Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

1.The UK needs to be able to tackle unforeseeable and challenging risk scenarios. The world has changed into an increasingly complex web of interconnected systems which rely on disparate linkages across the globe. The UK must move away from a risk management strategy which prepares for individual risk scenarios in isolation and often ignores or fails to appreciate the interconnected nature of our society. No two risk scenarios will play out in the same way and many emergencies will produce cascading effects that are capable of major disruption as they rip through society. The UK’s risk management system must adapt to ensure that we are prepared for the evolving extreme and systemic risks on the horizon. It must not just anticipate risks but prepare for and respond to them effectively, bridging the gap between analysis and operational capability to ensure the safety and security of the population. Much of the Government’s time and attention is focused on responding to crises and emergencies, from flooding to terrorist attacks. We must place a premium on possessing the competence and capacity to manage these crises.

2.The House of Lords Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee was appointed during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a momentous time in which travel ground to a halt, social interactions were transformed, and the tragic impacts of the virus were felt across the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the deadly potential of a novel infectious disease, with the UK death toll far surpassing the “100 fatalities” previously projected by the Government.1 There is no evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic was an event with malicious intent. However, the technologies needed to engineer a biological weapon are “rapidly progressing”2, raising the threat posed by malicious actors who may seek to emulate the chaos created by COVID-19. However, pandemics are only one of a number of extreme risks facing the UK. Severe space weather events could render smart technologies on which much of society relies inoperable for weeks or longer; this would include GPS, the internet, communications systems and power supplies. A cyber or physical attack on our critical national infrastructure could wreak havoc. We must be prepared to anticipate, plan for and respond to many extreme risks in the future.

3.Despite the manifestation of risks being highly uncertain, attempts are made to anticipate them and plan accordingly. For the last decade, the risk of a pandemic was ranked as a highest priority “tier-1” security risk.3 The UK’s unpreparedness to manage the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus was and is clear. More broadly, our inquiry has analysed the UK’s risk assessment process and found that our current system is deficient at assessing and addressing future threats and hazards. The core of the UK’s current risk assessment system, the National Security Risk Assessment, is not rigorous enough to justify the confidence placed in it.

4.We consider that generalised resilience is the right response to the threat of increasingly unpredictable risk. The Government’s risk management system should change from attempting to forecast and mitigate discrete risks, towards a more holistic system of preparedness. Reframing risk management through the lens of resilience would produce a risk management system that ties all sectors of society together. The UK would then be better prepared to defend against the wide range of emerging threats and hazards that confront us, with all elements of society able to mobilise and respond to events when they occur.

Our inquiry

5.On 15 October 2020, the House of Lords appointed this Committee “to consider risk assessment and risk planning in the context of disruptive national hazards”.4 On 13 May 2021, we were re-appointed at the start of the new parliamentary session.5 From the outset of the inquiry, we have focused on these key questions:

6.To answer these questions, and others, we engaged in an extensive evidence gathering programme. This report contains our conclusions and recommendations drafted from the evidence we have received.

7.We are grateful to all who contributed their expertise and time. On 23 December 2020 we issued a call for evidence and, in response, received 99 pieces of written evidence. Between 25 November 2020 and 23 June 2021, we took oral evidence from 85 witnesses during 29 sessions. The witnesses are listed in Appendix 2. The call for evidence is shown in Appendix 3. The evidence received is published online.

8.We focused the initial stages of the inquiry on central government. Oral evidence was taken from the Director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat within the Cabinet Office and former Government Chief Scientific Advisers. We then identified specific risk case studies and heard evidence regarding artificial intelligence, biosecurity, infrastructure and the nuclear, oil and gas industries. Breaking away from discrete risks, we gathered evidence on mitigation strategies from business and insurance providers. Military witnesses gave evidence about the role of the armed forces during civil emergencies.

9.We then focused on resilience and the integration of different sectors of society within risk management. Evidence was taken from the voluntary sector, Local Resilience Forums, senior leaders and the devolved administrations.

10.Our inquiry concluded with oral evidence from the then Paymaster General, Rt. Hon. Penny Mordaunt MP, the Director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.

11.During the inquiry, we were granted access to the Official-Sensitive version of the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA). Although there is no discussion of the content of the NSRA in this report, we used our access to the NSRA to validate our own conclusions and recommendations regarding the document. We held two separate, private conversations with the then Paymaster General, Penny Mordaunt MP, and the current Paymaster General, Michael Ellis MP QC, to advise the Government on potential amendments to the NSRA and aspects of the UK’s risk management system.

