Yesterday, Matthew posted this piece with an interview with Andrew Revkin. It began
“Once derided, ways of adapting to climate change are gaining steam”
I had a feeling that I had read that somewhere, possibly a long time, before. I looked it up, and sure enough, I found this 2007 science op-ed (that is, an opinion piece by scientists, published in Nature) claiming much the same thing. The authors are Roger Pielke, Jr., Gwyn Prins, Steve Rayner and Daniel Sarewitz.
But perspectives have changed. Adaptation is again seen as an essential part of climate policy alongside greenhouse-gas mitigation. Both the recent Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and the efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrate that adaptation is firmly back on the agenda. There are at least three reasons why the taboo on adaptation can no longer be enforced.
First, there is a timescale mismatch. Whatever actions ultimately lead to the decarbonization of the global energy system, it will be many decades before they have a discernible effect on the climate. Historical emissions dictate that climate change is unavoidable. And even the most optimistic emissions projections show global greenhouse-gas concentrations rising for the foreseeable future.
Second, vulnerability to climate-related impacts on society are increasing for reasons that have nothing to do with greenhouse-gas emissions, such as rapid population growth along coasts and in areas with limited water supplies. As Hurricane Katrina made devastatingly clear, climate vulnerability is caused by unsustainable patterns of development combined with socioeconomic inequity.
Post-Katrina debate focused on whether or not the event bore the signature of global warming, despite the fact that scientists have known for decades the inevitability of a Katrina-like disaster in New Orleans.
Finally, those who will suffer the brunt of climate impacts are now demanding that the international response to climate change focus on increasing the resilience of vulnerable societies to damaging climate events that — like Katrina — will occur regardless of efforts to mitigate emissions. In 2002, developing countries put forward the ‘Delhi Declaration’, calling for greater attention to adaptation in international climate-change policy negotiations.
Does the above statement about Katrina remind anyone else of wildfires? Of course, adaptation is required, regardless of the proportion of climate change attributed, or attributable, to human impacts. Most of us who have done climate planning for feds or others have consciously targeted both adaptation and mitigation. Some groups deal more with adaptation and not so much mitigation (think plant breeders, water engineers). But why is adaptation not as “cool” as mitigation? Why does it need to be repeatedly rediscovered? What are the forces that have been, and may be continuing to, work against adaptation as having its own place in the sun?
Here are my hypotheses:
(1) First in, last out. Climate modelers found a primary place in the public conversation and a certain liking of being close to power, plus lots of research funding. They may be reluctant to give some of that up to adaptation folks. Does anyone know how much federal research goes to mitigation (I’m also interested in the proportion to predicting and analyzing vs. developing technology) compared to adaptation?
(2) Physics envy. Let’s just say that the traditional biases say the closer you are to organisms and people in your studies, the less cool your research is.
(3) Not as engaging. Media and politicians like getting people worked up, the former so they click, and the latter so they click on donations. County planning or a new milo variety does not have the same cachet (I guess the word is engagement) as a new study that shows that things are worse than previously thought.