Failure to prioritise adaptation risks grave societal insecurity

MICHAEL Oppenheimer, Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton, has written in US Journal Foreign Affairs that:

  • Extreme events can wreak havoc on society – but soon, some once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes will become annual debacles – by 2050, many such areas around the world will face flood levels every year that only recently occurred once per century
  • The devastation caused by multiple extreme events is not hypothetical
  • Even extreme events scattered across the world can compound one another
  • Nearly all accounts of the climate problem from scientists and other experts end with a plea for rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But governments should emphasize adaptation equally
  • No amount of emission reduction will be enough to spare communities that do not also adapt

Oppenheimer says that “Many observers assess the threat of climate change in terms of the frequency or severity of extreme events. They have viewed each crisis—be it a Texas hurricane or a California wildfire—as distinct from others. But consider how people feel on the fourth day of a heat wave as opposed to the first. Their resilience begins to drain away. Viewing weather events as independent occurrences is like trying to understand a movie by looking at a series of brief clips; they are important plot points, but not the whole story. In fact, viewing climate change as the accumulation of individual events underestimates the threat, because such events do not take place in a vacuum. As recent research shows, features of the climate interact with one another—interactions that exacerbate the impact on people and ecosystems.”

He says “Alone, a single extreme event—such as a hurricane or a wildfire—can devastate wide areas. But back-to-back climate catastrophes compound the misery of each,” while tipping points in “Earth’s mechanisms for regulating the climate – systems involving air, the ocean, land, or ice” can, when they are reached, can set off a chain reaction involving other Earth systems.

“The devastation caused by multiple extreme events is not hypothetical, as the 2017 hurricane season showed. In August of that year, Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast of the United States, deluging parts of the areas around Houston, Texas, with more than four feet of rainfall and causing over $90 billion in damage. A couple of weeks later, Hurricane Irma flattened parts of the Leeward Islands, in the Caribbean, while striking a glancing blow to Puerto Rico. Just two weeks after that, Hurricane Maria made a direct hit on Puerto Rico, destroying its infrastructure and causing about 3,000 deaths. At some point in their paths of destruction, each storm was classified as Category 4 or 5, the highest levels of intensity.”

We must also recognise that extreme events scattered across the world can compound each other, says Oppenheimer.

Multiple events can lead to a disproportionate level of risk, for example crop failures in globally-traded commodities. “Yields of corn, soybeans, and other key crops fall sharply as temperatures rise and the amount of water they receive falls.” Simultaneous crop failures in far-apart breadbaskets could “disrupt the global food supply and lead to malnutrition and, in some places, widespread starvation.”

Unprepared for unknowns
“The interaction of extreme events creates risks of an entirely new type and magnitude. Using computers to predict when and where such events may occur is of little immediate help, since modelling of those events is in its early stages. Nor can one extrapolate from past experience, since the climate is evolving well outside of what humans have lived through.

“Further complicating predictions is the question of how people and governments will respond. People who are not directly involved in an extreme event tend not to remember the lessons learned from such past events long enough to prepare for the next. Some studies suggest that it takes multiple similar incidents to leave a deep enough impression to convince them to learn from their experience and adapt accordingly. Only then will they think ahead and act to protect lives and property or get out of harm’s way by relocating to safer terrain.”

And yet, says Oppenheimer, “Climate change’s devastating effects are no longer in the future; they are occurring now.”

The adaptation imperative
“Nearly all accounts of the climate problem from scientists and other experts end with a plea for rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But governments should emphasize adaptation equally. That means developing forward-looking policies to protect people, infrastructure, ecosystems, and society. It means restructuring or replacing perverse incentives that encourage people and industries to settle in exposed areas. It means giving more resources to international agencies to help the least developed countries.

“Most of all, it means thinking many years ahead to gather extensive resources and political will for often unpopular policies. Very little of this job can be done quickly. Adaptation should have begun in earnest decades ago.

“Emphasizing emission reductions but not adaptation to climate change is misguided, because no matter what happens to emissions over the next 30 years, the planet will get significantly hotter.

“Trapped heat that has been absorbed by the oceans over decades is bound to emerge, warming the earth. Years of emissions have accumulated in the atmosphere and will have a lagged effect on the climate.

“Even achieving the Paris targets would not be a free pass to avoid adaptation. Attaining those goals would give the world some welcome breathing room. But the resulting warming would still create serious consequences, such as a hundredfold up-tick in the frequency of floods along large swaths of the world’s coasts.

“It is true that no amount of adaptation will be enough if emissions remain unconstrained, because that would lead to warming that would go far beyond what humans have ever experienced. But it is also true that no amount of emission reduction will be enough to spare communities that do not also adapt.

“Governments must also remember that the ability of people and places to adapt to climate change is highly unequal, largely because of unfair arrangements determined too often by racial, gender, ethnic, age, or other differences. Many of the interactions between extreme events will become apparent only suddenly, so accommodating them will require extra flexibility to respond rapidly—a capacity that much of the population in less developed countries and major segments of wealthy countries have long been deprived of.

“The bottom line is that few if any countries are sufficiently prepared to deal with what is in store. A yawning gap has opened up between what they know about the risks of climate change and what they are doing to reduce them. In the riskier new era of climate change, the longer countries take to close that gap, the more painful and deadly the outcomes.”

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