Overline: Sustainable risk assessment
Headline: IASS Director Advises British House of Lords

The British House of Lords recently invited the Scientific Director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) Professor Ortwin Renn to speak about national risk assessment at a public hearing of the Select Committee on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning. One of the main points Renn made to the British Parliament was that in tackling a national crisis, governments need to show that they are working in the interests of the common good.

Palace of Westminster London
Palace of Westminster in London: meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords (Parliament). View over Westminster Bridge and the Thames. Shuterstock/ Ingrid Pakats

On 2 December 2020, IASS Scientific Director Ortwin Renn spoke about IASS research on sustainable risk management in the coronavirus crisis in a distinguished setting: the Select Committee on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning in the British House of Lords had asked him to present his views on the key challenges associated with national risk assessment and risk planning. In their invitation to Professor Renn, the committee members wrote that the aim of the public hearing was “to learn more about the effectiveness of the British approach to risk management, national resilience, and problems and challenges in this area.” They were equally interested in finding out where a review or change of policy would be beneficial. “Your experience and expertise in categorising risk and measuring risk impacts are invaluable.”

In addition to Ortwin Renn, two other researchers were invited to the hearing with the members of the House of Lords: Piers Millet, Senior Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University and Professor David Alexander, Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London.

The coronavirus pandemic: the “mother of all disasters”

In describing the phenomenon of cascading risks, Professor Alexander referred to the coronavirus pandemic as the “mother of all disasters” because of its size, complexity and enduring nature. In response, Ortwin Renn explained that “When we try to do national risk assessments, we need a common denominator for comparing different types of risks. Some of those risks have a very different distribution in time and space, so it’s difficult just to compare risks on a probability times magnitude scale. I think one of the major challenges of these national risk assessments is to clearly communicate what the priorities are.”

Later on in the hearing Renn recommended that every country establish a national risk council composed of experts in different fields. It would, however, make sense to form such a council at a time of relative stability to ensure that it is in place and ready to react swiftly whenever a disaster strikes.

The representatives of the House of Lords then asked Renn about how best to communicate risk to the wider public on the basis of his classification of the three different kinds of responses to the Covid-19 pandemic: freeze, fight and flee. As Renn explained, “There’s a group of people that ignores it, then there are those that try to run away from it, and the last group fights it.” In risk communication, the challenge is therefore to address all three groups of people at the same time but tailor communications to their particular responses.

When asked whether there were any lessons about the risk management process that the UK could learn from Germany, Renn responded: “In the midst of a crisis, governments have to show that they are acting in the interests of the common good and not engaged in political manoeuvring with a hidden agenda. Otherwise they will lose public trust.”