Assessing risk in a changing climate

By: Patricia Martel, Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment Officer at Emergency Management Ontario


Climate change is projected to result in an increase in disasters due to changes in long-term weather patterns (IPCC, 2012). As the effects of climate change begin to be felt, the disaster management community will be called upon to manage these disasters.  Since the acknowledgement of the need for climate change adaptation by policy makers has only arisen in the past decade or so, and its acceptance and support varies significantly; climate change projects may benefit from being integrated with established disaster management programs in part through standard disaster management risk assessment practices.

Climate Change and Risk Assessment

Climate change presents several unique challenges to the risk assessment field. For starters, it can be described as being complex, with has the potential to trigger other hazards due to changes in weather patterns and sea level rise. The types of hazards triggered by climate change vary considerable and may present differently at various scales (from local to global). In addition, it is likely that there are impacts of climate change which are still unknown and therefore cannot be adequately planned for (Dessai and van der Sluijs, 2007). Defining climate change in current hazard identification and risk assessment terms can be difficult for these reasons. The long duration impacts of climate change also require the assessor to ask at what point will we view climate change as the new normal? It may be useful for climate change to stop being viewed as a hazard and instead be viewed as an overarching background to an increase in potential disasters. Acknowledging climate change conditions as the new normal and further incorporating it into risk assessments may assist in creating additional support for adaptation projects.

Climate change is expected to alter current risk regimes. It is projected to change the patterns of risk through the alteration of hazard frequency, severity, and by increasing vulnerability. While climate change is anticipated to directly trigger hydrometeorological hazards, the frequency and severity of technological and human-caused hazards is also likely to be indirectly influenced. An increase in natural hazards may create strains on infrastructure triggering a technological disaster (i.e. extreme rainfall and flooding triggering a dam failure), or create conditions, such as resource scarcity which results in a human-caused disaster (i.e. drought resulting in civil disorder). This could result in changes throughout the hazard spectrum and will need to be incorporated into risk assessments.

Climate Change and Resiliency

A community, region, or country will have to be disaster resilient for it to be able to manage the impacts of climate change. Resilience can offset risk, but climate change adaptation must be considered since climatic variability will alter the patterns of risk (O’Brien et al., 2006). The absence of climate change adaptation in many disaster management resiliency programs presents a significant gap as climate change impacts could alter the types of hazards, the frequency and severity of hazards, the available resources, and other factors that risk and needs assessments currently review for resiliency projects. Changes in frequency and severity of disasters may prevent or slow recovery activities. The inability of a community to return to an acceptable level of normalcy after a disaster will increase a community’s vulnerability to other hazards, including those unrelated to climate change. (Scawthorn, 2000).


Disaster management programs generally limit their focus to the short-term, usually up to 10-15 years (IPCC, 2012). A long-term view will be needed to integrate disaster management and climate change adaptation. This is crucial since short term mitigation and resiliency attempts may be insufficient to address long term risk management needs.

There are many uncertainties surrounding climate change impacts and effects.  Some of this complexity comes from the large scale nature of climate change, the interconnectedness of environmental systems, and the frequent human dependence and interconnectivity of critical infrastructure systems which are likely to be vulnerable to climate change. Climate change adaptation projects and initiatives face a great deal of uncertainty, including when the severity and frequency of climate related hazards will increase (or if changes are already occurring). The nebulous timeframe of climate change can slow the process in securing political will to push climate change adaptation programs through. By viewing it as part of a robust disaster risk reduction program and as a progression of current emergency management activities, it may be possible to secure more political buy-in.


As the impacts of climate change arise, disaster management programs will have to integrate disaster resiliency and climate change adaptation in order to manage both short-term and long-term impacts. A first step to this is the integration of climate change variables into risk assessments. Integration presents opportunities for both fields through the introduction of new methods, knowledge, and support.

Since disaster management programs have been active for quite a long period of time compared to climate change adaptation programs, disaster management programs can be used as a source of information, experience, and tools for adaptation projects, since these projects will be addressing hazards, rather than the overarching change in climate.


Dessai, S. and van der Sluijs, J.P. (2007). Uncertainty and Climate Change Adaptation: A Scoping Study. Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and Innovation, Department of Science Technology and Society. Report NWS-E, Iss. 2007-198, pp. 1 – 95.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2012). Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, England.

O’Brien, G.; O’Keefe, P.; Rose, J. and Wisner, B. (2006). Climate Change and Disaster Management. Disasters. Vol. 30, Iss. 1, pp. 64 – 80.

Scawthorn, C. (2000). Emergency Water Supply and Disaster Vulnerability. In J. Uitto and A. Biswas (eds.) Water for Urban Areas. United Nations University Press, Tokyo. pp. 200–225.

Patricia Martel is the Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment Officer at Emergency Management Ontario. Her specialization and interests lie in emergency management and natural disasters which has guided her through an MSc. in Earth Sciences, a graduate certificate in Emergency Management and is currently working on a PhD in Geography at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her professional goal is to find ways in which the natural and social sciences can be used to benefit the field of emergency management.