In October, a group of investors shepherding $20 trillion in assets signed an appeal for clear, long-term policies as incentives for low-carbon economies. Later that month, a study listed the nations and mega-cities most at risk from climate impacts. Then, a report on refugees found that nations must prepare to help millions re-settle in the coming decades.
The link between these headlines is climate adaptation: reconfiguring our world’s economies and policies to work under a more extreme climate. While that might seem like an old conversation, it’s not; mitigation — reducing greenhouse gases — has been the main topic of climate discussion in the past 20 years. But attention is shifting to the once taboo topic of adaptation.
“Nobody talked about it,” Richard Klein, a climate specialist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, told me during last year’s global climate conference in Cancun, Mexico. “People thought that adaptation meant giving up on mitigation efforts. It was politically incorrect. But after the last two decades — with frequent hurricanes, droughts, floods, record temperatures — we see that people are already adapting, whether we like it or not.
“The battle to reduce greenhouse gases is worth fighting; even though vested economic interests make mitigation a tough topic. But planned adaptation is now just as necessary.”
A few years ago, a commentary in the academic journal Nature titled “Lifting the Taboo on Adaptation” helped ignite the discussion on adaptation. Even the most optimistic scenarios for emission reduction, the authors pointed out, will not avoid lasting changes in the atmosphere’s composition and its subsequent effects on nature and society. They concluded that adaptation cannot be ignored, particularly since other trends — like the growth of cities along coastlines and in arid regions — only increase our vulnerability.
From this perspective, mitigation without planned adaptation is a mistake. Like fixing a leaky pipe, but forgetting to shut off the faucet — any improvements are otherwise quickly jeopardized. The authors of the Nature piece, led by Roger Pielke Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, cited the case of the Philippines. That island nation acknowledges flood risks from sea-level rise (reflecting the need for mitigation), but overlooks how its excessive ground-water extraction (an adaptation issue) magnifies the problem.
In the multinational realm, the United Nations’ Adaptation Fund became operational in 2009. This fund provides financing for developing countries to address the most immediate impacts of changing climate. Negotiations in Cancun last year dealt with how adaptation funds would be monitored and distinguished from sustainable development funds. The United Nations-sponsored climate conference taking place now in Durban, South Africa will further this agenda through its Adaptation Committee and Technology Mechanism.
There is a lot of talk about adaptation. Yet, I found it hard to get a clear answer on what is adaptation. When I asked some experts, I received no shortage of slippery answers: “Every case is different,” they said, citing long lists of abstract solutions like capacity-building and better governance.
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At the Cancun conference last year, I went hunting for clarity on “adaptation.” Stuck in the convention center miles from the beach, most participants barely saw the light of the sun. I was lucky to attend an event on the hotel strip that towers over the blue Caribbean. “Looks like Las Vegas on the beach,” I thought. “But where’s the beach?” I wondered, peering down at the thin ribbon of sand below.
Storm erosion had removed all the sand, explained David Placencia, a biologist at the nearby Akumal Ecological Center. “The big Hurricane Wilma in 2005 wrecked a few hotels and washed away the beach. The city is now pumping thousands of tons of sand to re-create the beach. We hope a hurricane won’t come again — for a few years anyway.”
Rebuilding the beach is important for tourism, officials reasoned. But, I wondered, how many Cancun hotels were rebuilt with stronger systems to deal with future storms? Spending the extra money is a matter of risk perception, depending on what we believe the future holds. Risk management with a focus on the weather is, in simple terms, climate adaptation.
Humans are creatures of adaptation. Even though the Earth’s climate has been relatively stable during the past 10,000 years, fluctuations year to year and over decades created constant change. A farmer who experiences drought may anticipate the risk of drought next year, and stockpiles extra grain. Today, just as technology has accelerated life, so has the climate become, well, faster.
“The climate is like a window of possibility, with a somewhat defined range,” explained Dan Morris, of Resources for the Future. “We are used to living within this range of uncertainty, making educated guesses about the weather in the future. The only problem is that it’s becoming more erratic and unpredictable.”
He offered the example of driving to work. Let’s say that five years ago it took you 15 minutes to drive to work. Now it can take you 15 minutes — or as much as an hour, depending on traffic. The window of possibility has become larger, so you need to give yourself a buffer and leave earlier, just in case. Increasing your buffer lets you retain some semblance of control.
