Risk management doesn’t mean trying to address all risks in all ways, “riding off in all directions,” spending money, time, energy, and social capital trying to drive every risk we identify to zero. There is no shortage of risks to manage. But neither does it mean just “hunkering down,” waiting to see what happens. No-action can be the riskiest action of all. And it’s not a very good way to learn. To learn forward, you have to lean forward. As my grandfather told me, “You can’t steer that bicycle unless you get it moving.”
Risk management is useful for helping us to decide and to explain how we have decided what not to do as much as what to do. It doesn’t make the decisions any easier, but it can help us make tradeoffs and opportunities more clear and guide us to making the highest possible reduction across multiple risks. We will need all the help we can get in sorting through which risks to handle first and how far to go in reducing particular risks.
Risk management is how we are approaching the challenges of adapting to climate change. It allows us to think through how we will anticipate and respond to change. Exposure to climate change occurs as it interacts through and with other hazards and stressors that already affect the resources we care about. Adapting to this risk is not a one-time thing because the risks will always be changing. Adaptation, therefore, is not an endpoint, but a perpetual series of risk-based adjustments – a forward spiral of adaptive risk management cycles.
In adaptive risk management, we heighten the emphasis on changing conditions, never assuming that we have a particular risk “nailed down.” We are constantly reassessing the chances and consequences, managing the risks we see coming and preparing to handle the surprises that will inevitably occur despite our most diligent attempts to forecast them.
The adaptation dimension of the climate change scorecard (Elements 6, 7, and is all about adaptive risk management. Assessing vulnerability is the process of identifying and characterizing (a) exposures of key resources and values to interacting climate-driven and non-climate stressors, (b) sensitivity of these resources to this exposure, and (c) the adaptive capacity of the resource to recover after being exposed or to gracefully transition to a new condition. Adaptation actions are risk management adjustments to these vulnerabilities. They may be designed to resist exposure, build resilience (reduce sensitivity or increase adaptive capacity), or facilitate transition with the least harmful disruption of important functions and processes. And monitoring is a focused process to check efficacy of these measures and detect signals of changing conditions that would justify reassessment and readjustments of our actions.