Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation

January 11, 2010

Most of the extant publicity on climate change has dealt with mitigation, the technical solutions that would reduce the offending greenhouse gases.  Adaptation to inevitable further changes in climate has received much less coverage.  Yet, even the most well trained advocates of mitigation know that further human-driven change is inevitable until mitigation fully takes effect.  One of those advocates, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, is on record saying that the most effective way of impacting global warming over at least the next ten years is energy conservation, which is adaptation. 

In order to focus more attention on adaptation in Washington, where energy legislation will soon be considered by Congress, several major national organizations sponsored a series of presentations on adaptation to climate change.  The organizations were: the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the American Meteorological Society (AMS), the Ecological Society of America (ESA), and the Pew Center for Global Climate Change.  These presentations took place on January 8, 2010 in the Cannon Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building.  The CFI Office of Public Policy was represented by Toni Van Pelt, Matt Separa, and Stuart Jordan.  The four speakers at this meeting and their remarks are summarized by us below. 

Keying off with a summary of the well-established results of contemporary climate science, especially as summarized in the IPCC-2007 report titled "The Physical Science Basis," Dr. Michael MacCracken (Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs, the Climate Institute of Washington, DC) set the stage for the following talks.   His general remarks on adaptation corroborated what Steven Chu had said at the earlier AAAS national science policy meeting noted above. He also emphasized the critical importance of water-related issues: water shortages, changes in the water cycle, and other deleterious effects.  The next three talks concentrated on this hydrological theme. 

Dr. Kristie Ebi (Executive Director of the Technical Support Group for Impact, Adaptation, and Vulnerability of the IPCC Panel on Climate Change) emphasized that water-related problems will get worse before they get better, making adaptations such as water conservation a crucial part of managing climate change.  She gave as an example the current problems facing Egypt in that country's historic dependence on the Nile.  As climate changes occur at the several sources of the Nile in Central Africa, Egypt must decide whether to build more dams or dredge to control the increasingly variable flow.  Studies show that dredging would be the most effective solution, but many engineers prefer to build dams.  One of us who grew up in the Midwest recalled an analogy here, when the brilliant engineer James Eads saved the Port of New Orleans by building jetties, not levies.  Jetties deepen the river and increase the velocity of flow, reducing flood danger and keeping navigation open.  Levies raise the river level and slow the flow, increasing flood danger from levy breaks and making navigation in a shallower river trickier.  When Eads died, the Army Corps of Engineers decided for levies on the Mississippi, a decision that has been questioned ever since.  What will Egypt do?

Dr. Katharine Jacobs (professor at the University of Arizona Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Studies and the NSF Center for Sustainability of Arid Region Hydrology at the UofA) noted that climate change in arid regions is bad for dams and the reservoirs created by them.  She cited the multiuse Glen Canyon Dam that helps to control the lower Colorado River as an example.  The levels of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are controlled in part by that dam, and depend on the flow in the Colorado River.  That flow has been well below average for the past several years, which any boater who has run the river below Lake Powell knows all too well.  (The high banks of Lake Mead are ugly scars above the greatly reduced water levels.)  Agriculture, water use, and recreation in the Colorado basin are all heavily dependent on the river flow.  Regional climate models still require further development, but most of them predict further desiccation in the American Southwest. 

The last speaker, Dr. Susan Moser (Director and Principle researcher of Susanne Moser Research and Consulting in Santa Cruz, CA), reviewed the efforts of the State of California to promote local adaptation , which was the theme of her talk.  In spite of severe budgetary restraints faced by the State, California has remained the leader in this effort.  However, twelve other states have followed California's lead.  Locally, one of them is Maryland, which along with several other northeastern states has implemented essentially identical "green" legislation in three areas: cleaner coal-fired power plants, cleaner cars, CO 2 emissions reduction.  The main point of Dr. Moser's talk was that local adaptation is essential because all parts of the country and the world are somewhat different, so the one-size-fits-all approach will not always work.  One can also note that this kind of local adaptation was a hard sell under the G.W. Bush administration, which put a temporary block on the state-level clear-car legislation, a block that has since been removed.  A final point of this talk was the need for more long-range planning, including interagency planning at all levels to get beyond the narrow mindedness of a large number of separate little "empires" so typical of all bureaucracies. 

We took away from this talk the need for more emphasis on adaptation in the public discourse on how to respond to climate change.  We also took away a renewed recognition of the fundamental importance of the water issue on all scales, local as well as global.  Planet Earth is not "water world" yet.  Nevertheless, we would not be here without water, and the water cycle is definitely changing in response to climate change, most notably on regional and local scales today.

-The Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy

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