizen science data, these participants identified and molded the most burning research questions in climate extremes research.

We talked to three attendees of the E3S workshop to find out how they experienced the cross-community nature of the workshop. We also discussed where they see the biggest challenges in bringing the impact of extreme climatic events to the attention of decision-makers, such as intergovernmental organisations and the private sector, that have to cope with climate extremes.

Recent studies show that extreme climatic events are likely to increase in the future. What do you identify as the biggest implications for nature and society?

Eberhard Faust is the Head of Research pertaining to climate risks and natural hazards at Munich RE, a reinsurance company based in Munich, Germany:

One of the pressing needs is to learn more about the change in risk involved in such regional futures. In other words, what is the probability of hazardous consequences for a particular location? This could be, for example, the risks to an ecosystem, such as the loss of net primary production, or for a human system, such as direct economic losses due to heavy precipitation or flooding. The concept of risk helps to manage responses to changing properties of hazardous weather events in the administrative arena and to better quantify costs and benefits of adaptation measures.

Amina Aitsi-Selmi is an honorary senior research associate in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University College London:

The biggest implication is the urgent need for societies to shift their cultural expectations of what it means to achieve progress – from a focus on economic growth in the materialistic tradition to one in which the relationship between human wellbeing and environmental preservation reflects their interconnectedness and social values that are not primarily materialistic.

Sönke Dangendorf is team leader of the Sea Level Group at the University of Siegen in Germany:

I believe that any future increase in extreme climatic events will challenge our society to be more dynamic, which will include shifting from relying on measures to protect ourselves from extreme events toward adaptation.

The meeting was strongly focusing on bridging the gaps between scientists and stakeholders, which is also one of the core themes in Future Earth. How did you experience this formation of a cross-project community?

FAUST: There are always going to be distances between the different thought cultures involved in how scientists and stakeholders work. These don’t have to be overcome, but they should be made transparent to the participants in cooperative projects or cross-project communities. At the Berlin meeting, participants embraced this cooperative spirit and listened to each other and learned about the different languages that scientific and stakeholder cultures use and about their institutional guardrails. Establishing a clear notion about these differences is a key step to success.

AITSI-SELMI: Understanding the process of consolidating different knowledge domains and experiencing such a cross-project community first-hand was useful. It requires time and space to consolidate terminology and concepts but also epistemological assumptions to produce a unified model of the world (without sacrificing innovation and creativity). This occurs in some form in information technology (for example, here) and needs to be transferred to the sciences.

DANGENDORF: While I highly support the core idea of the workshop, I had the feeling that important stakeholders were underrepresented in the meeting. I also believe that we – as scientists – are still struggling to find a common language between individual disciplines. This also hinders our communication with stakeholders.

What are the next steps that this cross-community project should take in bringing extreme climatic events and their impact on natural and social systems to the attention of the decision-makers?

FAUST: An important element would be the concept of risk, which links extreme events to a measurable metric and which can be used as a tool for improving management strategies of public and private domains in response to future extreme events. At the same time, it is important to involve decision-makers in this new effort, perhaps by way of collaborative projects or – to gain a wider perspective – through professionally-moderated events that present project results and stakeholder feedback.

AITSI-SELMI: The cross-community needs to produce an open, transparent and systematic approach to “knowledge crunching” that results in clear messages based on input from multiple scientific disciplines (essentially a manual for multidisciplinary work) that is internationally recognised and can be endorsed by all scientists and is clear to decision-makers.

DANGENDORF: I think there are different steps. First of all, for co-designing projects we need to integrate stakeholders from the very beginning into the build-up of research proposals. Furthermore, as a community, we should push ourselves to break down our knowledge to a level accessible for stakeholders. If we are not able to find a common language among different research disciplines, how can we translate scientific information for practitioners?