12.The members of the Committee are listed in Appendix 1, alongside their declared interests. Throughout the inquiry, we have been grateful to have had the support of Professor David Alexander, Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London, as special adviser to the Committee. We would also like to thank the staff team who supported our inquiry: Elizabeth Hooper, Sarah Jennings, Samantha Kenny, Rebecca Pickavance and Alastair Taylor.

Box 1: Climate Change

In its landmark 2021 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared it “unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred”.6 Climate Change is one of the largest and most dominant risks facing the world, and many other risks will be exacerbated by it. The conclusions and recommendations made within this report should be considered in light of risks posed by climate change.

Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850, with the last six years being the warmest on record globally.7 The level of heating to date is almost entirely caused by human emissions, with human actions heating the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years.8 This heating has had a significant impact, with every additional 0.5°C of global heating leading to increases in the intensity and frequency of hot extremes, including heatwaves, heavy rains and drought. Global heating above 2.5°C would increase the risk of passing irreversible climate tipping points including Antarctic ice sheet melting, widespread forest diebacks, or a collapse of Atlantic Ocean currents.9 Global emissions have also risen. In 2019, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years, and concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide were higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years. 10 These changes have led to the global retreat of glaciers, surface melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and global acidification of the ocean.11

The key risks and challenges

Sustained global heating would lead to an increase in the frequency, intensity and impacts of extreme weather events. Between 2000 and 2019 there were almost double the number of climate-related disasters compared to the previous 20 years, with 510,837 deaths and 3.9 billion people affected.12 Over the same period the number of major floods has more than doubled.13 Warmer and drier conditions are likely to increase the risk, timing and severity of forest fires.14

Climate change could lead to irreversible shifts in regional climates. Global heating could lead to a collapse of the ocean current systems that transport warm surface waters to the North Atlantic, drastically changing weather patterns. These currents have been destabilised over the last century and may be close to a critical transition.15 This would cause shifts in monsoon patterns and lead to cooler temperatures over Northern Europe, and dryer weather and increases in winter storms across the entirety of Europe.

Global heating has caused, and will continue to cause, sea level rises through ice melting and thermal expansion from ocean warming. By 2050, UK sea levels could be 10–30 cm higher than they were in the period 1981–2000.16 In the most extreme scenarios, global sea-levels could rise two metres by 2100 and five metres by 2150.17 A two metre sea level rise would profoundly alter geography. Approximately 1.05 million square kilometres of land could be lost. A less than one metre sea level rise by 2100 could put 410 million people at risk. 18 Areas that now lie just above sea level may one day become submerged. Such significant sea-rise levels could lead to coastal erosion, extreme flooding, soil contamination, the loss of infrastructure services which lie in the path of rising seas and extensive migration of displaced people. 19 An increase in standing water could increase the threat of malaria carrying mosquitos and diseases associated with standing water such as Lyme’s disease. 20

Across the world, climate change could lead to widespread food insecurity, 21 increased violent conflict, and the weakening of international law and governance.22 As areas become uninhabitable, there will be an increase in the number of Climate refugees.23 Animal species and their habitats would be threatened by increasing temperatures, water scarcity, wildfires and flooding. 24 Five per cent of all species would be threatened with extinction by 2°C of warming, while 16 per cent of species could be lost if the average global temperature rise exceeds 4.3°C.25

In the case of persistent high emissions, the impact on the UK would be dramatic. By 2080, temperatures of 40°C could be exceeded as often as 32°C is exceeded today.26 Droughts would become more likely and severe,27 while extreme heavy rainfall events would increase.28 Extreme temperatures could lead to interruptions of household water supplies.29 There will be increased pressure on the electricity network, while extreme climate events could lead to cascading failures across multiple infrastructure networks, with devastating impacts.30 Climate hazards in the UK and abroad would cause supply chain disruptions, threating food security in the UK.31

Addressing the risk

The UK’s Climate Change Committee have stated that adaptation action has failed to keep pace with the worsening reality of climate risk. This is despite the UK Government having the resources to address the risk.32 Limiting future climate change by reducing emissions, stabilising temperatures and preparing for climate change thorough adaptations will help reduce its consequences. The Government have acknowledged that building the UK’s preparedness and resilience to climate change impacts is a cost-effective and essential way to protect our people, economy and environment.33

Limiting temperature increases requires reductions in carbon dioxide emissions along with significant reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather will continue to increase until this is done. Although some changes already caused by global heating, such as sea level rises, are irreversible, the International Panel on Climate Change advised that “strong and sustained reductions in emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases would limit climate change.”34 At the COP26 conference in Glasgow, countries agreed to meet next year to pledge further cuts to emissions of CO2, with an aim of limiting temperature rises to 1.5°C.35

Adaptation is also needed to reduce damage from climate change that has already occurred or is projected to occur. This includes improving building design, retrofitting existing buildings, greater flood defence investment, increasing plant diversity, restoring peatlands, urban greening and adapting agricultural practices.36

In October 2021 the Government published its Net Zero Strategy which set out how the UK would halve emissions by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050. The Climate Change Committee welcomed the plan as “an ambitious and comprehensive strategy that marks a significant step forward for UK climate policy”.37 However, they also noted that “There are some strategic gaps, as well as uncertainties over how the Government’s ambitions will be delivered in some sectors”.38

Lessons to be learned from the climate change case study

13.Many of the risks facing the UK are likely to increase both in magnitude and frequency as a result of climate change, and risk assessment cannot be conducted without acknowledging this fact. Climate change is an ever more significant risk facing the UK and action to address it needs to be undertaken rapidly and as a priority.

Defining extreme risk

14.There is no single accepted definition of extreme risk. It is agreed that extreme risks have systemic, widespread, effects,39 can impact across international borders and could cascade through many of the sectors of society.40 Through their extensive impacts, extreme risks can erode a state’s ability to meet its strategic objectives.41

15.Definitions of extreme risks are not confined to sudden shock events. They also include evolving chronic risks. These risks have the potential to cause irreversible changes to the global system. These changes are likely to build slowly over time. Examples of such risks include increasing antimicrobial resistance and events associated with anthropogenic climate change such as ice sheet collapse, largescale permafrost melting and forest dieback.42

16.In this report, we will define extreme risk as:

‘High-impact events that, if they materialise, would cause widespread damage to many aspects of our society and compromise the achievement of the strategic objectives set by the Government. They can impact at global, national or regional levels and could cause significant loss of life, loss of value, or a substantial and detrimental societal impact.’

17.A distinction can be drawn between threats and hazards. The 2008 National Risk Register refers to hazards as being natural events without malicious intent, while threats have malicious intent.43

Why investigate now?

18.The Committee was formed amid the global upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst the Committee never intended to undertake a COVID-19 inquiry, the pandemic has taught us daily lessons about the need for better resilience. The whole of society currently is engaged in a fight against the virus. It shows that people, when properly informed, will respond appropriately–pessimism about our behaviour in the early stages of the epidemic was mis-placed. We need to adopt a whole of society approach to resilience, learning not only from our experiences in the UK but also from examples of best practice internationally.


1 Cabinet Office, National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies (September 2017) p 34: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/644968/UK_National_Risk_Register_2017.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

2 Q 99 (Dr Cassidy Nelson)

3 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, Biosecurity and national security (1st Report, Session 2019–2021, HC 611, HL Paper 195)

4 HL Deb, 15 October 2020, cols 1205–1206 [Lords Chamber]

5 HL Deb, 13 May 2021, cols 175–176 [Lords Chamber]

6 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2021, The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers (August 2021) p 4: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM_final.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

7 Climate Change Committee, Independent Assessment of UK climate Risk (June 2021) p 36: https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Independent-Assessment-of-UK-Climate-Risk-Advice-to-Govt-for-CCRA3-CCC.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

8 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2021, The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers (August 2021) p 6: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM_final.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

9 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2021, The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers (August 2021) p 27: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM_final.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

10 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2021, The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers (August 2021) p 8: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM_final.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

11 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2021, The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers (August 2021) p 8: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM_final.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

12 UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Human Cost of Disasters: An overview of the last 20 years 2000–2019 (October 2020) p 6: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Human%20Cost%20of%20Disasters%202000–2019%20Report%20-%20UN%20Office%20for%20Disaster%20Risk%20Reduction.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

13 UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Human Cost of Disasters: An overview of the last 20 years 2000–2019 (October 2020) p 7: https://www.undrr.org/sites/default/files/inlinefiles/Human%20Cost%20of%20Disasters%202000–2019%20FINAL.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

14 Forest Research, ‘Forest fires and climate change’: https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/research/climate-change-impacts/forest-fires-and-climate-change/ [accessed 22 November 2021]

