The following important commentary about climate change and public policy is from "Nature", Vol. 445/8, 2007. Basically, what they (the authors) are saying is that climate change is happening. Severe weather will happen. We can not change that fact. What we need to do is adapt to climate change. We must learn to live with reality.
The catastrophe in New Orleans caused by hurricane Katrina was a disaster waiting to happen. We can not stop or alter climate change and extreme weather, but we can better prepare for the consequences.
Lifting the taboo on adaptation
Renewed attention to policies for adapting to climate change cannot come too soon
for Roger Pielke, Jr, Gwyn Prins, Steve Rayner and Daniel Sarewitz.
During the early policy discussions on climate change in the 1980s, adaptation was understood
to be an important option for society. Yet for much of the past two decades the mere
idea of adapting to climate change became problematic for those advocating emissions
reductions, and was treated “with the same distaste that the religious right reserves for sex
education in schools. That is, both constitute ethical compromises that in any case will only
encourage dangerous experimentation with the undesired behaviour”1.
Indeed, former US vice-president Al Gore forcefully declared his opposition to adaptation in 1992, explaining that it represented a “kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skins”. 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 Change2 and the efforts of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change3 demonstrate that adaptation is firmly back on
the agenda. There are at least three reasons why the taboo on adaptation can no longer be
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 inequity4. 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 negotiations5.
Mind the gap
The rehabilitation of the idea of adaptation is overdue and seems straightforward. But there
is an elephant in the room: the core assumptions underlying contemporary climate-change
policy conflict with the goal of increasing resilience to natural climate change and variability.
Adaptation cannot just be dusted off and embraced— new ways of thinking about,
talking about and acting on climate change are necessary if a changing society is to adapt to a changing climate.
The United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treats
adaptation in the narrowest sense — as actions taken in response to climate changes resulting
from anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions6. By contrast, for decision-makers and
researchers focused on sustainable development and disaster mitigation, adaptation describes a
much broader range of actions that make societies more robust to changes, including, but not
limited to, those caused by climate change6.
This distinction profoundly affects society’s ability to take effective action. In the UNFCCC’s
view, adaptation is only necessary because of greenhouse-gas emissions — an interpretation
that is widely accepted. For instance, the Stern Review explained that adaptation “is crucial to
deal with the unavoidable impacts of climate change to which the world is already committed”
Adaptation, therefore, represents a cost of human-caused climate change that would
be avoided if climate change were prevented through emissions mitigation.
At the margins
But most projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change are marginal increases on
already huge losses. Locating adaptation in this margin creates bizarre distortions in public
policy. For example, in the Philippines, policymakers have begun to acknowledge the flood
threats posed by the gradual sea-level rise of 1 to 3 millimetres per year, projected to occur
with climate change. At the same time, they remain oblivious to, or ignore, the main reason
for increasing flood risk: excessive groundwater extraction, which is lowering the land surface by several centimetres to more than a decimetre per year7. As with Katrina, the political
obsession with the idea that climate risks can be reduced by cutting emissions distracts
attention from the more important factors that drive flood risks.
Similarly, non-climate factors are by far the most important drivers of increased risk to tropical disease. For instance, one study found that without taking into account climate change, the global population at risk from malaria would increase by 100% by 2080, whereas the effect of climate change would increase the risk of malaria by at most 7% (ref. 8). Yet tropical disease risk is repeatedlyinvoked by climate-mitigation advocates as a key reason to curb emissions.
In a world where political attention is limited, such distortions reinforce the current neglect of adaptation.
The wrong direction
Virtually every climate impact projected to result from increasing greenhouse-gas concentrations— from rising storm damage to declining biodiversity — already exists as a
major concern. As long as adaptation is discussed in terms of its marginal effects on
anthropogenic climate change, its real importance for society is obscured.
The focus on mitigation has created policy instruments that are biased against adaptation6. Under the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC, rich countries pay costs that poor countries
incur by adapting to the marginal impacts of climate change — but they can in principle
avoid these costs through enhanced mitigation efforts9.