Buffers are like a savings account for unforeseen expenses; they are a key way to manage risks. “By how much will the climate window grow, the temperatures and precipitation extremes?” Morris asked. “We don’t know the magnitude, but there will be more climate ‘traffic jams,’ so to speak. Increasing the buffers in the system will help it stay intact, especially when problems magnify.”
To prepare for risks, we must first recognize them. In some places it’s easier to recognize risks than others. Tuvalu, a nation of coral atoll islands laying a few feet above sea level in the South Pacific, is such a case. The country celebrated its first King Tide Festival recently (see video) with a good dose of morbid humor.
Scientific data helps clarify risks. A minister from Africa’s Burkina Faso detailed how decreasing bands of rainfall over the past 50 years stunted crop yields. Droughts were followed inexplicably by a catastrophic flood in 2009, another case of an extreme event outside the “window” of regular experience.
Being on the edge of that window puts things into perspective. A 13-year-old girl from Haiti discussed how life there has been a difficult mix of poverty, storms, earthquakes, and disease. "In Haiti, we appreciate simple, sustainable solutions," she said. Those on the edge have a different set of priorities. It is like being sick with the flu — we suddenly appreciate the value of a healthier lifestyle.
Industrialized nations such as the United States aren’t immune to life on the edge. The Gulf of Mexico region, for example, lies on the hurricane circuit, and while it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact ole climate change has on any individual storm, it is making them on the whole nastier. Hurricane Ike left Texas’ Galveston Island in shambles in 2008. “We couldn’t return home for a month because of problems with sewage and water,” Hannah Campbell, an adaptation manager at Conservation International, told me. “It’s a little ironic. I spend my days advising distant communities how to adapt, how to become more resilient, but Ike reminded us that climate affects everyone.”
I asked her the difference between adaptation in the U.S. and developing countries. “The principles are the same,” she answered. “It’s dealing with risk. In the U.S., we use insurance and government regulation to deal with risk; in rural Africa, on the other hand, people have to depend more on community bonds and their continued livelihood from the land. Their safety nets are fewer, their exposure greater.”
A presentation by Kenyans later in the week drove this point home. Food prices have been fluctuating from the lack of consistent rainfall. The Kenyan presenter noted, “In Africa we say that a hungry person is an angry person. Drought exacerbates social stress, as occurred sadly with the pastoralists in Darfur.”
Americans aren’t going hungry, but they can become angry. As Hurricane Katrina and floods in the Midwest have shown, vulnerability is more about proximity to the edge and ability to cope with change, than generalizations about Africans or Americans.
The U.S. Storm Center had a graphic presentation that captured the relationship between climate and wellbeing. Using a 40-inch interactive touch screen, like a massive iPad, they used maps of Las Vegas and Atlanta with layers for population growth and drought conditions to show possible effects on real estate prices. Temperature maps of Florida and Texas hinted at why people are increasingly picking more northerly states for retirement.
“Data from the past half century is largely unequivocal, so there is no excuse to overlook it,” said the center’s chief, Dave Jones. “Predicting the future, as any business person knows, is more tricky. But there´s a common misunderstanding that I need to clear up: climate prediction isn’t at all like weather forecasting.
"Who knows if it’ll be cloudy or sunny in three weeks’ time?” he asked. “The weather is a problem of chaotic eddies and turbulence. Yet we’re all pretty certain that next spring the snow will thaw and summer will come. Climate is actually a more straightforward physics problem, and some of the missing pieces, like the exact role of cirrus cloud formation, are being worked out. So despite the popular impression that it’s just a ‘big guess,’ climate models are becoming a very reliable basis for decision-making.”
Assuming we understand the risks, there is still a question of opportunity cost. Should we put money in a savings account for “a rainy day,” or just buy that new car?
Morris from Resources For the Future summed it up: “To adapt proactively is hard, because benefits exist sometime in the future, and costs occur in the present. But if you’re more prepared, you can proceed with more confidence. Like in football. You want good blockers to keep you from being tackled, so you can run the ball farther. Maybe even score a touchdown!"