15 Niklas Boers, ‘Observation-based early-warning signals for a collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation’, Nature Climate Change, vol. 11, (2021), pp 680–688: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558–021-01097-4

16 Climate Change Committee, Independent Assessment of UK climate Risk (June 2021) p 36: https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Independent-Assessment-of-UK-Climate-Risk-Advice-to-Govt-for-CCRA3-CCC.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

17 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Climate Change 2021, The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymaker’ (August 2021) p 21: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

18 Nature.com, ‘Global LiDAR: land elevation data reveal greatest sea-level rise vulnerability in the tropics’: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467–021-23810-9 [accessed 22 November 2021]

19 National Geographic, ‘Sea level rise, explained’: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/sea-level-rise-1 [accessed 22 November 2021]

20 British Geological Survey, ‘Impacts of climate change’: https://www.bgs.ac.uk/discovering-geology/climate-change/impacts-of-climate-change/ [accessed 22 November 2021]

21 Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, ‘Transforming the food system to deliver beneficial long-term outcomes’: https://post.parliament.uk/transforming-the-food-system/ [accessed 05 October 2021]

22 UK Climate Risk Independent Assessment (CCRA3), Technical Report Chapter 7: International Dimensions (June 2021) p 3: https://www.ukclimaterisk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/CCRA3-Chapter-7-FINAL.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

23 UNCHR, ‘Climate change and disaster displacement’: https://www.unhcr.org/uk/climate-change-and-disasters.html [accessed 22 November 2021]

24 UK Climate Risk Independent Assessment (CCRA3), Technical Report Chapter 3: Natural Environment and Assets (June 2021) p 19: https://www.ukclimaterisk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/CCRA3-Chapter-3-FINAL.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

25 Nature, ‘Humans are driving one million species to extinction’: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586–019-01448-4 [accessed 22 November 2021]

26 Climate Change Committee, Independent Assessment of UK climate Risk (June 2021) p 134: https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Independent-Assessment-of-UK-Climate-Risk-Advice-to-Govt-for-CCRA3-CCC.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

27 Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Water supply resilience and climate change, POST brief 40, May 2021

28 UK Climate Risk Independent Assessment (CCRA3), Technical Report Chapter 3: Natural Environment and Assets (June 2021) p 73: https://www.ukclimaterisk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/CCRA3-Chapter-3-FINAL.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

29 Climate Change Committee, Independent Assessment of UK climate Risk (June 2021) p 60: https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Independent-Assessment-of-UK-Climate-Risk-Advice-to-Govt-for-CCRA3-CCC.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

30 Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Infrastructure and climate change, POST note 621, March 2020

31 Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, A resilient UK food system, POST note 626, June 2020

32 Climate Change Committee, ‘Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk’: https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/independent-assessment-of-uk-climate-risk/ [accessed 22 November 2021]

33 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ‘Climate change adaptation: policy information’: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/climate-change-adaptation-policy-information/climate-change-adaptation-policy-information [accessed 22 November 2021]

34 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying—IPCC’: https://www.ipcc.ch/2021/08/09/ar6-wg1-20210809-pr/ [accessed 22 November 2021]

35 ‘COP26: What was agreed at the Glasgow climate conference?’, BBC News (16 November 2021): https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-56901261 [accessed 22 November 2021]

36 Climate Change Committee, Independent Assessment of UK climate Risk (June 2021) p 27: https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Independent-Assessment-of-UK-Climate-Risk-Advice-to-Govt-for-CCRA3-CCC.pdf [accessed 30 November 2021]

37 Climate Change Committee, ‘Independent Assessment: The UK’s Net Zero Strategy’: https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/independent-assessment-the-uks-net-zero-strategy/ [accessed 22 November 2021]

38 Climate Change Committee, ‘Government’s Net Zero Strategy is a major step forward, CCC says’: https://www.theccc.org.uk/2021/10/26/governments-net-zero-strategy-is-a-major-step-forward-ccc-says/ [accessed 22 November 2021]

39 Q 235 (Lord Harris of Haringey, Professor Brian Collins)

40 Written evidence from Warwick Manufacturing Group (RSK0059)

41 Suzanne Raine, ‘Half of the National Risk Register is Missing’, Royal United Services Institute, vol. 41, (2021), pp 1–3: https://nationalpreparednesscommission.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/raine_web_newsbrief_0.pdf

42 Written evidence from The Adaptation Committee of the Committee on Climate Change (RSK0065)




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