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What if I do nothing? The implications of taking no action
Failure to act to reduce the risks of climate change carries risks of financial loss, litigation, damage to the natural environment, withdrawal of insurance cover and failure to realise opportunities.
At a glance
Failure to act to address the risks of climate change carries five potential risks:
Financial loss: Although studies are limited, there are many adaptation options that will provide benefits in excess of costs, especially when non-market values of human and ecosystem well-being are included in the calculation. Decisions are needed around when and how to act but, as a general principal, adaptation is necessary.
Damage to the natural environment: Failure to take action to strengthen the capacity of ecosystems to withstand climate change will lead to species extinction and fundamental changes in our natural environment.
Risk of litigation: Failure to take action to adapt to climate change and sea-level rise, even though the risks are known, leaves coastal managers open to legal challenge.
Inability to insure: There are already examples of insurers refusing to provide insurance cover for flood risk in communities lacking flood defences.
Loss of opportunity: Climate change is expected to bring some opportunities, for example, in agriculture, fisheries and tourism, and at least in the early decades. Actions such as marketing campaigns can maximise these opportunities, which otherwise may be lost to commercial competitors.
Why ignore the risks of climate change?
Taking no actions to address the risks of climate change stems from three causes:
- Lack of knowledge of the true risks, leading to a laissez faire attitude;
- Denial of the risks from climate change, despite the extensive scientific evidence to the contrary, leading to a deliberate decision to do nothing;
- Careful and systematic analysis may have shown either that the risks are low and do not require action, or that the decision to act can be delayed because trigger points for action have not been reached. Such a positive decision is termed loss acceptance. We do not deal with this cause of inaction here – CoastAdapt has more information at What is a pathways approach to adaptation?.
What are the outcomes of failing to act?
1. Cost of inaction:
The impacts of climate change have costs, and failure to act will incur these costs. These costs are taken very seriously by major institutions. Here are some estimates, from the present-day and from the future:
- The 20 cm rise in sea level at the tip of Manhattan since the 1950s, when all other factors are held constant, led to an estimated increase in insured losses from Superstorm Sandy of 30% in New York alone (Lloyd’s 2014).
- It is estimated that the cost to the European Union of not adapting to climate change could be at least €100 billion a year by 2020 and at least €250 billion a year by 2050 (European Union 2014).
- The Stern Review (Stern 2007) estimated that climate change with no action to reduce emissions over the next two centuries would reduce average global consumption per person by at least 5% per year, now and every year.
The costs are not only economic – there are social and environmental costs also. The 2010-11 Queensland floods are a good example of the type of event that is expected to occur more frequently in Australia in the future as a result of climate change (and indeed a recent paper suggests that human-induced climate change may have made a contribution to the magnitude of these floods (Ummenhofer et al. 2015). It is therefore informative to look at the costs of that event. Here are some figures from the Climate Change Authority (2012):
- The social cost was high: 35 people died and 200, 000 people were affected.
- Higher rates of homelessness, relationship breakdown and alcohol-related violence were reported by community organisations in the months following the floods.
- Flood-affected residents in Mackay were asked if they would consider re-locating elsewhere if floods increased in frequency, and 15% said they would. Emigration would have consequences for local economies and viability of affected towns.
- Damage to crops pushed up fruit and vegetable prices.
- Businesses that were directly affected were still operating below business-as-usual six months after the event.
- Insurance premiums tripled in many areas of Queensland. Suncorp Insurance refused to write new policies for Roma and Emerald, which had experienced three floods in as many years and lacked flood defence protection.
- To raise $1.8 billion for reconstruction, the Commonwealth Government imposed a flood and cyclone levy on taxpayers earning more than $50,000 in the 2011–12 financial year.
2. Damage to the natural environment:
Without adaptation, further changes in climate are projected to have substantial impacts on the natural environment. The most powerful way to reduce these risks is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But there are management actions that can support adaptation. Some of these are relatively straightforward, such as providing migration corridors that allow species to migrate as the climate changes. Others are more technically challenging, such as providing shading for coral reefs to minimise the risk of coral bleaching during heat waves.
