The risk of communicating risk

The annual Planetary Security conference was held in The Hague, The Netherlands on 12 and 13 December 2017. It brought together nearly 300 senior policy-makers, diplomats, military leaders, researchers, NGOs and private businesses to debate the security implications of environmental change. Karl Hallding, senior research fellow at SEI and co-director of Mistra Geopolitics, was there and reflects here upon risks.

We live in an era of unprecedented risks. We also have the unprecedented capability to foresee these risks, but there has been limited progress in how to use this information to support proactive governance. This gap between capability and governance response also was a recurring topic during the conference.

Is it, for example, a problem that climate risk scenarios cover the spectrum of possibilities, from catastrophic impacts to the results of successful implementation of the Paris Agreement? Could that breadth lull the public and decision-makers into thinking that everything is under control?

These are questions not easily answered. The “hard security” establishment has historically been very successful at highlighting – and raising funding for mitigating – security risks that are unlikely but carry far-reaching consequences. The environmental community, however, has generally been reluctant to use worst-case scenarios as a means to develop viable narratives about pathways to mitigate risks and navigate changes.

At the conference, one panelist expressed the concern over worst-case scenarios with a rhetorical question: Would most people fly if the risk for failure were similar to the current risk of catastrophic climate effects? Perhaps not.

This gets at a core question for the Mistra Geopolitics programme: how can we bring together authoritative data in a way that cuts through to decision-makers and the public, involving them in a constructive discussion on navigable, secure pathways into the future?

AuthorKarl Hallding