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    America's Leaders Don't Know How We'll Adapt to Climate Change

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Image: Cindeka Nealy, MyWestTexas.com

    Climate change, and the more volatile weather brought with it, isn't something that's on its way in a few decades. The effects of change are already affecting the U.S., whether it's record droughts or record heat waves. It's at the point now that we pretty much have no hope of countering climate change, and need to focus on adapting to our new normal, but there's little to no unified action. Why has nothing happened, when we're on pace for catastrophe by the middle of this century?

    According to an exhaustive report by the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee (NCADAC), the blame for climate change inaction lies with America's politicians, whose incessant infighting stymies any progress in any direction, along with the incredibly disparate matrix of beliefs about climate change adaptation (and even the existence of change itself) across rigid institutions in both the public and private sectors.

    The NCADAC is a 60-person research group, made up of experts from academia, the private sector, and NGOs, as well as nonvoting federal officials, established by the Department of Commerce in 2010 to study the United States' response to climate change. To be clear, the new report is a draft, and is subject to public comment and changes. (It will be interesting to see how the report changes now that it's been release; it comes across as pretty heavy-hitting now, but we'll see if good ol' politics waters it down.)

    It's also a doozy (the full PDF is 147 MB), and its 240-plus authors cover the entire gamut of climate change issues, from historical weather data, to human causes, and current and future effects. But most of us have known for awhile that climate change is happening. The question now is what to do about it. The report's look at how our incredibly slow pace of change in the US is keeping us from making any sort of unified climate change adaptation is perhaps the most fascinating, depressing part of the whole report.

    Right off the bat, it strikes a much different tone than we're used to when it comes to climate change. We're past the point of being able to fully reverse climate change, says the NCADAC in its chapter on adaptation, so we need to learn to live with it:

    Over the past few years, the focus on climate change has transitioned from the question “Is it changing?” to the equally important question: “Can society manage the unavoidable changes and avoid the unmanageable?” (Bierbaum et al. 2007; SEGCC 2007) Research indicates that both mitigation and adaptation are needed in order to minimize the damages from climate change and to adapt to the pace and ultimate magnitude of the changes that occur (McMullen and Jabbour 2009; ORNL 2012a, 2012b; Skaggs et al. 2012).

    The report notes that adaptation efforts have become more common throughout federal, state, regional, and tribal governments, as well as in the private sector. All federal agencies are now required to submit agency-specific adaptation plans, 15 states have completed adaptations plans, and major corporations like Coca-Cola and Con-Agra have increased their own efforts.

    But those efforts haven't yet coalesced into something with meaningful impact. As the NCADAC notes in part III of the adaptation chapter:

    Despite emerging recognition of the necessity of climate change adaptation, many barriers still impede efforts to build local, regional, and national-level resilience. Barriers are obstacles that can delay, divert, or temporarily block the adaptation process (Ekstrom et al. 2011) and include: difficulties in using climate change projections for decision-making; lack of resources to begin and sustain adaptation efforts; fragmentation of decision-making; institutional constraints; lack of leadership; and divergent risk perceptions/cultures and values (Bierbaum et al. 2013; NRC 2010a). Barriers are distinguished from physical or ecological limits to adaptation, such as physiological tolerance of species to changing climatic conditions that cannot be overcome (except with technology or some other physical intervention) (Adger et al. 2007; Gregg et al. 2011; McIlgorm et al. 2010; USGS 2012b).

    The TL;DR version goes something like this: Adaptation efforts have not sufficiently used good climate change data in their planning, what plans there are are often underfunded, and the big one: No one in power is willing to agree on whether or not climate change is actually happening, and that lack of leadership means that what efforts are done aren't coordinated. So while it's good that Coke is replenishing groundwater and that coastal states are planning for rising waters, with such a massive problem, a fragmented response doesn't add up to much.

    So what should we do? Well, as the NCADAC previously argued, we're getting to the point that climate change's effect on our environment is hurtling beyond what can be projected from historical weather models–we're getting into uncharted territory, basically–and we need to make sure we're funding solid research. But beyond that, while it's excellent that so many agencies and organizations are getting on board the adaptation train, climate change isn't something we can kill with a thousand, occasionally contradictory cuts. We need unified action. From section V of chapter 28:

    Effective adaptation will require ongoing, flexible, transparent, inclusive, and iterative decision-making processes, collaboration across scales of government and sectors, and the continual exchange of best practices and lessons learned. All stakeholders have a critical role to play in ensuring the preparedness of our society to extreme events and long-term changes in climate.

    In other words, we need to stop squabbling about whether or not climate change is happening, and actually put our heads together to turn all of the action we're doing now into smarter, more effective work that's collectively more effective. But for that to happen, we need our leaders–both in the public and private sector–to actually step up and lead.

    Leaders in the private sector still seem more concerned with good PR than actually securing our future, which is mostly the way business works. More frustratingly, President Obama has been totally comfortable avoiding the climate change issue altogether, and the only people discussing it on Capitol Hill are folks attacking the entire concept. The vast majority of Americans agree with scientists that climate change is happening, and yet politics and the inertia of our giant institutions have kept us from making a broad push. We've already waited so long that pure mitigation isn't a realistic answer. We're going to have to live with our new normal, but the faster we act, the less strange it will be.