Failure to take action to support adaptation in the natural environment will lead to species extinction and fundamental changes in ecosystems. More information is provided in Impacts: coastal ecosystems.
3. Risk of litigation because of failure to act:
Coastal managers are required to take into account the best possible knowledge in making decisions about adaptation to climate change. This implies that the knowledge should be up-to-date and from reputable scientific sources.
Very often, the latest assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are used as a source of scientific knowledge. The IPCC is universally recognised as an authoritative and reliable information source (for access to the assessment reports, go to www.ipcc.ch). However, full assessments by the IPCC only take place every six to seven years and so, especially once the assessment is four to five years old, it is necessary to seek updates from the scientific literature. Managers may need to seek the support of a scientific expert to obtain this information and be assured that it is authentic and authoritative.
Failure to take this knowledge into account, and to act accordingly, may leave a coastal manager and their employer open to a legal challenge. More information is provided in Reducing the risk of a legal challenge.
4. Inability to insure because of increased risk:
As climate change progresses, and damaging impacts occur more frequently, insurance for property and assets will become difficult to obtain at reasonable prices.
This was evident following the Queensland floods of 2011. A major Australian insurer withdrew insurance cover for flood damage in two outback communities in Queensland because of the lack of flood defences in these two communities. Once flood defences were built, cover was restored. The same company offers cheaper insurance rates to communities across inland Queensland where flood defences have been installed. As climate change causes events such as the Queensland floods to occur more often and with more devastating impacts, such responses from insurers are likely to become more common. More information is provided in Role of insurance in adaptation.
5. Failure to realise climate change opportunities:
There may be benefits from climate change, especially in the short term (a few decades into the future).
- Tourism may increase in Australia as people from Asia seek the opportunity to rest and recuperate from their increasingly hot climate.
- In cooler climates, for example in Tasmania, it may become possible to grow crops that require warmer temperatures and a longer growing season than is currently experienced.
- Warm-water commercial fish varieties may migrate into more southerly waters and be accessible to Australian near-shore fishing fleets.
These opportunities can be most effectively realised if there is adaptation; for example, marketing campaigns in Asia to promote Australian tourism to customers who are seeking an escape from overheated cities.
Tools to support adaptation: the role of CoastAdapt
Mitigation to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases is the surest way to reduce the impacts of climate change. Even with strong mitigation, however, some impacts of climate change are inevitable and reducing them will require adaptation. Although studies are limited, there are many adaptation options that will provide benefits in excess of their cost (Stern 2007).
Adaptation to climate change is essential to protect communities, infrastructure and the natural environment from damaging impacts. Failure to act places all of these at risk. CoastAdapt looks in detail at strategies to adapt to coastal risks from climate change – for example, sea-level rise and the risk of inundation (Infographic: Adaptation options).
Climate Change Authority, 2012: Targets and Progress Review Chapter 2: Science and Impacts of Climate Change. Accessed 11 May 2016. [Available online at http://www.climatechangeauthority.gov.au/reviews/targets-and-progress-review/part/chapter-2-science-and-impacts-climate-change].
European Union, 2014: Adaptation to Climate Change. Accessed 11 May 2016. [Available online at http://ec.europa.eu/clima/publications/docs/factsheet_adaptation_2014_en.pdf].
Lloyd’s, 2014: Catastrophe Modelling and Climate Change. Accessed 11 May 2016. [Available online at http://www.lloyds.com/~/media/Lloyds/Reports/Emerging%20Risk%20Reports/CC%20and%20modelling%20template%20V6.pdf].
Stern, N., 2007: The Economic of Climate Change: The Stern Review. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Ummenhofer, C.C., A. Sen Gupta, M.H. England, A.S. Taschetto, P.R. Briggs, and M.R. Raupach, 2015: How did ocean warming affect Australian rainfall extremes during the 2010-11 La Niña event? Geophysical Research Letters, 42(22), 9942-9951.