Planners Must Stop Cherry-Picking Climate Risk Scenarios

Developers in Treasure Island, San Francisco Bay, are faced with an area highly exposed to sea level rise. With expected global temperature increases continuing to escalate, the upper end of sea level estimates would endanger the planned development. Yet, the developers stubbornly continue to build. Foundations have already been laid for the first of six planned high-rise buildings. Some mitigation measures are in place – the land will be raised by several feet and buffer zones will be prepared – but this will only protect against lower risk estimates. Contingency plans rely on future residents or taxpayers funding higher walls around the urban zone. Required only to reference the ‘best available science’ in the permit planning process, Treasure Island developers have exploited the leeway given in scientific papers to dismiss high-end forecasts and focus only on short timeframes.

This practice is not isolated. New findings published in Earth's Future found that 56% of US communities underestimate the upper end of assessed sea level rise projections. To prevent causing a stir, IPCC reports have historically tended towards cautious and conservative sea level rise estimations. Risk assessments across the US south were found to focus on singular sea level rise estimates rather than ranges, indicating a process of cherry-picking an optimal value instead of using the more rigorous method of considering multiple plausible futures. Organizations are therefore failing to consider their vulnerability to low-probability, high-impact possibilities.

If organizations continue to cherry-pick sea level rise scenarios, they will be entirely unprepared for impending risks. Only by facing up to reality and utilizing all the available scientific evidence will business leaders be able to effectively mitigate risks, safeguard their assets and contribute to a more resilient future.

Alice Saunders

Alice is an analyst in the Verdantix ESG and Sustainability practice. Prior to joining Verdantix she completed a Master's degree in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at the University of Oxford, earning a distinction. Her thesis project focused on species redistribution due to climate change and woodland ecosystems. Alice also holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick.