So, you’ve stocked the freezer with ice cubes, shut the windows and curtains, and cancelled your exercise class, are you now fully prepared for the extreme heatwave? Of course, there’s more we could have done if we’d thought ahead: planting street trees– which can reduce pavement temperatures by over 20°C, fitting shutters to windows, even painting buildings white. With more frequent and prolonged heatwaves on the cards according to UK climate change projections, perhaps we’ll start taking these proactive actions to be ready for next time.

Two blue shutters cover windows on a white wall basked in sun. Extreme weather.
Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

But even then, are we thinking in the right way about the risks we face? Recent events around the world show how people often get caught on the blindside when multiple types of risk interact in unexpected ways. We may feel confident in sitting out the next heatwave in relative comfort, but what if our electricity or water supply goes down? What if there is a wildfire nearby and we have to leave our homes, or a poisonous smog that means we can’t open our windows at night? These outcomes might seem unlikely, but simply considering the recent wildfires across Europe, or recalling the extreme storms in Scotland leading to weeks of power cuts, we see they’re not quite so rare.

And catastrophes like these are expected to become more common. Scenarios suggest we will increasingly face ‘perfect storms’ caused by multiple environmental impacts. Impacts from extreme weather events, combined with pollution and biodiversity loss, may be exacerbated by social and geopolitical trends, plus the erosion of financial capital that enables states to step up and respond appropriately. These are not crackpot forecasts, they come from credible institutions like the World Economic Forum, World Health Organisation and the United Nations.

Staying Prepared for Extreme Weather

The positive news is that, with a bit of foresight, we can make ourselves better prepared. Keeping bottled water in the house, getting a wind-up radio (for when mobile networks go down) and storing dry food supplies are all worthwhile actions to take. We’ve seen how supermarket shelves can empty rapidly when people start panic buying, and how our convoluted ‘just-in-time’ supply chains are easily disrupted. Globally interconnected systems like our financial, energy and communication systems may be more efficient in the short-term, but they are also more fragile, as global financial crashes and contagion in food price rises have shown.

If ‘prepping’ for disasters sounds a bit doom and gloom, it’s no more unusual than buying insurance for your car, home or life– a small outlay of money and effort that makes a big difference if an unexpected event occurs. And unlike insurance premiums, which go up when risks become more likely, basic planning for emergencies doesn’t cost more. So, with a rising balance of potential benefits versus costs, investing in emergency planning almost becomes a no-brainer. It just takes a little bit of forethought and creative thinking about the types of risk we might face.

Contingency Planning

As a researcher working closely with government, I see the planning going on at the national level to improve our resilience to various risks– from food supply disruption, to extreme weather and cyber-attacks (including if all these things were to happen concurrently). What’s currently lacking though is the public discourse around interacting risks, and how citizens and communities can plan for themselves. Governments can only do so much and much adaptation to risks needs to be community led.

Perhaps with this in mind, and keeping an eye on global news to see how complex risks play out elsewhere, we can start to develop our own contingency planning. ‘Expecting the unexpected’ may be an oxymoron, and no-one can predict exactly how future risks will pan out. But we can anticipate how our critical systems: our food, energy and communication systems might become disrupted, and start to plan how we might personally be impacted. As the old proverb goes, the wisdom of hindsight is easy, so now it’s time to apply it to foresight.

Professor Tom Oliver is seconded with the UK government to advise on building national resilience to long term environmental, social and economic trends in combination with acute risks (with the Government Office for Science) and previously to lead the design of an environmental ‘systems research programme’ (for Defra). He has been a member of the European Environment Agency scientific committee as a ‘socioecological systems expert’, and has led international research projects developing methods to assessing systemic risk. He is based at the University of Reading and researches environmental risk, including climate change adaptation planning for citizens.