Successful Adaptation to Climate Change

moserRating: ★★★★☆

Suzanne C Moser and Maxwell T Boykoff. (eds). 2103. Successful Adaptation to Climate Change. Routledge. ISBN 978 0 415 52500 8

It is fascinating to see how perspectives on climate change have altered over the course of decades. We have gone from the novel idea; it has gained widespread acceptance. We went from acceptance to a wider debate over the science and how it can be interpreted which looks, from the outside at least, two mutually opposed views struggling for acceptance. The next development is not how to stop it (although it was seen as an option in the early days of the debate), but how to live with it. It’s this last element – adaptation – that is the focus of this text. It says something about the scope and complexity (and longevity of the argument) of global warming that it can generate these ranges of debate unknown, as far as I can recall, in any other scientific debate. The nearest ones, acidification and ozone depletion, are no-where near as widespread or contentious. This puts the book in context; it remains to describe and evaluate its content.

Subtitled ‘linking science and policy in a rapidly changing world’, we are presented with a wide range of ideas, grouped into five sections. We start with an introduction, fleshing out the scope of the text and the challenge facing us. As soon as we start to examine the issue we become aware of its breadth. This is not just a simple case of environmental science, it is a complex (and still not totally understood) interaction of a number of forces. Into this, we put the term ‘adaptation’! Immediately, we see a series of problems arising, not least that if climate change is global, it is also local and therefore any response much be contextual. We also have the issue of getting science to talk to (and even make) empirical, practical suggestions. It is only recently that science has even started to engage in any meaningful way with policy making. We can throw two more aspects into the mix: that this is a relatively new way of looking at things (meaning our knowledge base is thin) and that “success” here is going to be an iterative process, suggesting that we will be constantly re-evaluating not just what we do but the concepts underpinning it.

This introduction, which reads more like a philosophical debate, gives us a clear way forward. The remaining contributions are divided into 5 parts with the first looking at goals, trade-offs and synergies. We could do worse than consider some opening lines:

Defining “successful adaptation” is exceedingly difficult, because whether an adaptation is a success or not is ultimately determined by whether or not it has reduced the amount of loss or damage that may have arisen from climate change in the absence of adaptation” (p37).

This sums up the dilemma – how can you prove a negative? It’s much the same with road safety – how do you know if you’ve prevented any more accidents as a result of some activity? Perhaps, as the opening chapter suggests, we are looking at the wrong element – perhaps we need to see what won’t work. Interestingly, given the debates continuing in Australia about the advantages of desalination, it is one of the first to be areas to be discussed and considered maladaptive! Leaving aside the rhetoric, the opening chapter does put a firm case for flexible responses, a theme continued in the next chapter dealing with nature conservation. In a changing world, plans need to be flexible and allow that some species might find change an advantage. Of course, this assumes that the future is just a slightly warmer version of the present. There is no reason for believing this and the implication is, as discussed here, that ecosystems might shift sufficiently to have different assemblages, suggesting ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ species. A final contribution examines the possibilities that REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) might well be able to create some mitigation synergies. The argument here is that by using a sequestration scheme, other aspects can benefit as well.

Part two considers the use of organisations in adaptation. It is very clear that, all other things being equal, institutional capacities and capabilities are amongst the most important questions facing us. We see this is developing world megacities where the task is greater than the organisation to deal with it and so it should be no surprise for climate change. Our first case is an example on the way up – the San Francisco Bay Area and what we can learn from it. Less successful is the US power industry, out second case! We finish with a very clear call to design systems that work in/with complex problems – current systems don’t really work and so a better adapted one is likely to be more successful. Using the ideas of global security, ‘double exposure’ (nations most likely to be affected are often those with the least help/resilience) and social justice, we can see where the issues lie and try to resolve them.

Part three moves on the the science involved. We are shown a series of disparate cases each looking at a different aspect of the science-policy nexus.  The first case looks at a number of examples from the perspective of key questions in science. Using the examples of UK water and Australian coasts and viticulture we can see what sorts of questions are going to yield positive results. To this we must add management and, in particular, decision-making. Another contributor adds risk management to the list whilst, taking the responses further from science and more into policy-making, we see how resilience needs to be built into a system based on uncertainty. Taken as a whole, this part sets out the real challenge in a climate-change situation. If succeeds because it looks less at science and more at the real issues of managing communication, and getting the key elements in order. It’s as much a wake-up call for science as for public policy. We need the right questions to yield the best data. We need to add decision-making to this which involves a reasonable consideration of risk. Finally, we need to convince an often sceptical public of this whilst acknowledging the very real levels of uncertainty in the calculations.

It’s not surprising that our penultimate section looks at communication. It is no longer acceptable to put out a science paper and expect everyone to agree (or even understand). Science is dealing with a new phenomenon, public opinion, and most are as unadapted as the communities they seek to inform! Hopefully, alongside the basic science, universities will add some public communication skills! This issue is not restricted to one area. The cases presented here come from India, Vietnam and Canada and the message is the same – communication is key.

A final section turns to the personal and psychological to complete the picture. We need to examine change not just from an institutional viewpoint but also from local communities and individuals if we are to find a sustainable solution.

This is a wide-ranging and complex text that needs several attempts to fully grasp its message. It’s not so much the science as the sheer amount of concepts that need to be addressed at the same time to get a good outcome from adaptation. The key messages here, that responses to/from both sides are universal, that we need a more comprehensive approach to climate change and that we need to get a better message out there.  This is not a theoretical text but a one focussing on the use of theory in day-to-day responses to communities at all scales and in all locations. As such it should stimulate numerous debates about what should be done and how best to do it. There will be no shortage of material to work from as the references are copious! There have been a few texts looking at this aspects of science/policy before but the sheer volume of information/cases/data/theory makes this a stand-out in the field.


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