Anyone who followed climate-related headlines this summer would have noticed a more than usual amount of talk on climate change adaptation. As it goes with sudden epiphanies in aftermaths of humanitarian disasters in our Western realities, this time we’ve come to realize that we need to seriously think about doing some adaptation.
To be fair, the realization that adaptation is inevitable has for a long time been somewhat of a taboo in the “woke” climate policy and activist circles (the author of this blog is a millennial and would like to acknowledge that the reader’s idea of a long time in climate policy might be different). Admitting that there might be no other option but to adapt to whatever the locked-in effects of climate change are, is arguably defeatist and gives in to the notion that mitigation alone won’t cut it.
While this might be yet another depressing but accurate reflection of the reality under climate change, portraying adaptation and mitigation as different but equally urgent actions could set a dangerous trap if it produces ideas such as: if we adapt enough, perhaps our economies and energy systems won’t need to change so much.
Even if it would be enough (which it wouldn’t), adaptation will not necessarily just happen once we recognize it needs to be done, because the needs and abilities for it operate on different time horizons and geographical scales. Many parts of the world that need adaptation will not necessarily be able to take action, so we have to be very careful when we count on it as a solution to climate change.
This is where we must tackle some inconvenient but fundamental issues about adaptation. Climate change research, especially the areas positioned at the “interface” with policy, could play a crucial role here. In this role, it must be very prudent and avoid doing a disservice to decision makers, and even worse, to people affected by those decisions. In other words, the scientific assessments need to be careful when assuming for whom, where, and how adaptation can reasonably be expected.
We tried to illustrate why this matters in our recent paper that looks at the capacity of populations to adapt to heat stress. We used air-conditioning as a popular, albeit not (yet) climate-friendly adaptation option. My coauthors and I understand that air conditioning could well be maladaptation, meaning that it causes more harm than good in the long-run. Adaptation practices, however, it turns out, are quite difficult to measure, while installed air conditioners can literally be counted, which makes them handy for plugging into our statistical models. We contend with access to air conditioning currently being a good enough example of access to adaptation and promise to assess more options in the future.
Our paper shows how the capacities to protect against heat stress vary widely around the world. Like with many other unjust manifestations of climate change, people in the world’s hottest areas also have the least means to adapt. We found that countries with more income, more urban areas, and less income inequality, are also the ones where more people have access to air conditioning.
This does not come as the world’s biggest revelation, but it conveniently allows us to make informed guesses on how access to air conditioning might change in 2050 or 2100. This is possible because the research community has already engaged in a group effort to propose five different futures with regard to GDP, urbanization, and income distribution (in climate jargon: the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways or SSPs).
Coupling the potential rates of air conditioning with the people exposed to heat stress based on projections of climate models, lets us calculate the cooling gap – the difference between people exposed to heat stress and people who can protect themselves against it with the use of air conditioning.
Depending on whether we find ourselves in the best- or the worst-case scenario of socioeconomic development could mean anywhere between two billion and five billion people globally unable to protect themselves against heat stress with air conditioning in 2050. This range only grows with longer time horizons, with Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia being the areas of the world where these differences are the starkest.
We hope that our paper will motivate further investigations of potential gaps in adaptation that point to insufficient adaptive capacity and help to identify the areas and populations most at risk, as well as what additional work needs to be done in terms of socioeconomic improvements before we can reasonably expect adaptation to take place. Our findings on the importance of factors beyond just GDP, suggest that helping communities to build their adaptive capacity doesn’t mean only throwing money at them (although that would make for a decent start!), but international efforts must focus on issues such as eradicating inequalities, supporting smart urban development, strengthening institutions, and providing education.
So, let’s not take it for granted that we will all be able to adapt either now or in the future. Eliminating the causes of climate change must remain the number one policy objective that will help to reduce the need for adaptation in the first place. But number two could be helping communities that have no option but to cope with what’s already coming at them. Highlighting in our research what the implications of different adaptive capacities are for preservation of livelihoods, is a small step towards achieving this.
Andrijevic, M., Byers, E., Mastrucci, A., Smits, J., & Fuss, S.(2021).Future cooling gap in shared socioeconomic pathways.Environmental Research Letters 16 (9) e094053. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/17411]
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
level rise is one of the most challenging impacts of climate change. The
continued rise in sea levels, partially caused by the melting of the ice sheets
of Greenland and Antarctica, will result in large scale impacts in coastal
areas as they are submerged by the sea. Locations not able to bear the costs of
implementing protection and adaptation measures will have to be abandoned,
resulting in social, economic and environmental losses.
