Policy agendas both nationally and internationally now aim to create economic and social development plans that take account of climate risks. These plans need to be informed by a rigorous evidence base. This will involve characterising risks and impacts for different climate scenarios at a highly local level, and examining the overlap of climate risks with planning and economic development strategies. For Ireland, this interplay between climate change and economic development is most pronounced in relation to flood risk, particularly for our coastal towns and cities that are home to a large share of both population and economic activity in Ireland.
Currently, our understanding of future flood risk is limited. This is because the dynamics of flooding is complex, involving multiple compound mechanisms such as river flows, tide heights and storm surges, as they interact with local topography and the built environment. These technical challenges are further exacerbated by uncertainties around future climate projections. Understanding evolving local flood risk requires intensive numerical modelling. Models of this kind simulate high-res flood inundation under current conditions, and in a range of future climate scenarios.
Characterising risk is just the first step. If we want to inform flood risk management and climate adaptation policies, we need an idea of what we stand to lose at a local level. This involves estimations of cost and socio-economic impacts. Cost estimates must account for uncertainty, as well as more extreme scenarios or “tail-events,” which might be of concern to policymakers (e.g., Abadie et al. 2017, 2019, Weitzman 2009), and relevant to the design of flood defence schemes (McDermott 2016).
Even in constructing these complex models, we remain strongly dependent on assumptions about human response to risk. Internationally, high level projections of future flood costs (e.g. Hallegatte et al. 2013; Jongman et al. 2014) and evidence of growing exposure to flood risk (e.g. Lin, McDermott, Michaels 2021), emphasise the need to better understand the extent to which climate risks are incorporated into everyday decision making. The better informed we are of climate risks, the more likely they are to factor into decisions and ultimately, into large-scale adaptation to changing risk profiles. For example, in previous research, we found that flood risk shows up in Irish house prices only after the release of new information about the risk (Gillespie et al. 2020).
Our new EPA-funded research project integrates scientific risk assessments, with social science and behavioural analyses of costs, impacts and individual/community response. We are working to produce new evidence on climate risks, their potential impacts, and how they are valued and perceived. Climate change is here and now. We need to work together across disciplines to support the creation of more climate resilient communities in Ireland. The risks are literally on our doorstep, but as we’ve argued, awareness is only the first step. Action demands that risks be characterised, quantified, and communicated appropriately – and that people be facilitated to act.
Tom and Denis are both part of the research team for Climate Resilient Places, a new research project based at NUI Galway funded under the EPA Research Programme 2021-2030. The EPA Research Programme is a Government of Ireland initiative funded by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.
Learn more about postgraduate courses in Consumer Psychology and Global Environmental Economics at NUI Galway.
(1) Global emissions in 2019, at some 60 giga-tonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e), were at their highest ever level, fully 54% higher than in 1990. See here. IPCC AR6, WGIII, SPM B1.1.
(2) The Uninhabitable Earth is the title of a recent international best-seller non-fiction book by David Wallace-Wells on consequences of unabated climate change.
(3) An externality is a situation where some third party is affected by a market transaction, receiving a benefit for which they do not have to pay (in the case of a positive externality) or incurring some cost for which they are not compensated (in the case of a negative externality).
(4) Lunn, P. D., Bohacek, M., McGowan, F. P., & Ní Choisdealbha, Á. (2020). The surplus identification task and limits to multiattribute consumer choice. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 26(2), 312.
(5) Michie, S., Van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation science, 6(1), 1-12. Chicago.
(6) For example, Ophelia. See list of severe weather events here.