Priorities for Action in the Face of Runaway Climate Change


April 13, 2023

Climate change presents an extreme gulf between scientific knowledge of the risk and policy action to tackle it. Technical solutions and economic policies are plentiful, in principle. What is lacking is the political will to carry them out as well as people’s mindsets to give popular support for the policies. In this situation efforts are needed to create supportive conditions that can drive change, as discussed in a new book on risk, resilience and climate change[1].

Germaine to climate solutions is the attribution of climate damage to its root causes of carbon emissions related to human activity. The tobacco-cancer experience suggests that establishing cause and effect is key to accountability. In the case of global warming, showing causation begins with the scientific linking of temperatures and carbon emissions. The new “attribution” reports that causally connects fossil fuel-based energy and extreme weather events can motivate climate mitigation. Increasingly, the public labels events as climate disasters, but they need to be understood as human-caused episodes.

In turn, policy decisions are predicated on communicating these linkages effectively. Descriptions of climate disasters are plentiful in weather reports and news coverage. But there is a lack of recognition of the link between disasters and emissions. Where messaging has been strong, the scenarios have focused on the future, depicting climate impacts as distant in time and space, rather than here and now. Clear communication is key especially as the links are indirect (fossil fuels-emissions-global warming-disasters) rather than direct as for COVID-19 (infection-hospitalization).

In essence, climate change calls for recognizing a change in the nature of risk from a low probability but high impact situation to a high probability and high impact one. This change affects all three phases of the disaster management cycle—preparedness, relief and response, and reconstruction and recovery. The more predictable the increase in extreme disasters, the greater is the premium on readiness.

Political will is crucial to taking preventive action because its rewards are not necessarily visible immediately. After decades of lost time, in 2022 the US Senate finally passed a landmark bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, dedicating significant resources for climate and energy investment—a good example of taking preventive action.

Ironically, mainstream economics has been unhelpful in forging climate action. Economic analysis has been instrumental in promoting investments in quality health and education, but it has failed to anticipate the rapidly escalating climate risk. Its preoccupation with gross domestic product (GDP) has been at the expense of a focus on negative spillovers related to economic activities—like carbon emissions and deforestation— which diminish the net domestic product. The false belief that climate action is inimical to sustained growth needs to be discredited, so that decision makers can move away from unduly discounting the benefits of climate investment.

In reducing climate risk, the steps needed must go beyond coping with people’s exposure and vulnerability to a shock to building back better. Reducing risks needs to include dealing with the shock itself. Resilience building entails more than securing capabilities to live with the inevitable; it also needs to incorporate efforts to reduce the intensity of the hazard by decarbonizing economies. Climate resilience calls not only for adaptation that enables a better adjustment to disasters, for example, building sea defenses, but also mitigation to reduce future risks, for example, cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

In all this, heavy lifting will be needed to innovate approaches to resilience. There is great value in mobilizing resources across boundaries, stepping up efforts, and innovating beyond norms. It is important to do so ahead of calamities, as precious time will be lost if fundraising waits for them to strike. Climate change also warns of downward spirals: extreme weather hurting energy supplies, rising energy prices, and the pressure to expand fossil fuels—which aggravate global warming. On the other hand, the demand for renewable energy, including breakthroughs like green hydrogen, could rise; resources will be needed to bring them online.

These measures signal a recognition of the need to build back better. Such resilience building in anticipation of rising risks would represent a paradigm shift. Spending on climate action needs to accelerate, and the efficiency of that spending needs to be evaluated. All investment projects should require climate proofing, for example, ensuring resistance to extreme weather. Countries would want to carry out climate stress tests under scenarios of increasing risks, much as the central banks regularly assess the health of financial systems.

Taken together, climate response needs to be part of prioritizing investment in sustainable development. It has to emphasize the quality, rather than just the quantity, of economic growth. And it must also convey a sense of urgency because the price of delayed action is mounting rapidly.


*The author is a former Director General Evaluation, IEG, World Bank, and Director General Evaluation, IED, Asian Development Bank.

[1] Thomas, Vinod. Risk and Resilience in the Era of Climate Change. 2023. Palgrave Macmillan.

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  1. thanks for sharing this information

  2. Robert Picciotto

    This landmark publication demonstrates conclusively that climate change is mostly due to economic policies grounded in GDP growth: ‘what gets measured gets done’. Moving beyond risk management and focusing on resilience is indeed warranted. ‘Building back better’ is the key to sustainable development.

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