This provision of the Protocol exemplifies the failure to take adaptation seriously: not only are the funds involved provided on a voluntary basis by rich countries but they are held hostage to mitigation9. The logic is that greenhouse-gas reductions will, in turn, reduce marginal adaptation costs. In practice, this means that the UNFCCC will pay “costs that lead to global environmental benefits, but not those that result in local benefits”.9 '
To those experiencing devastating losses from climate impacts in developing countries, such logic must sound surreal: policy ‘success’ means not investing in adaptation even as climate impacts, driven mainly by non-climate factors, continue to mount.
To address the bias in the Kyoto Protocol, some have suggested that a new protocol, focused on adaptation, be developed under the Climate Convention10, but it does not seem to have wide support. Others suggest that adaptation be ‘mainstreamed’ into existing institutions focused on sustainable development and disaster reduction, such as the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction11. The reality, of course, is that adaptation is already mainstreamed.
The roof over your head, complex reinsurance contracts for disasters or, indeed, every other institution, technology and policy that helps people to live safely and prosperously in the face of climatic variability, change and uncertainty are mainstream. The challenge is to move more of humanity into this mainstream.
Progress on adaptation is also distorted by the common assumption that marginal adaptation is a local issue, whereas mitigation is a global one, requiring global coordination2,9. But does the distinction hold? With the ongoing failure of many rich nations to reduce emissions, action on itigation has become increasingly diffuse as communities, cities, states and companies pursue emissions reductions. By contrast, the absence of a high-profile international vehicle for focusing attention on the broad benefits of adaptation seems to be one reason for its poor-cousin status at all scales of policy making11.
What would a more vigorous international debate on adaptation bring? Those who have been concerned that attention to adaptation (and sustainable development) would detract from mitigation efforts have sought to avoid such a debate. Yet policy-makers need to understand the limitations of mitigation for reducing vulnerabilities, and give more urgent consideration to broader adaptation policies— such as improved management of coastal zones and water resources — that will enhance societal resilience to future climate impacts regardless of their cause. To define adaptation as a cost of failed mitigation is to expose millions of poor people in compromised ecosystems to the very dangers that climate policy seeks to avoid.
A poor fit
But defining adaptation in terms of sustainable development does not fit comfortably into the current political framework of the climate change problem. By introducing sustainable development, one is forced to consider the missed opportunities of an international regime that for the past 15 years or more has focused enormous intellectual, political, diplomatic and fiscal
resources on mitigation while downplaying adaptation. Until adaptation is institutionalized
at a level of intensity and investment at least equal to those of the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol,
climate impacts will continue to mount unabated, regardless of even the most effective
cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. ■
Roger Pielke, Jr, is at the University of Colorado.
Gwyn Prins is at the London School of Economics
and Columbia University. Steve Rayner is at
Oxford University’s James Martin Institute.
Daniel Sarewitz is at Arizona State University.
1. Thompson, M. & Rayner, S. Cultural Discourses in Human
Choice and Climate Change Vol. 1 (Battelle Press, Columbus,
2. Stern, N. (ed.) The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern
Review (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2006).
3. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
4. Pielke, R. A. Jr & Sarewitz, D. Population and Environment
26, 255–268 (2005).
5. UNFCCC The Delhi Declaration on Climate Change and
Sustainable Development at http://unfccc.int/cop8/latest/
delhidecl_infprop.pdf (October 2002).
6. Pielke, R. A. Jr Environmental Science & Policy 8, 548–561
7. Rodolfo, K. S. & Siringan, F. P. Disasters 30, 118–139 (2006).
8. Goklany, I. Science 306, 55–57 (2004).
9. Bouwer, L. & Aerts, J. C. J. H. Disasters 30, 49–63 (2006).
10. Burton, I. Policy Options December-January, 33–38 (2005).
11. Huq, S. & Reid, H. IDS Bulletin 35, 15–21 (2004).
COMMENTARY CLIMATE CHANGE 2007 NATUREVol 4458 February 2007