This is a blog about carbon, and by extension climate change mitigation, but there’s another big job that’s rising fast on a lot of people’s To Do lists. It’s called adaptation, and suddenly everyone’s talking about it – for good reason as I learned last week. And the reason is this: the future is now. Climate-related changes are bearing down on us faster than many scientists expected, requiring action by individuals, communities, cities, and nations to reduce their effects. Inaction (like so much else connected to climate change) will only magnify the challenges, making them much harder to solve later.

In other words, our collective To Do list just got a lot longer.

Before I explain what I learned, however, I want to back up for a moment and review the overall troika of action required by climate change: (1) Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale; (2) Mitigation of atmospheric greenhouse gases through strategies that capture and store them long-term; and (3) Adaptation to ongoing effects of climate change as well as planning for new or increased effects in the future. Of the three, reducing emissions is by far and away the most critical. If the arrow of greenhouse gas production doesn’t turn downward, then we’re ultimately spitting into a hot, dry wind. However, as a result of decades of inaction by polluting nations, the other two strategies are rising in necessity as well. We need mitigation in order to soak up as much excess pollution as possible, as I’ve tried to describe here, but we need to adapt to changing conditions too – and quickly. Look at what hit the U.S. in 2012, for example, or Australia’s just concluded record-breaking heat and floods, dubbed the Angry Summer by the government. As I said, the future is now.

Just how now hit home over the course of three days in Hamburg, Germany, last week when I attended the European Climate Change Adaptation Conference. I and 700 others, mostly researchers, heard report after report about how the social and environmental stresses caused by climate change are bearing down across the globe right now. We also heard about the significant planning and other actions taking place in response to these stresses. In fact, I was very impressed by all the work going on worldwide.

The conference was dominated by scientific research on adaptation, and many of the 20-minute papers were delivered by professors or grad students, but there were a number of non-academic perspectives as well, including some from nonprofit organizations. It was clear that the various challenges posed by adaptation are complex, costly, and pressing. And it’s way too early to know if any particular effort will be sufficient in the long run (much depends on the reduction of greenhouse gases). But one thing was clear: this topic is rising fast.

I learned that all nations in European Union have created, or are creating, national Adaptation Strategy plans and on April 29th, the European Union itself will release its long-awaited continent-wide Adaptation Strategy, which will drive many policy decisions and most of the funding connected to climate change planning among EU members.

What the planners said they need most from researchers is what they called “fit-for-purpose” data, meaning they need to know about risk, vulnerabilities, and possible scenarios as localized as possible so they can ‘fit’ it to their needs. There was a general lament that this information is not available yet in sufficient amounts for city leaders, policy makers and others to make firm plans about adaptation. Models are fine, they said, but we need to know about the real risks. This is a huge need and it is driving much of the research work underway right now. Flood planning, for example, due to rising sea levels and intensifying storms is a major area of research.

The #1 job of adaptation research, I learned, is to reduce uncertainty – i.e., what are the range of impacts to be expected? What exposures and disruptions might we expect? And perhaps most importantly, what adaptation means under rising global temperature scenarios: 2 degrees Celsius? 3 C? 4 C? 5 C? What do these numbers mean for heat, precipitation, floods, etc?

This issue struck home in a graphic provided by Michael Morecroft, of Natural England, in his talk. It showed an arrow, running left to right, through a list of global temperatures: 1 C, 2 C, 3C, 4 C, 5 C. Beneath the 1 C and 2 C part of the arrow was the word Resilience. Below 3 C and 4 C was the word Accommodation. And below the 4 C and 5 C part of the arrow was the word Transformation. His point was this: we can do resilience until temps reach 2 C – meaning we can try to ‘bounce back’ to conditions that we consider relatively normal. After 2 C, however, we must accommodate ourselves to a changing world. After 4 C, the world will be transformed into something else altogether.

