NEWS 2021-09-30

Governance in the face of extreme events

The increasing frequency of extreme events poses challenges for our societies. The current pandemic is a case in point; but “once-in-a-century” weather events are also becoming more common, leading to erosion, wildfires and even volcanic events that change ecosystems, threaten the sustainability of our life-support systems, and challenge the robustness and resilience of societies. A new analysis by an international team of researchers explores governance approaches likely to reduce risk from extreme events.

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The authors, led by Beijer Fellow Simon Levin (Princeton University), argue in the journal Ecosystems that low-cost, rapid responses to extreme events, while necessary, are not enough to address the problem. Solutions must include investment in higher-cost systemic responses. The paper is the result of the Beijer Institute’s annual Askö meeting and include several Beijer Fellows and researchers.

Their analysis draws from the evolutionary processes to propose preemptive and adaptive systems of governance that would assess and prepare for the repercussions of extreme events, rather than simply responding to these increasingly more frequent disasters as they occur.

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Increasing both general and specific resilience

Dealing with extremes will require new approaches and large-scale collective action. The first challenge may be getting people to recognize the increasing frequency of such events, and the need to deal with them. Preemptive measures can increase general resilience, a first line of protection, while more specific reactive responses are developed, that increase specific resilience to particular events.

General resilience includes diversity, but also redundancy (instead of one highway from one place to another, there might be several roads) and modular organization. Moreover, science points to the identification of systemic risk/regime shifts, the role of diversity (not putting all one’s eggs in the same basket) and slow variables (which may seem unimportant now but trigger regime shifts later). Improving system knowledge helps identify positive feedback loops, the sets of slow variables that influence them and their critical thresholds (systemic risk elements).

However, they recognize general resilience “is a costly public good that will erode if not actively supported.” Part of the problem is that it often clashes with the economic-design principle of efficiency. This needs to change because, the authors warn, “failure to maintain general resilience may greatly increase the economic and human costs of extreme events and disasters.”

Specific resilience means putting good policy responses in place that contain elements of redistribution (in time, space and/or between different social categories: insurance payments, catastrophic help) and a learning process that involves reflection on what has happened and whether future policy needs to change to avoid similar issues in the future.

Proactive measures need to be prioritised

While low-cost, rapid responses to extreme events are needed, proactive measures to mitigate negative effects of future catastrophes that cannot be fully avoided, are more important. Proactive measures focus on preparing the system so that the negative effects of a catastrophe are reduced, either because individuals leave the location during an extreme event or because the built environment is better able to absorb it. Examples include introducing early warning signals, like Tsunami warnings, and robust infrastructure (erosion control to avoid dust bowls, earthquake proof buildings, and so on).

But governments struggle to prioritize proactive measures, even if they allow societies to recover from disasters and crises faster, the authors say. For example, a better global disease-monitoring system would likely have reduced the impact of Covid-19.

Four key considerations

Based on the exploration of different types of extreme events, challenges associated with their increasing frequency, and some examples of mechanisms to cope with them, the authors suggest four key considerations for effective governance in the face of extreme events:

  1. Discussions of policy options would benefit from a careful assessment of the risks and benefits of responses and their interactions, including the spread among agents about what types of costs, risks or benefits are important. Distributional effects should be considered explicitly.
  2. Appropriate responses will require combinations of infrastructures with traditional “predictive,” planning, and “responsive” capacities, along with new “anticipatory governance” structures that focus explicitly on building capacity to anticipate when traditional approaches are too slow.
  3. Mitigation and adaptation responses should account for fundamental interdependencies that may amplify or attenuate a particular response.
  4. Complex responses to extreme events must be navigated and coordinated at and across local, regional, and global levels.

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Levin, S. A., J. M. Anderies, N. Adger, S. Barrett, E. M. Bennett, J. C. Cardenas, S. R. Carpenter, A.-S. Crépin, P. Ehrlich, J. Fischer, C. Folke, N. Kautsky, C. Kling, K. Nyborg, S. Polasky, M. Scheffer, K. Segerson, J. Shogren, J. van den Bergh, B. Walker, E. U. Weber and J. Wilen. 2021. Governance in the Face of Extreme Events: Lessons from Evolutionary Processes for Structuring Interventions, and the Need to Go Beyond. Ecosystems doi:10.1007/s10021-021-00680-2