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It’s Adaptation Time

Neil Adger's picture

It is difficult for many of us to focus on more than one thing at a time. Maybe we are hard-wired that way. But if ever our species needed to evolve such an ability, now is the time. At the same time that we urgently need to decarbonize the global economy, we also need to plan for a very different and much more unstable climate. It’s adaptation time too.

The World Development Report 2010 brings home the urgent need for both decarbonization and adaptation planning. There is a new realism afoot in both the climate change science community and in the development community, brought about by mounting scientific observations of change but also some sobering numbers and projections.

There is, I would say, very little realistic probability of avoiding cumulative emissions that will force the climate system beyond 2°C—unless, of course, there is a significant breakthrough in Copenhagen on mitigation targets, beyond what is presently on the table, and immediate implementation of those targets.

We are, in effect, committing every part of the world to fundamental changes in regional biogeography and to as yet poorly understood interactions between impacts. These changes will, I would judge, force us to irretrievably abandon the notion of development as it has been practiced over the past half century.

In focusing on adaptation strategies, therefore, governments and societies need to be aware of two reasons for concern: absolute limits to adaptation and the prospect of it not being effective.

Dead Coral Reef
     Dead Coral Reef. Photo ©

First, there are absolute limits to adaptation in many ecological systems as they are currently constituted. For example, at 2°C of localized warming coral reefs are likely to bleach annually, and ocean acidification could begin to dissolve all corals when elevated atmospheric CO2 doubles from pre-industrial levels. The loss of reefs has many implications, not least that barrier reefs and atolls progressively transform into states that can no longer protect and support human settlements.

Similarly, Line Gordon and colleagues in Stockholm and at McGill University (TREE, Vol 23, April 2008) have begun to demonstrate that ecological thresholds and the potential for significant regime shifts abound on land as well as in the oceans in virtually all parts of the world. Such shifts in terrestrial ecosystems are primarily driven by changes in rainfall associated with observed and projected climate change.

So adaptation strategies in natural and managed ecosystems that we design now may become ineffective, or even irrelevant, if we experience high levels of warming. This possibility changes the economics, politics and science of adaptation. As the Copenhagen Science Congress in March 2009 concluded, ‘warming above 2°C would be very difficult for contemporary societies and ecosystems to cope with.’

A second reason for concern is that there is absolutely no guarantee that adaptation planning will be effective, sustainable or equitable. Many adaptation strategies in water resources, such as large scale desalination, are extremely energy hungry and emissions intensive and simply not sustainable.

In addition, I believe the risk of doing the wrong thing increases exponentially when adaptation is reactive—when we try to rebuild quickly after a disaster and when politicians say ‘something must be done.’ So anticipating the adaptations required and keeping development options open should be the first rule of climate-resilient planning.

How do we square the need to focus on adaptation with the primacy of decarbonization to reduce irreversible risks? Clearly both researchers and policy communities need unifying frameworks that recognize the unsustainability of present paths. The public subsidy of fossil fuel energy distorts every price and every investment decision for adaptation as well as mitigation.

In one sense, then, we can’t fix our adaptation without first fixing our energy system. I firmly believe in the primacy of the mitigation agenda, while recognizing that adaptation planning and action can bring about real resilience for the future climate that is simply unknown. Can we keep both these notions in our head at once? Let’s hope so.


Submitted by Anonymous on
Thanks for the article -- it seems to be causing quite a stir over at the AdaptAbility discussion board --

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