The future of climate change risk assessment is just about to come a lot closer

The future of climate change risk assessment is just about to come a lot closer
UKCRIC Management Board Member, Professor of Climate and Environmental Risk (University of Oxford)
05 June 2020

The UK Climate Resilience Programme has just announced the award of its flagship research project on “Enhancing climate change risk assessment capability”. The £1.8 million research grant was awarded to a consortium led by Professor Robert Nicholls of the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia. Professor Nicholls has called his project OpenCLIM: the Open CLimate IMpacts modelling framework. Over the next 28 months, the Tyndall Centre consortium[i] will develop a new open framework for UK climate change risk assessment, which will be a game-changer for the future.

The UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is currently completing the Evidence Report for the third UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA), a process that was set in motion by the 2008 Climate Change Act which requires a CCRA to be done every five years. As a former member of the Adaptation Committee of the CCC, I was deeply involved in the first two CCRA’s. Quite different methods were adopted in these two assessments.

The first CCRA (published in 2012) developed a set of ‘response functions’ to estimate the scale of climate impacts for different severities of climate hazard. The method worked well for impacts and sectors for which there was good quantitative evidence of future climate impacts, but was much more challenging to apply for complex and under-researched impacts. The second CCRA (2017) which was carried out for a fraction of the budget of the first, took more of a classical science synthesis approach and paid more attention to prioritising climate risks that needed government attention.

The third CCRA is proceeding along similar lines to the second, though there has been more attention being paid to the assessment of adaptation, and opportunity to examine complex and interacting risks and potential impacts at different levels of global warming.

National framework for climate risk analysis

All three CCRAs have provided valuable evidence about climate risks to the UK. Learning from each assessment has been carried forward to the next, as was surely the intention of the UK Climate Change Act. However, the journey from one CCRA to the next has been a ‘stop-start’ process. For each CCRA new research has been conducted on the most significant hazards, including flooding, sea level rise and water scarcity. It has felt a bit like wheels are being reinvented. What’s more, once the firing gun on a CCRA has been shot, it’s a very intensive process and there’s limited scope for new research.

The CCRA process could be both more strongly based on the latest science, and more efficient, if there was an established national framework for climate risk analysis, which could be continuously improved and flexibly used to ask new questions about climate risk. That is what OpenCLIM is intended to achieve.

The process you need to go through to calculate climate risks is actually very well established. Obviously, it involves climate information, starting with observations of present-day climate variability and also incorporating downscaled projections from climate models. This climate information needs to be input into national models of the processes on the Earth’s surface that are impacted by climate change: river flows and groundwater levels (especially in flood and droughts), coastal erosion and flooding, ecology, agricultural production and the urban heat island.

Projections of climate-related hazards need to be combined with information on the exposure and vulnerability of people, businesses, the built and natural environments and infrastructure: whether they’re located in harm’s way and how sensitive they are to the impacts of climate hazards. Because exposure and vulnerability are going to change in the future, socio-economic scenarios are needed to explore the implications of future changes.

Assimilating new science

OpenCLIM will provide an open source version of that conventional framework for climate risk analysis. This will avoid reinventing the wheel and will mean that new science can be assimilated into the framework. Because it will be continuously available and updated, we will be able to ask questions about climate risks and the benefits of adaptation actions between periodic CCRAs. It means we will be unlocked from the five-yearly cycle, though of course every five years a CCRA report will need to be produced, making use of OpenCLIM analysis.

The OpenCLIM project will start by drawing together the existing models of climate risk and impacts. Much of what’s needed already exists – it just needs to be brought together in a shared and open framework. That will be achieved by OpenCLIM being developed as part of the UK Data and Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure (DAFNI) which is a national computer research platform for system simulation modelling. DAFNI has been developed at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell alongside the JASMIN facility, which is now the computational cornerstone of much environmental data analysis in the UK.

When OpenCLIM has been built, people will be able to log on to DAFNI, upload data and run climate risk assessments and scenarios. Scientists will be able to upload new datasets and simulations, so that they can become incorporated in the next CCRA. OpenCLIM will create a permanent pipeline between science, climate risk assessment and applied adaptation decision-making.

If the goals of OpenCLIM had been easy to achieve we would have managed to do it already. It’s an ambitious goal, and is going to involve intensive and creative work by the Tyndall Centre consortium scientists and software engineering in Harwell to overcome many obstacles. But it’s clear that the 28-month development programme of OpenCLIM is just the start. By creating a legacy of a robust, openly accessible framework that’s available on DAFNI for everyone to use and add to, OpenCLIM will initiate a process of continuous improvement in our understanding about climate risks to the UK. Understanding risk is the first step in facing up to the climate adaptation challenges that the UK faces.

[i] The Consortium comprises University of East Anglia, Newcastle University, Bristol University, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and Science and Technology Research Council

Republished with permission from the UK Climate Resilience Programme 

Jim Hall is Professor of Climate and Environmental Risk at the University of Oxford and Chair of the UK Climate Resilience Programme steering committee

Photo credit: Jonathan Ford via Unsplash