“For Halloween,” went the suggestive tweet, “put ‘sexy’ in front of your scariest thing…”
And so I did.
Sexy ecosystem collapse. Sexy uninsurable risk. Sexy unmanaged retreat. Sexy concurrent breadbasket failure. Sexy urban displacement. Sexy flooded sewer systems. Sexy microbial resistance. Sexy heatwaves. Sexy bushfires. Sexy floods. Sexy category 5 hurricanes, all in a row. Sexy drought. Sexy climate change.
These things terrify me because we live in a world where the statistical assumptions that underpin our decisions are no longer reflective of the world we will inhabit - when 1-in-500 year (the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season) and 1-in-1000 year (the Cape Town drought) events occur concurrently, ‘normal’ no longer applies.
The foundational basis of our design and investment decisions over the life of the things we build is wrong. And we have little idea of how wrong it will prove to be, no clear picture of the unknown and unknowable risks that the cities we build, and the communities they house, will face.
The glimpses of the future that climate models give us tell us that we will be living in a profoundly different world in the second half of this century and beyond.
People have always feared the unknown, the dark, the afterlife. In the past, we’ve used religion and myth and legend to light that dark (our Halloween traditions), and more recently science, technology and data. But none of these alone give us the tools for the unknowable interaction of complex earth system changes that appear to be our collective future.
If we’re to navigate these very real risks, we need to build resilient cities - there is no doubt to the imperative. Cities with systems that absorb the shocks of a changing climate and maintain functional core services for communities.
But our current framing of resilience still tinkers at the edges and does little to build traction for fundamental change to our projects. At the level of the project, we talk about bigger HVAC systems, hail-proof building systems and wind-tolerant facades and at policy we speak of mobility diversity and community development; but seldom about the fundamentals of the urban form and planning.
I believe we need a combination of data and imagination to tell plausibly true stories of our future to shape the decisions of our present. We need to be uncompromising in describing a suite of possible and probable impact scenarios of a changing climate and draw the links between that world and the decisions we make today.
One example jumped out at me this past month - a question of insurability in the built environment.
Insurance has proven an excellent tool at managing risk by distributing the costs of disasters or accidents through premiums that reflect the likelihood of those events. But we’re seeing an increasingly large range of assets that are simply at too much risk to insure cost effectively - the New York subway relying on ‘disaster bonds’ (http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/09/new-york-future-flooding-climate-change.html) and the low-lying suburbs of Houston relying upon federal disaster relief it make up the difference.
The insurance industry is founded on actuarial models that rely on good data from the past, and plausible models for its applicability to the future. But there are profound challenges to these models when the uncertainty of future conditions renders the data unrepresentative. If we can’t insure assets, we cannot finance them and then we cannot build and invest in the future cities we need.
Part of our response to resilience must be to build models that allow us to manage unknown future risks effectively through the insurance industry and to manage our retreat from areas where no matter our resilience measures, we are putting future communities at material risk.
Broadly speaking, we have not done an adequate job of describing our future in experiential and practical terms. We don’t think about what a heatwave of 50 degree days actually means; to our healthcare system with the concurrent possibility of air-conditioning systems failing and with an ageing population. We don’t describe metropolitan flood risks publicly and broadly to shape where people can choose to live and invest. There remains structural economic risk to both the direct and transitional risks from climate change (the carbon bubble) and we’ve not done enough to describe these risks in politically engaging ways.
So to build resilience, we need intellectual honesty in our work. We need the imagination to creatively put ourselves into an unknown future, and the technical skills to build our response to that future today.
We need to build on both our historic responses to the unknown - the stories and the data - to materially manage the very real risk exposure of our. communities.
Because the earth system does not care what we think, it is only what we do that will count.
And we can only do what we can imagine.