America’s Climate Choices – Webinar on Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change


This May, CSW attended the National Academy of Science’s (NAS) release of the first three reports from the America’s Climate Choices suite of studies:  Advancing the Science of Climate Change, Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change, and Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change.

Since then, the NAS has released a fourth report, Informing Effective Decisions and Actions Related to Climate Change,  and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has hosted webinars on three of the four reports.

On August 23 we tuned into the the final UCS webinar, a discussion of the Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change report – a report focused largely on drawing our attention to the importance of adapting to irreversible climate change.

The report signals a larger shift from the mentality that an increased focus on adaption efforts implies that mitigation of climate change is being abandoned. While mitigation is undeniably important, it has become abundantly clear that even the most zealous and comprehensive mitigation plan cannot stop the climate change that is already under way, the potential consequences of which – for both humans and ecosystems – are significant.

In the webinar, much of presenter and panel member Dr. Gary Yohe’s introduction into the content of the Adaptation report was covered by CSW in our post-NAS briefing write up. Here’s an excerpt from our coverage of panel co-chair Dr. Thomas Wilbanks’ presentation:

The biggest challenge to adaptation, Dr. Wilbanks said, is that adaptation activities are by nature highly context-specific. Further, “because adaptation received so little support until very recently, the knowledge base is still in its infancy,” he said.

Taking these challenges into consideration, the Adaptation panel made recommendations for the development of a national adaptation strategy that would be coordinated federally, and implemented locally. “We suggest that decisionmakers at every scale of government and every part of US society should look at climate change adaptation from a risk management point of view,” Dr. Wilbanks said. In the near term, activities should focus on vulnerability assessments for all contexts and the implementation of actions with co-benefits in that they meet existing economic and development goals. But in the longer term, the US must be prepared for the possibility of abrupt changes that cannot be accommodated through incremental adaptation.

“The most dramatic possible threat appears to be the recent projection by US government agencies that apparent sea level rise, including land subsidence, in the Gulf Coast could be 2-4 feet by 2050, plus the prospect of more intense coastal storms,” Dr. Wilbanks said. “We may need to consider contingency plans that go beyond what’s easy to do now.”

The panel recommended that a collaborative national adaptation strategy be implemented through a “national adaptation program that facilitates cooperation and collaboration across lines, between different levels of government, and between government and other key parties, including the private sector, community organizations, and NGOs. A national adaptation program should be one in which the federal government provides technical and scientific resources that are lacking at local and regional scales, incentives for state and local governments and other parties to begin adapting, attention to some current policies that may in fact be maladaptive, a clearinghouse for sharing lessons learned, and support scientific research to expand knowledge of both impacts and adaptation options,” Dr. Wilbanks said.

After introducing the report, Dr. Yohe (of Wesleyan University) gave the audience a run through of the contents, focusing on the main theme: the need for a National Adaptation Strategy that equips the State and local levels to make the best adaptation choices and manage for the risks of climate change.

Adaptation Choices

Dr. Yohe discussed adaptation efforts under way – Philadelphia’s early warning system for heat waves, and the Gulf Coast’s flood preparation, for example – and how many adaptation efforts often are win-win, offering “near-term co-benefits.” For instance, many adaptive measures that can be taken on a state and local level already exist as ways to address climate variability; undertaking these measures only increases resilience to natural climatic variations. However, Dr. Yohe talked about how many critical adaptation measures are difficult to implement because of:

(1) an inability to attribute many observed changes at local and regional scales explicitly to climate change (and therefore to document effects of adaptation in reducing those impacts)

(2) the diversity of impacts and vulnerabilities across the United States, and

(3) the relatively small body of research that focuses on climate change adaptation actions.

Managing the Risks of Climate Change

The Adaptation report also focuses on the management of risk: “Adaptation to climate change calls for a new paradigm that manages risks related to climate change by recognizing the prospects for departures from historical conditions, trends, and variation.” Dr. Yohe spoke about adapting to climate change impacts before they are directly felt as an “insurance policy” against the unpredictable effects of a changing climate.

Dr. Yohe also discussed the cyclical process that will enable decision makers to attain optimal resilience with their adopted adaptive measures:

6 step adaptation planning as an iterative process leading to the best adaptive choices.

Need for a National Adaptation Strategy

Throughout the webinar, Dr. Yohe made it clear that a Federal policy directive is needed to lead adaptive action on the state and local level. Both the identification of proper adaptive measures for varying contexts, and the managing of the risks of climate change need a central strategy to ensure their success. A National Adaptation Strategy is of utmost importance because although lower levels of government can begin to adapt on their own, their efforts would be better informed if there was a central venue to track changes, allow “collaboration of adaptive activities” and sharing of lessons learned while providing “guidance and support of the scientific research needed to expand knowledge of impacts and adaptation.”

The report calls for the Federal government to step into the role of “catalyst and coordinator,” providing “information, technical resources, and incentives for adaptation decision-making and implementation; helping to avoid unintended consequences and inconsistent or inefficient investments and outcomes; continually evaluating needs for additional risk management at a national level; and serving as a role model by considering adaptations in federal programs.” Dr Yohe emphasized that with a National Adaptation Strategy, the role of the federal government would not be to tell state and local governments what to do, but rather to facilitate their adaptive efforts.

Above all, the report calls for a shift to a new way of thinking about adaptation – “one that considers a range of possible future climate conditions and associated impacts, some well outside the realm of past experience.”


The Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change report PDF, summary, and panel info can be found here, along with a summary report and other panel information.

The final America’s Climate Choices report, a synthesis of the conclusions of the panel reports is set to be released in Fall of 2010.

Full CSW coverage of the release of the first three reports can be found here and the Informing Effective Decisions report webinar can be found here.

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