World Resource Institute

Question Two: How Can We Balance Today's Pressing Needs with Long Term Risks?

How can public officials, especially in low income countries, address today's short- term pressing needs while preparing for tomorrow's climate-related impacts and surprises?

Government officials at the national level charged with incorporating climate change risks into plans and policies face a daunting array of challenges.

The world is already experiencing early impacts of climate change in physical, hydrological and ecological systems, exacerbating enduring development challenges. Even if the global community commits to substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, significant impacts will continue long after atmospheric concentrations of these gases have stabilized. The impacts of climate change are predicted to grow in frequency and strength and compound one another. Under such circumstances, government officials will face increasingly difficult decisions on how to prioritize interventions to address climate change, spur economic growth, and meet social and political objectives.

Decision makers will face a continual balancing act, contending with short-term development challenges and climate risks while at the same time preparing adequately for future needs and risks, some of which are uncertain and will only manifest themselves in decades to come. To do this effectively will require early planning and proactive decision making, approaches which human society has historically found difficult to embrace and implement. To date, our decision-making processes have often been slow to react to, learn from, and foresee change.

The most vulnerable countries face the greatest difficulties. With few resources, their governments must not only deal with multiple near-term development challenges but also consider long-term policy objectives to address future climate-related, and other, risks.

How are decision makers, especially in low income countries, to address pressing needs today while preparing for climate-related surprises and eventual impacts? If decision makers are motivated to incorporate long-term climate risks into decisions only when there is a reasonable certainty that risks will materialize, action may come too late and opportunities to manage some impacts may have passed. This is particularly problematic in vulnerable countries, where economic growth and development goals are unlikely to be achieved if future climate risks are not also taken into account in the near term.

Some illustrative examples of the dilemmas facing decision makers in balancing short-term and long-term risks include:

  • There is a high probability that sea level rise will pose significant risks to many coastal communities in the future. How should decision makers prioritize among various policy objectives and approaches, especially if resources are limited? For example, should they cease development of coastal areas and relocate communities at risk, or develop coastal areas with early warning systems and greater resilience to withstand sea level rise and fiercer storms? At what point are the risks great enough that they should choose the former policy over the latter?
  • Rainfall in the Sahel region of Africa may increase or decrease in the next several decades, and there is still uncertainty with regard to where and when those changes may occur. But the consequences, no matter what the timing, location and direction of the impacts, are huge for an area already suffering from food security problems and for which agriculture is still a significant part of many nations"™ GDPs. How should a decision maker prepare for eventual changes in variability and mean climate, especially when resources are limited and the decision maker is facing urgent needs today?

In addressing the question at the top of this prompt, we ask authors to discuss how decision makers can balance the need to address short-term and long-term policy making objectives. Below are some issues you may wish "" but are not obliged - to consider or incorporate in formulating your response.

  • Examples of the kinds of interventions that fulfill both short-term and long-term policy making objectives.
  • Situations in which decision makers might prioritize mitigation of short-term risks over addressing long-term policy objectives.
  • Examples of conditions in which long-term investments of scarce resources to adapt to future long-term, high consequence impacts might be justified, and of hurdles that might block the prioritization of such investments and actions.
  • Types of economic or other incentives that could be used to foster decision making that balances short-term and long-term priorities. (For example, changes to cost-benefit analysis, discount rates and other economic tools).
  • Other types of tools that might aid decision makers in considering risks that will manifest themselves long after they have left their positions.
  • Means of engaging the public and civil society engage in weighing short-term and long-term policy/planning objectives, and determining acceptable risks.
  • Informative examples of any parallels in other areas of risk management that can inform those charged with prioritizing among short-term and long-term climate-related decision making.

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