Climate Change and Risk Management for International Transport

The UN Commission on Trade and Development and the UN Economic Commission for Europe recently circulated a study on climate change (the ECE study) that in its opening paragraphs makes this emphatic statement:

“Compelling scientific evidence and a better understanding of the potential economic impacts of climate change have moved the issue to the forefront of the international agenda as one of the ‘greatest challenges of our time’.”

This statement relies on the expertise of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC).  Climate change “deniers” object to the words “compelling scientific evidence”, and have questioned the IPCC‘s conclusions.  In an editorial (August 31, 2010) the Toronto Globe & Mail noted that criticisms of the evidence as to climate change by a “small group of dissenters” have influenced public opinion and

“[s]ome shabby half truths, passed off as climate science, have tested the public’s confidence.”

The Globe & Mail editorial considers that changes to IPCC procedures and organization are necessary to insure a rigourous basis for any scientific conclusions concerning climate change.   The editorial observed that:

“The IPCC is still a valuable tool to evaluate the state of the world’s climate.  But more reform is needed: the stakes are too high to get the narrative wrong.”

The ECE study recognizes that current scientific evidence is not conclusive, and acknowledges that:

“. . . a better understanding of climate change impacts, risks and vulnerabilities is a precondition for well-designed and effective adaptation response that enhances the resilience of systems, structures and processes and minimizes the adverse effects of climatic changes.”

Still, there is a reasonable case for not letting the debate as to the state of the evidence delay action. Not responding to the challenge until climate change is incontrovertible is not a practical alternative for most governments and businesses. One aspect of the challenge is the time frame in which measures must be taken by affected parties to avoid or adapt to climate change.

The maritime transport industry is a case in point. The physical assets of ports generally have a life span of over a century.  So what ports invest in now must anticipate circumstances well into the future.  They can’t wait to see how things turn out: that would be abdicating a practical responsibility to the world trading community.   So a lot of hard headed business men and administrators will be meeting in the near future to make the best projections of climate change and make recommendations accordingly.

The ECE study refers to an urgent need to reach agreement on a regulatory regime for GHG emissions from international shipping.  Currently these emissions, which are not governed by the KYOTO Accord, are approximately 3% of total GHG emissions. But in addition to the level of GHG emissions, there is concern over the potential impacts and implications of climate change for transportation systems, and in particular for ports, which are key nodes in the supply chain and vital for global trade.

According to the ECE study, the top 10 cities threatened by climate change in terms of exposed population are Mumbai (India), Guangzhou and Shanghai (China), Miami (United States of America), Ho Chi Minh City (Viet Nam), Kolkata (India), New York (United States of America), Osaka-Kobe (Japan), Alexandria (Egypt) and New Orleans (United States of America). In terms of asset exposure, the most vulnerable cities are Miami, New Orleans (United States of America), Osaka-Kobe, Tokyo (Japan), Amsterdam, Rotterdam (Netherlands), Nagoya (Japan), Tampa–St. Petersburg and Virginia Beach (United States of America). Another recent study commissioned by Allianz Insurance and World Wide Fund for Nature has estimated that assuming a sea level rise of 0.5 m by 2050, the value of exposed assets in the 136 port megacities will be as high as US$ 28 trillion.

With what is at stake further debate about compelling scientific evidence should not frustrate planning to avoid this risk.

Peter Jones

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1 thought on “Climate Change and Risk Management for International Transport”

  1. Another excellent and thought-provoking piece, Peter.

    People seem to have an interesting relationship with science. They mistrust it when it counters what they already believe – or what is most convenient to believe – and trust it wholeheartedly as the only source of objective truth when it supports their existing position. And climate deniers understand and capitalize on this contradiction.

    Exxon Mobil is one example of a large corporation for whom ‘reduced consumption’ and ‘alternative energy’ are scary words; if people get swept up in climate change urgency, such companies stand to lose a lot of money. As a well-researched post at reports, Exxon Mobil gave $15 million last year to fund climate change disinformation thinly veiled as science. (

    This is the type of ‘science’ that constitues the “small group of dissenters” that Peter refers to in the above article, but by the very fact that it is presented as science, the public largely assumes that it is both valid and value-free, which it quite clearly is not. These types of reports thus succeed in creating the impression of uncertainty, which is precisely their objective.

    Does this mean that science should never be trusted? Certainly not. Of course, the science on the other side – science that heightens awareness and urgency about climate change – should be subject to the same degree of scrutiny. Just as there are interest groups who fund climate change denial, there are interest groups who seek to draw attention and immediacy to climate change.

    A careful observer, therefore, will dig a little deeper into what any given scientific report represents. And such an analysis, I would suggest, yields that the most trustworthy, representative, and authoritative voice on the matter is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). By virtue of its inclusivity and extensive peer-review process, its reports are not prone to the biases or agendas of individual scientists or groups. The Panel incorporates differing viewpoints from top climatologists internationally (all member countries of the UN and WMO are welcome to contribute), but the type of hack science on both sides of the issue that is designed specifically to generate disinformation is filtered out by the open and rigorous peer-review process.

    By nature, climate change science will always feature a degree of uncertainty; the scale of time and geography over which it spans, the complexity of its effects, and its very status as a highly politicized issue guarantees that reality. But for individuals, politicians, and businesses – including the marine transport industry – the IPCC is surely the most reliable resource for making well-informed decisions in the face of this uncertainty.


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