His point is that adaptation right now is largely about maintaining the resilience of a system. The planet has warmed a little less than 1 C to date, with another 1 C on the way. Adaptation planning, he said, should focus on this 1-2 C scenario while we redouble our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond 2 C, however, adaptation means something else. What that is exactly, scientists don’t know yet, he said. He also said that mitigation takes longer than people expect, research is showing. That’s why an emphasis on adaptation in the short run is so important.

Here’s a PDF of a paper by Morecroft et al on this topic:

As an illustration, here’s a photo of heat in Australia recently:

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I learned also that case studies are critically important to planners. It helps them understand the issue of adaptation in real terms. Copenhagen, for example, has embarked on an ambitious plan to become a major “Blue-Green city” down to the household level, including ideas like placing washing machines on top of toilets to recycle water.

Here are a few others that I heard:

  • Dislocation (Taiwan). Climate change is predicted to dislocate large numbers of people, including whole villages. Challenges include: no legal authority; few precedents; insufficient funding; unanticipated consequences; unrealistic expectations; no guidelines; lots of disagreement; underestimated costs; social and economic stress; social justice questions; and what if villagers refuse to move? On the other hand, disruption could be balanced by innovation as creative minds work together to solve problems.
  • Australia’s Angry Summer. 123 records were broken in 90 days (heat & floods); incidents of domestic violence and homelessness spiked; charismatic leadership made a big difference in the quality of the adaptive response and the degree to which suffering was reduced; new funding sources are required for this type of emergency; it brought home the critical need to move from emergency response to long-term adaptation planning; at the same time, ‘climate fatigue’ is settling in, Australians are getting tired of hearing about climate change all the time and wish the topic would just “go away.”
  • The Role of New Technology (Austria). Researchers are trying to determine what types of technology can help cities adapt to climate change (software and hardware). Is it more useful to look at high tech, or low tech solutions?
  • Flooding and Erosion (Nigeria). Intense storms are causing gullying and other types of severe erosion in villages and fields in rural Nigeria. The photos were amazing. The speaker advocated for a return to ‘traditional knowledge’ practices in response to this situation.
  • Adjusting Agricultural Practices (Ecuador). Farmers in a highland village are seeing climate change affect them via higher temperatures, more extreme weather, increased seasonal variability; and prolonged drought, all of which expose vulnerabilities. Effects include: increased (and new) pest attacks, water scarcity, heat stress on plants and farmers, increased erosion, deteriorating fieldwork conditions, seed storage loss, rot, plant dessication, and poor animal performance. Solutions include: increased use of pesticides, earlier harvest dates, development of new water sources, buying seeds from corporations, moving farm fields to higher elevations, planting more drought-tolerant plant species, moving planting dates.
  • Coastal Defense (Germany). The term “coastal defense” has a very different meaning today under climate change than it did in the past. Hamburg in particular is worried about sea level rise and flooding from storms. It is the second busiest port in the world, after Shaghai, and it is actively engaged in climate change adaptation planning in this regard.

Finally, there was a great deal of discussion during the conference on how to put research into practice. It was one thing to create ‘models of vulnerability,’ as many scientists have done, and quite another to translate them into plans of action. People want (and need) to make informed decisions, especially since adaptation can be so expensive to do, but getting useful information into the hands of implementers and regular folk has been slow to date. Local governments are on the front lines, but they often don’t know what to do. Scientists can help by making a range of options available to local leaders, who then have to sell the options to a reluctant and skeptical citizenry. It’s a difficult but urgent task.

As one speaker put it: “People want to live normal lives, they don’t feel responsible for the problem, they’ve not been well led, and they’re generally ignorant of the seriousness of the problem that’s approaching. Research can help will all of these areas.”

But time is getting short. The effects of climate change are happening faster than anyone really expected. One conference organizer said: “This conference would not have happened even five years ago.” The urgency is real, but so are the efforts of a great deal of people. Clearly, a lot of important work is underway and I was impressed by the seriousness and dedication of all the speakers.

Here’s a photo of an Ecuador farmer (courtesy of National Geographic):

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