Capitol Hill briefing draws needed attention to challenges of climate change impacts and adaptation

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A January 8 Capitol Hill briefing by four leading analysts on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation reflected a growing awareness that scientific research and assessment per se don’t necessarily lead to effective action to enhance resilience to the impacts of global climatic disruption. The briefing began with the scientific foundation for understanding climate change impacts and moved to an insightful discussion of the challenges of putting adaptive preparedness into practice.

Climate Science Watch attended a Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation briefing on Capitol Hill Friday, January 8, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The American Geophysical Union, The American Meteorological Society, The Ecological Society of America, and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Mike MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs at the Climate Institute in Washington, DC, gave an overview of Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, the 2009 U.S. Global Change Research Program assessment report summarizing current and projected social and environmental impacts. MacCracken’s talk presented the scientific basis for why adaptation is needed; the subsequent presentations discussed how to make it a reality. Climate Science Watch posted an overview of the report here.

Kristie L. Ebi, Executive Director of the Technical Support Unit for IPCC Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, said that the level of climate change impacts experienced will depend on how well we prepare. Without proper adaptation, populations with underlying vulnerabilities are likely to bear the brunt of impacts like extreme weather events.

She drew attention to the need to reframe our thinking on adaptation, noting that there is a widespread perception that if federal agencies gather enough scientific information, somehow adaptation will happen. Instead, adaptation must be seen as a process of iterative risk management operating under uncertainty. Incomplete information need not be a roadblock to taking adaptive actions that will reduce vulnerability.

Ebi offered recommendations for US action on adaptation: development of a national adaptation strategy; establishment of national and regional programs to identify vulnerabilities, build capacity for adaptation, fund research to inform adaptation, and monitor and evaluate the process; and engagement as a major player in adaptation internationally. Climate Science Watch raised questions about the U.S. commitment to international funding in our January 8 post (“After Copenhagen, questions about U.S. commitment to climate change aid to developing countries”). 

Kathy Jacobs, Professor at the University of Arizona Soil, Water and Environmental Science Department, spoke about the challenges climate change presents to water management. She addressed the problem of uncertainty head-on, noting that managers in other areas frequently make decisions with imperfect information—why should climate change be any different?  Adaptive management in the face of uncertainty will mean learning by doing, a proces that can begin now and develop in tandem with the advance of scientific understanding.

By mainstreaming adaptation concerns into everyday decisions, planning scenarios can be expanded to encompass a wider range of outcomes and engineering decisions made accordingly. Water managers must develop a longer-term perspective on variability and trends within the water cycle, understanding temperature as a hydrologic variable affecting both supply and demand.

In that vein, Jacobs said that climate change and the adaptation challenge presents a broad integrating concept for looking at the future and how we manage human and environmental systems in a more holistic way. She sees potential for partnership and economic opportunity, and for institutional and legal changes that could ease the path towards a national adaptation strategy.

As noted in our January 10 post, Jacobs is moving to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to focus on climate change adaptation and play a lead role in reactivating the National Assessment of Climate Change process, with an assessment report to the President and Congress due by 2013. 

Finally, Susanne Moser, Director and Principal Researcher of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting, and Research Associate at the University of California-Santa Cruz Institute for Marine Sciences, discussed adaptation efforts in California. The 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy put forth recommendations for managing and adapting to climate change impacts throughout the state. The report contains sector-specific strategies and cross-sector strategies for the short and long term.

Moser said that the case of California provided insight into what states need from the federal government to prepare for climate change impacts: strong leadership, capacity-building in federal agencies, elimination of federal impediments to state adaptation, improved interaction at different levels of government, and financial mechanisms to support states.

Climate Science Watch discussed the California strategy in a December 11, 2009, post (“California’s Adaptation Strategy shows leadership that Senate climate bill should follow”). 

The briefing, beginning with the scientific foundation for understanding climate change impacts moving to how adaptation should occur on the ground, was a snapshot of a shift in focus taking place on a number of levels. As awareness has grown that scientific research and assessment per se do not necessarily lead to effective preparedness to enhance resilience to climate change impacts, some state and local governments, with California and New York City serving as important models, have begun translating the available scientific information into adaptive management strategies.

Their experiences can be a guide to other entities, but there are major institutional gaps that must be filled by the federal government. Climate Science Watch has called for a a comprehensive, proactive national planning and preparedness strategy for limiting and adapting to the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of climate change.  See for example, our recommendations for the Senate climate bill on preparedness, research, and climate services.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program is in serious need of an overhaul if it is to meet today’s data and information needs associated with preparing for, mitigating, and building resilience to a troubling set of climate change consequences. Climate Science Watch will be commenting further on needed reforms in a new investigative series on the future of the USGCRP. 

CSW November 1, 2009, post: US Global Change Research Program:  Budget reporting impedes meaningful oversight

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