Happy Labor Day! In honor of a day traditionally taken off (except for retail employees, unfortunately) to enjoy grilling and relaxing outside, I thought I’d discuss something a bit more upbeat. Climate change research can often be gloomy. It is a necessary gloom in the form of research indicating severe dangers ahead – sea level rise, temperature increases, more severe storms, etc. – if we do not take action, and it does us no good to turn our heads even if this type of emotional denialism is tempting and easy. But a little commentary came out in Nature Climate Change last week that provides some hope. The article summarizes IPCC reports and describes a model approach to figure out how to respond to climate change and, in particular, sea level rise along the coasts. This type of information is important both to determine how we can respond, but also just to show that this isn’t apocalyptic – we are hopeful that we can find ways to adapt! So what do they have to say…
1) Climate change does not occur in isolation: Yes, we hear about the temperature changes of 2-4 degrees Celsius and the sea level rises that could displace millions along the coats. But this also happens within a context of already existing economies, population growth, urbanization, and water management along these coasts. We can no longer think about climate change alone. The authors indicate that IPCC reports and example countries have adopted a systems approach that places climate change as one variable among many affecting sea level rise, salinity, erosion, etc:This figure hows how both climate change and socioeconomic drivers combine to lead to the specific impacts that climate change will cause. For example, in Bangkok, groundwater pumping along the coast led to sinking in of the land (known as subsidence) that increased seal level a few tenths of a millmeter each year. This may not seem like much, but these secondary drivers can combine to either act with or limit climate change effects. Decisions must be made within this whole context, and adaptations chosen based on the combined information.
2) Time-independent adaptation pathways: Adaptations are happening, and this is the hopeful part! This systems approach has already been combined in some countries with adaptation plans for future climate change. These are time-independent sequences actions set up to respond to multiple drivers and uncertainties, with choices about which paths to take based on updated measurements of sea level rise. This gives a country a long-term plan, spanning decades, that be continually updated with new information about coastal levels.
It’s great to hear that countries are already doing this! This means that countries are listening to their scientists and taking the threat seriously. One example is the Thames Estuary 2100 Project that looked into how to protect London from tidal flooding. It has produced several adaptation pathways and gives the city a plan to enact whenever it shall be needed.
Another example comes from Maldives, an island nation south of India. These island countries are, of course, especially susceptible to climate changes, but here they are already developing plans and implementing them. For example, the central Maldivian island is apparently facing severe land use pressures due to population growth that is pushing more and more people closer to the coasts (a good example of 1) above). These dangers are still decades off, but the government had already developed adaptation pathways to figure out when to start taking action. They have now begun settling on a new island, Hulhumale, and have promoted vertical rather than horizontal building. This latter policy especially requires forethought from a policy perspective that only comes from laying out the planning groundwork ahead of time.
3) The IPCC message is becoming more optimistic: There have now been five iterations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The first couple in the 90’s focused on vague, large impacts from climate change – such as massive flooding and huge related costs – that could easily install panic and fear. However, as we have learned more about the details of climate change and its effects, this message has changed. Recent reports speak to specific, regional-based impacts, and projected costs have also reduced (for example, the percentage GDP for protection from 1 m sea level rise in Kiribati has gone from 19% to less than 1%). These reports also focus much more on possible adaptations and solutions instead of the problem itself:The chart on the right side moves through the various iterations of the IPCC reports, and darker shades of orange indicate more emphasis of the particular topic listed on the left. Descriptions of problems are diminishing, and discussions of response strategies – basically not there in early reports – now dominate.
So, on a day of rest and relaxation, take a break from the fears of what may come, and have some faith in human ingenuity and adaptation. There will always be the denialists, the policymakers who wish to do nothing, but there are plenty out there who are listening, preparing, and changing the course of their societies to be ready for a different future.
Brown, S., Nicholls, R., Hanson, S., Brundrit, G., Dearing, J., Dickson, M., Gallop, S., Gao, S., Haigh, I., Hinkel, J., Jiménez, J., Klein, R., Kron, W., Lázár, A., Neves, C., Newton, A., Pattiaratachi, C., Payo, A., Pye, K., Sánchez-Arcilla, A., Siddall, M., Shareef, A., Tompkins, E., Vafeidis, A., van Maanen, B., Ward, P., & Woodroffe, C. (2014). Shifting perspectives on coastal impacts and adaptation Nature Climate Change, 4 (9), 752-755 DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2344