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Managing disasters in a changing climate: Introducing the IPCC ‘Special Report on Extreme Events’

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30
Hero image description: People flooded village rural Mozambique Image credit:TheHumanitarianCoaliton.ca Image license:Creative Commons

Dr. Maarten Van Aalst -
Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre and Co-ordinating Lead Author, IPCC Special Report
Dr. Clare Goodess - University of East Anglia and Lead Author, IPCC Special Report (tbc)
Dr. Tom Mitchell - Overseas Development Institute and Co-ordinating Lead Author, IPCC Special Report
Professor Mark Pelling - Kings College London and Co-ordinating Lead Author, IPCC Special Report
Professor Virginia Murray – Health Protection Agency and Co-ordinating Lead Author, IPCC Special Report

Sam Bickersteth - Chief Executive Officer, Climate and Development Knowledge Network
John Harding - Head of the Policy and Practice Unit at the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR)

Lead and Co-ordinating Lead Authors of the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) presented key findings at an event hosted by ODI and CDKN. The report documents trends in extreme events, vulnerability, exposure and disaster risk management practices and is the culmination of a two-and-a-half year process involving over 200 authors and many more reviewers.

Tom Mitchell, Head of the Climate Change, Environment and Forests Programme at ODI and Co-ordinating Lead Author, IPCC Special Report, opened the event by explaining the background to the SREX, the chapter structure and lengthy review process through which the report has to pass before final approval. The Summary for Policymakers is available now but the final report will not be published until February 2012. The report has two main sections: the first, analyses changes in extreme events, vulnerability and exposure; and the second trends in the management of climate extremes and disasters.

Dr. Maarten Van Aalst, Director of the Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre and Co-ordinating Lead Author, IPCC Special Report, then spoke about the conceptual basis for understanding disaster risk and measures needed to reduce it. Disaster risk is created by the interaction of climate extremes with vulnerability and exposure. These components are all highly dynamic with socioeconomic development producing changes in climate extremes through anthropogenic climate change and modifications to the vulnerability of human systems and exposure of people and assets to these hazards. He explained that economic losses from climate-related disasters have increased particularly in developed countries, while fatalities are concentrated in developing countries.

Dr. Clare Goodess, Senior Researcher at the University of East Anglia and Lead Author, IPCC Special Report, spoke about changes in climate extremes and impacts on the physical environment from 1950 onwards. Findings are expressed in terms of levels of confidence. Confidence levels are high, for example, with regard to increases in extreme hot days and decreases in cold days and nights; but low for increases in tropical cyclone activity. Confidence is also high that increases in daily minimum and maximum temperatures are likely due to anthropogenic influences. Clare explained that the methodology used for assessing uncertainty had become more rigorous and transparent. A combination of climate models, observed data and expert judgement is used to generate statements of low, medium and high confidence about observed changes in climate extremes, attribution and future projections of these events. When there is high confidence, the level of certainty is expressed in terms of probability – for example, there is a 66-100% probability of increased heavy rainfall in Southern Africa in the next half century.

In the second section of the report on trends in disaster risk management, analysis is undertaken at different scales: local, national and regional/international. Authors often had to make difficult judgements about what data would be used, as scientific and technical studies draw on evidence from grey literature, produced by NGOs, civil society and UN agencies. They reviewed a range of actions to reduce risk, from mitigation to relief and recovery and risk sharing and transfer, recognising that managing risk and adapting to climate change encompass a suite of policies and that some risks cannot be reduced so preparedness is needed to limit losses. Professor Mark Pelling, Kings College London and Co-ordinating Lead Author, IPCC Special Report, spoke about the difficulty of ensuring that material presented in the report and was evidence-based, not normative. A number of different frameworks are presented and discussed, although no recommendation is made as to which approach to managing risk is more desirable. Key messages from the report are that there are strategies that can help manage disaster risk now can also help improve people’s livelihoods and well-being. Risk management can be placed at the heart of development and ‘no regrets’ solutions can be found that will not only reduce risk now but increase resilience in the future. Mark spoke of transformation as a useful concept capturing this idea of a fundamental change to the way disaster risk is framed, referring to examples of transformation in the way heat waves are conceived in France and governance transformations in South Africa that produced a new DRM system.

Further examples of changing risk factors and examples of the kind of policies needed to address these risks, were presented by Professor Virginia Murray, Head of Extreme Events and Health Protection at the Health Protection Agency and Co-ordinating Lead Author, IPCC Special Report. Virginia spoke about the heat waves in France, drought and food security in West Africa, hurricanes in the United States and Caribbean, flooding in rapidly growing urban settlements, non-extreme events such as changes in seasonal rainfall promoting cholera outbreaks, permafrost in the north and sea level rise in Small Island Developing States.

Following these presentations by SREX Authors, two discussants commented on the policy implications of SREX findings. Sam Bickersteth, Chief Executive Officer, Climate and Development Knowledge Network, welcomed report findings that speak to CDKN’s agenda to support decision-making in developing countries. The Summary for Policymakers carries strong political messages such as the need for more data on risk at the local level. Great strides have been taken to improve social protection but new pressures are being placed on the humanitarian system and this could generate further competition between humanitarian and development budgets. Sam underscored the importance of taking advantage of opportunities created in post-disaster situations to promote transformation and he encouraged policymakers to involve the private sector in this.

John Harding, Head of the Policy and Practice Unit at the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), spoke of the need to share findings of the report through different networks but cautioned that this is not an easy subject to communicate to decision-makers. The findings are important, he stressed, because they show that disaster risk is driven by vulnerability and exposure. This positions the discussion in the development sphere and emphasises the need to share findings with those making investment decisions, not just disaster managers.

The commentaries by discussants were followed by a question and answer session in which members of the audience and those watching the event online posed a number of searching about the report. Points raised in the discussion included:

  • Findings of the report are guarded. There is still a lot of uncertainty and the report’s strength is that statements are cautious but robust and evidence-based. Changes in climate extremes may be more severe so we need adaptation and mitigation. The less we mitigate, the more difficult adaptation becomes.

  • The report does not analyse changes in average temperatures, rainfall etc (as opposed to extreme events) and the likelihood of disasters occurring as a result. The authors discussed the idea of including changing means in Chapter 3 but there was not enough space so there is some reference to mean rainfall but the focus of the report is on extremes.

  • The humanitarian caseload is likely to increase. There was not enough literature on this to include in the report but Maarten explained that the IFRC tries to integrate climate information into humanitarian planning over a 1 to 5 year timeframe.

  • There is no comment on whether policies promote equity or whether transformation is necessarily a positive thing. The report avoids making value judgements about different governance regimes but does assess technical aspects of management approaches and the values they are based on. Transformation needs to occur but we cannot predict how this will take place.


Coming only days before the start of the Durban climate change negotiations, this event will examine findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX).Written over two years and involving nearly 200 authors and many hundreds of reviewers, the report provides a unique insight into the future of disasters in a changing climate and ways governments and societies might respond.

This event represents the first opportunity for a UK audience to hear from a set of the report’s lead authors talking about different dimensions of the report. The Summary for Policy Makers of the Special Report is launched on 18 November in Uganda with the full report, published by Cambridge University Press, available at the end of February 2012.