Climate Change Risks — Taking the emotion out of the emotional

Fight or Flight — That is the Question

I get a lot of people saying to me

“I now get the mechanics of climate change, but I just don’t know how it’s specifically going to impact me”

These friends who are relocating are seeking cooler climates, more secure long term food supply and the ability to grow their own, and even the company of like-minded forward-thinking communities who might one day pool resources in a climate-constrained world.

It can all sound a bit dire but I totally get the motivations underneath it all. Unfortunately many of the decisions I see being made are somewhat hasty and may not actually change the outcome for these families.

In order to better understand climate risk it’s useful to use a simple example first. Let’s use a tree branch falling towards you as a working demonstration.

Work with me here.

There is a branch coming down (hazard) that is potentially going to land on your head (likelihood), and if it lands on your head it could injure or even kill you (consequence). Based on the combination of the hazard, the likelihood, and the consequence you’ve concluded that the falling branch is a ‘high risk’ event, so you’ve decided to alter the situation (adapt) to lessen that risk. In this case you’ve high tailed it out of there and converted the risk to zero — and who would blame you?!

Well played I say.

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Now swap out this example with climate change hazards instead. You can get a snapshot of the main ones here:

Responding to climate change can follow a similar train of thought, and in fact what I’ve just described is the principle for how climate risk is assessed by industries, governments and the market.

Whilst there is now arguably ample evidence and data to show us how the climate is likely to change, the process of understanding what that means for us, our homes, our communities, and our organisations can become highly complex, even to the extent that it’s common to grind to a halt with confusion and indecision, or even worse — make the wrong decisions.

So, let’s simplify things.

Firstly, what are the types of climate change consequences or impacts? Remember, the consequence is what happens as a result of the climate hazard. Here are the main types to consider.

Direct Consequences — climate hazards that can directly impact you or your property physically. For example, a storm lifts off the roof of your house, or a heat wave kills off your vegetable garden. Think of physical impacts you can see in your own yard. We can generally address these through physical adaptations if we can afford them.

Indirect Consequences — climate hazards that have occurred elsewhere but still have an impact on you, for example the same storm brings down the power lines to your neighbourhood, so you lose all power to your home.

Secondary Consequences — we’re still in the same storm (hazard), the power lines are down so you are without power (indirect impact), with some secondary impacts being the food in your refrigerator spoils, you can’t turn on the heating, your sewer pump won’t work, and you can’t charge your mobile phones (which is a problem if you need to call for medical support). It might even mean (gasp) that the Wifi isn’t working.

For a business it might mean that you can no longer trade or pay your staff. Without the right insurance in place it can mean financial ruin.

The IPCC released a good summary on how they define climate risk. In particular it stresses that we should only use the term ‘risk’ when we’re also talking about the consequences — as we are here (IPCC 2020).

Where things start to get really interesting is when we ask ourselves “How much control do I have over these consequences?”

The extent to which we can or can’t control these consequences determines how at risk we are.

As an example, this storm that just won’t quit has taken down the power lines to your neighbourhood, so your home would now be without power (indirect consequence) but you recently made an adaptation to your home by adding solar panels and battery storage. If you’re smart with your energy consumption your home can keep functioning for a number of days without grid power. You’ve controlled the climate risk. This works at any scale, even up to a town or city.

A home with its own energy supply can keep functioning. An office building or retail outlet with its own energy supply can keep trading. A school can keep teaching. A hospital can keep operating. When we start to also consider the financial benefits of being able to keep doing business the up-front costs of adaptation start to become very compelling indeed.

Photo by Manny Becerra on Unsplash

I’m a lover of simple diagrams that explain complex systems, so here’s one that captures what I’ve just described. I think of this one as the Climate Fight or Flight Matrix. Maybe don’t use this to make any big decisions just yet (unless you understand everything under the bonnet) but stay tuned.

The Climate Fight or Flight Matrix (Digby Hall)

I’ll revisit this from time to time.

If you’d like to know more please follow or reach out.

I’m intentionally leaning into this ugly space not because I enjoy it but because I know so many people are frozen with uncertainty, and I’m even seeing people make big decisions (like selling their home) without going through an un-emotional methodology. So the more you ask the more I can laser focus in meaningful ways.


Climate adaptation architect, striving to help tackle climate change through positive adaptation. Think. Move. Act.