Extreme weather: Can we adapt to a changing climate?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


The wildfire in Hawaii in August is just one example of extreme weather and natural disasters in recent months. Southern Europe has baked in record temperatures. Indeed, July was reportedly the hottest month globally since records began. Earlier this year, wildfires in Canada covered much of the north-eastern US with smoke. There have also been major floods and landslides this year in Sweden, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. Last year, devastating floods affected Pakistan, leaving over 1,700 people dead.

Environmental campaigners, experts and many politicians argue that climate change is already making such events more likely. Disasters aside, extreme weather events make life much more unpleasant and costly. Extreme weather will continue to become more common unless we phase out fossil fuels and cut emissions.

But others note that the data on extreme weather does not, in the main, support the idea that these events are becoming more common. Moreover, they argue that economic development allows societies to be better prepared and more resilient when disaster strikes. Diverting vast resources to reducing emissions could actually lead to more deaths in the future, particularly in poorer countries.

Should we spend trillions on reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions? Given that economic losses from such events can be enormous, even if lives are saved, isn’t prevention better than cure? Or would that money be better spent on making societies more resilient to extreme weather? Does the narrative of climate-change catastrophe get in the way of less dramatic measures that can protect people and property?

Timandra Harkness
journalist, writer and broadcaster; presenter, Radio 4’s FutureProofing and How to Disagree; author, Big Data: does size matter?

Laurie Laybourn
researcher; writer; associate fellow, Institute for Public Policy Research; co-author, Planet on Fire: A manifesto for the age of environmental breakdown

Harry Wilkinson
head of policy, Global Warming Policy Foundation

Martin Wright
director, Positive News; formerly editor-in-chief, Green Futures; former director, Forum for the Future

Jacob Reynolds
head of policy, MCC Brussels; associate fellow, Academy of Ideas