In the summer of 2023, rapidly escalating climate impacts have scorched, boiled and burned Europe. These extreme events, though severe, are a fraction of those suffered by the people most vulnerable to climate change.
In this context, the Cascades project consortium has been completing work to explore what ‘cascading climate risk’ means for Europe and how Europe can best respond – work that should inform parties gathering at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates at the end of November.
Europe is tied to climate-vulnerable communities through its responsibility for historic greenhouse gas emissions, and through its obligations as a responsible global actor. Yet European societies and economies also stand to suffer from the effects that first hit communities far beyond Europe’s borders. Such cascading climate impacts spill and spread through systems and countries to create economic, social, political and humanitarian consequences across an interconnected world.
Decision-makers tend to focus on the ‘first order’ impacts of climate change, such as excess deaths due to heatwaves, infrastructure loss and human displacement from wildfires, or harvest failures resulting from droughts. Such effects stem from climate hazards occurring on their doorsteps, or within their neighbourhoods.
How climate risks cascade
This understanding of climate risk neglects cascading, cross-border or transboundary climate change impacts. Such cascades occur when a climate hazard in one location triggers chains of events that are transmitted through systems, across sectors and over national borders, spreading, if you will, like wildfire.
A simple example of a cascade would be floods in a downstream country caused by heavy rainfall and melting glaciers across a border upstream, as with the Pakistan floods of 2022. A more complex example would be the queues at British food banks, caused by a food affordability crisis in Europe, resulting from rising prices in global food markets as a result of simultaneous drought-induced crop failure in Africa and the collapse of the Black Sea Grain Deal struck between Russia and Ukraine during hostilities.
Climate impacts cascade because countries are interconnected. Likewise, solutions must be found in this interconnection. Yet, as the world approaches the COP28 climate summit, many countries are consumed with literal or metaphorical firefighting on their own soil.
With short-term national interests the focus of political attention, the recently published synthesis report of the first Global Stocktake warns: ‘While multiple crises cannot be ignored, neither can the opportunities for enhanced climate action.’
The world comes together as COP to discuss climate change and forge paths for collective action. It is the natural stage for conversations about cascading climate risk and the need for wider resilience.
In this consensus-based process, however, the differing needs and interests of parties mean reaching agreement is not always possible. Geopolitical tensions play into such difficulties, and despite the imperatives, progress towards the Paris Agreement goals remains far too slow.
A volatile international system
As climate impacts grow, and as transition efforts gather pace, climate politics is likely to exert a growing influence on the world stage. The international system already feels volatile. Trust is in short supply and the deep, multi-level cooperation needed to reach consensus may be hard to achieve.
A proper understanding of cascading climate risk should prompt countries to reconsider what is in their national interest, deeply tied as it is to the vulnerability or resilience of nations far from their shores. Adaptation and resilience can no longer be considered merely national efforts, but need to increase in scale and scope in keeping with a nation or bloc’s international ties and obligations.
Europe is a deeply connected continent, and European policymakers must respond to the challenge of cascades through skilful navigation, cooperation and compromise with neighbours and partners across the world. This will include coherence across European action for foreign policy, security, development, and in Europe’s trade and financial systems. This is needed to ensure Europe is not building resilience with one hand, while undermining it with the other.
Warming will continue until at least 2040
Preparation for cascading climate impacts will take time and resources, yet it is urgently needed. The reasons for this are twofold.
First, climate hazards, vulnerability and the potential for cascading climate risks are all increasing. Greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere means that even if emissions fall rapidly and immediately, warming will continue until at least 2040. Climate effects, therefore, will continue to increase for at least the next decade, while action and finance for adaptation and resilience fall short of what is needed today, let alone tomorrow.
Responses to escalating cascading climate change impacts may be reactive, for example humanitarian assistance and financial provision for loss and damage suffered, or proactive, such as development assistance, resilience building or the introduction of early warning systems. The more proactive responses to risk, the lower the human and economic cost of these cascading effects will be.
Second, rapid systemic change is needed to prevent and respond to escalating climate impacts. As the Global Stock Take Synthesis report states: ‘Governments need to support system transformations that mainstream climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development … Reaching net zero emissions by or around mid-century and implementing concurrent transformative adaptation requires broad and rapid changes in existing practices.’
Such systemic change may ‘lock in’ new ways of doing things. Through building understanding of cascading climate risks, European policymakers can increase their literacy in systems approaches, and build risk-and-resilience thinking, which will be integral to systemic change which aims at long-term resilience.
The need for international solidarity
If a proactive approach is taken, cascades can present opportunities as well as risks. We are at an inflection point for international relations and for the human experience of the world as the planet warms. Politicians now can direct systemic transformations and pursue resilience in ways that deliver dividends for security, sustainability and wellbeing.
Or they can continue to prevaricate amid concerns about short-term economic fallout and political palatability and watch as the effects of climate change gather pace and cascading risks ripple across the globe.