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Q&A with Heidi Tuhkanen on climate risk adaptation in the Baltic Sea Region

SEI Tallinn has recently published a report on climate hazards and their consequences around the Baltic Sea Region as part of the CASCADE project. Heidi Tuhkanen, who based this report on a desk-review of literature related to these regionally-relevant climate risks, as well as a comparison of how national risk assessments in the region account for them, provides an overview of the findings.

Storm in Gotland

The storm approaching Gotland (Sweden). Photo: Westend 61 / Getty Images

Helen Saarniit / Published on 21 January 2021

To what extent are climate risks accounted for in the Baltic Sea region?

Climate risks are usually accounted for in national adaptation strategies and/or plans, which all Baltic Sea Region (BSR) countries have. However, the extent to which these are implemented, especially at the local level, differs quite a bit. We published a report on this in 2019. One of the things we discovered was that local plans tended to be narrow in focus, as they looked mostly at water-related risks. Our new report tries to remedy that. It compiles the main hazards relevant to the region, including ones from abroad, and highlights the impact chains which could potentially result from them.

We also looked into how these risks were accounted for in national disaster risk-related assessments. We attempted to develop a regional update of a European Commission report from 2017 which assessed National Risk Analyses (NRA) across the EU based on their inclusion of climate and cascading risks. This European Environmental Agency (EEA) report concluded that NRAs varied in terms of how they accounted for climate issues. However, such an update was challenging because many NRAs are not publicly available. Based on the documents we did review, it is clear that there is still room for improvement. For example, even when climate issues were accounted for, it was not clear whether the assessments were based on future climate projections or purely historical climate trends.

Why is it necessary to look into climate impacts at the regional level? How is the Baltic Sea Region connected to, or dependent on, other regions in terms of climate change?

In our report, we explored the consequences of climate change impacts taking place in the Baltic Sea Region, as well as looking at those occurring beyond, from the perspective of the BSR. For example, hazard events such as forest fires, storms and flooding, and their resulting impacts, pay no attention to territorial borders. The smoke from forest fires can travel far with the winds.

As our economies are highly dependent on the mobility of people as well as goods, issues that impact this mobility or the availability of goods can lead to cascading effects which reverberate throughout society. The Baltic Sea Region is quite diverse in terms of projected impacts across its countries but, at the same time, many of these projected impacts are shared, especially between neighboring countries. This brings opportunities for learning together and supporting each other.

How can we look at this topic in the current context of the COVID-19 crisis?

Even though the COVID-19 crisis is not attributed to climate change, we need to take into consideration the fact that climate change can increase the risk of pandemics. The current COVID situation has demonstrated the extent of the global impacts which such a shock can have: trickling down through our supply chains into our economies, affecting our health, how we interact with others and how we organize our society. These extensive and cascading effects can limit not only our ability to function normally, but also the way that we can respond to subsequent or even unrelated shocks – those that are both man-made and natural in origin. We can see from this past year that, within the context of COVID, responding to wildfire situations, tropical storms, or even societal problems which require people to interact, is even more challenging.

What are your suggestions regarding tackling climate impacts in the future?

From our work in CASCADE, we see that facing these cascading climate impacts in the future requires even more collaboration and long-term thinking than is currently being engaged in. There are several aspects that require attention.

Firstly, there is the need to perform integrated climate risk assessments to increase awareness of climate risks and their far-reaching effects across sectoral boundaries. For local authorities, this means collaboration between urban planners, emergency preparedness managers and managers of the critical infrastructure that they are dependent on.

Secondly, public and private sector actors should be accounting for projected climate impacts. Relying on historical trends will leave gaps in adaptation strategies.

Thirdly, collaborating across borders is essential to ensure coherent adaptation and preparedness strategies. Collaboration can begin with sharing the results of climate risk assessments, but can extend into joint preparation of strategies or action plans.

Lastly, preparation for both direct and indirect impacts is necessary, as is being aware of your vulnerabilities from abroad, both in and beyond the Baltic Sea Region.

What is the aim of this report? (Who is likely to benefit from the information gathered in it?)

The report is by no means definitive and recognizes that the effects of climate change and its responses are always local. However, it is meant to be a resource to convey how disaster risk reduction and adaptation connect with so many other facets of society, and therefore why risk reduction needs to be mainstreamed. The report will be one of the resources in our CASCADE toolkit which is tailored to the Baltic Sea Region’s local- and regional-level actors.


Heidi Tuhkanen
Heidi Tuhkanen

Senior Expert (Green and Circular Economic Transformations Unit)

SEI Tallinn

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