Do you ever imagine what your life would be like had you chosen a different career? Or had you stuck to that exercise routine from the start of the year? So do we. In RECEIPT, we work with counterfactuals, looking at what could have happened, but hasn’t. Exploring counterfactuals can be a key element to be better prepared for climate disasters. Here’s how.

When something negative happens, whether it is spilling your glass of water or having your home flooded by heavy rain, it is human nature to seek out the better “ifs”. “If I had put my glass further from my elbow, I wouldn’t have tipped it over”. “If I lived on the second floor, my home would not have been flooded”. But we rarely do it the other way around. Psychology shows that, when something negative occurs, we spend 90% of our thoughts on how the impact might have been mitigated or avoided, and only 10% on how things might have been worse.1

How does this relate with scientists and decision-makers dealing with climate risks? Like with personal negative experiences, when a disaster strikes, practitioners are often left thinking about what measures should have been in place to avoid or mitigate its consequences. The greatest advances in labour rights, safety standards and risk management practices are generally made in the aftermath of catastrophic events. RECEIPT argues that we shouldn’t wait for unforeseen disasters to happen to prepare for them. That’s where counterfactuals play a major role.

Using past events for disaster risk management is inadequate when facing extreme events. Past disasters took place in a particular location, time and climate. These conditions are fixed and have therefore a fixed impact. But disaster risk management depends on dynamic components:

  • Hazard of varying potential intensity (e.g., hurricane)
  • Exposure (e.g., urban growth)
  • Vulnerability (e.g., aging infrastructure)

How downward counterfactuals work

Lessons learned from past events are by definition limited by their fixed terms. Key information can be gained from exploring alternative scenarios, counterfactuals, of past climatic events. Downward counterfactuals rely on selecting a past event and identifying small changes that make its impacts worse. These changes can be linked to all three components of disaster risks. Take Hurricane Sandy, for instance. Questions like “what if winds had been 3% stronger”, “what if the hurricane had made landfall earlier”, “what if infrastructures had been older” allow scientists to gain insights into the potential impacts of similar future events.

Downward counterfactuals also provide a new understanding of the impact potential of compound extreme events. “What if Hurricane Sandy was rapidly followed by another hurricane”, “what if the region had been recovering from a heatwave?” As we’re facing rising global temperatures, the intensity and frequency of extreme events are set to increase. So, it is essential to think about what impacts consecutive or compound events are likely to have on our societies.

How RECEIPT uses downward counterfactuals

In RECEIPT, we are using downward counterfactuals to identify Europe’s vulnerabilities to climate change. We are creating downward counterfactuals of events happening in our current climate, and then we apply these same counterfactuals in climate projections, where the intensity and frequency of climate disasters is projected to increase. For instance, we are looking at how Hurricane Sandy might have been worse, and then we ask, “what does this look like in a world that is 2°C warmer?”

With our research, we are not trying to predict when and how extreme climate events will take place, but we are shedding light on the weakest links in our systems. Knowing where our vulnerabilities lay is essential for policy-makers and practitioners to take the necessary actions to adapt.

Want to read more about counterfactuals? RECEIPT researcher Alessio Ciullo and colleagues have just published a paper on the topic!


Published on : 20 July 2021