most important mitigation goal for sea level rise is to reduce or possibly
revert carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Given the time lag between
emission reductions and the impacts of climate change, new adaptation measures
to reduce sea level rise should be proposed, developed and if possible,
A proposal that I developed during my D.Phil degree ten years ago, which resulted in a paper on the Mitigation and Adaptation to Global Change Journal1, shows that submerged barriers in front of ice sheets and glaciers would contribute to reducing the ice melt in Greenland. Edward Byers and I propose the construction of ten barriers at key glaciers in Greenland to stop the flow of warm salty ocean water reaching glaciers in Greenland and Atlantic, which are the main contributors to ice melting. This could reduce sea level rise by up to 5.3 meters at a levelized cost of US$275 million a year. The cost of the barriers is only a fraction of the estimated costs of adaptation measures to sea level rise around the world estimated to be US$1.4 trillion a year by 21002.
barrier consists of several plain sheet modules of marine grade steel around
200 mm thick connected to cylindrical steel tubes with air inside to keep the
barrier floating. The depth of the barriers varies from 30 – 500 meters and the
required length to stop the sea water from entering the fjords, where the
glaciers are located. As no such barrier has been developed before,
we propose three main
steps for the construction of the barrier:
The barrier components
should be transported to the designated location during the summer, when there
is no ocean ice cover and the access to the location of the barrier is less
challenging. Also during the summer, mooring structures should be added.
During the winter, the
barrier is assembled over the frozen ice cover.
During the next summer,
the ice cover will melt again and the barrier will float above the place where
it is should be fixed. The mooring chains attached to the barrier will pull the
barrier into place, using the mooring structures in the ground.
The concept of reducing the contact of seawater and glaciers to reduce ice sheet melting was first published by Moore in Nature3, and Wolovick in The Cryosphere4 with the construction of submerged dams. A graphic representation of the concept is presented in Figure 1. As you can see the barriers should be positioned just after the glacier cavity, where the depth required for the barrier would be the smallest. Our cost analysis shows that using submerged barriers would have one or two orders of magnitude lower costs when compared to submerged dams. Additionally, submerged barriers could be easily removed, if the need arise.
are several issues involving the implementation of these barriers that should
be considered before they are built. The reduction of ice melt in Greenland
glaciers will contribute to an increase in seawater temperature and salinity of
the Arctic Ocean, which will have a direct impact on the region’s biosphere,
climate and ocean currents. The superficial ice cover in the Arctic will be
considerably reduced. This would allow a new maritime route for ships to cross
the Arctic Ocean, increase the absorption of CO2 by the Arctic Ocean,
due to the increase in the ice free surface area and the cold seawater temperature,
and the increase in radiation heat from the Arctic Ocean into space. Ice is a
strong thermal insulator. Without the Arctic Ocean ice cover the temperature of
the region and the heat radiated from the Earth to space will considerably
increase, which could have a higher impact in cooling the Earth than the ice
cover’s albedo effect. Thus, the reduction of the Arctic Ocean ice cover could
contribute to reducing the overall CO2 concentration of the
atmosphere and reducing the Earth’s temperature.
solution, however, should not be used as an excuse to reduce focus on cutting
CO2 emission. If the world continues to warm, not even submerged
barriers in front of glaciers would be able to stop ice sheets melting and sea
Hunt J, Byers E (2018) Reducing sea level rise with submerged barriers and dams in Greenland. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change DOI: 10.1007/s11027-018-9831-y. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15649]
Jevrejeva JS, Jackson LP, Grinsted A, Lincke D, and Marzeion B (2018) Flood damage costs under the sea level rise with warming of 1.5 ◦C and 2 ◦C. Environmental Research Letters DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aacc76
Moore J, Gladstone R, Zwinger T, and Wolovick M (2018) Geoengineer polar glaciers to slow sea-level rise. Nature: /
Wolovick M, Moore J (2018) Stopping the flood: could we use targeted geoengineering to mitigate sea level rise? The Cryosphere DOI: 10.5194/tc-12-2955-2018
By Marcus Thomson, researcher, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program
While living in Cairo in 2010, I witnessed first-hand the human toll of political and environmental disasters that washed over Africa at the end of the last century. Unprecedented numbers of migrants were pressing into North Africa, many pushed out of their homelands by conflict and state-failure, pulled towards safer, richer, less fragile places like Europe. Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, climate change was driving up competition for scarce land and water, and raising pressure on farmers to maintain the quantity and quality of their crops.
It is a similar story throughout the developing world, where many farmers do without the use of expensive chemical fertilizer and pesticides, complex irrigation, or boutique seed varieties. They rely instead on traditional land management practices that developed over long periods with consistent, predictable conditions. It is difficult to predict how dryland farmers will respond to climate change; so it is challenging to plan for various social, economic, and political problems expected to develop under, or be exacerbated by, climate change. Will it spur innovation or, as has been argued for the Syrian civil war, set up conflict? A major stumbling block is that the dynamics of human social behavior are so difficult to model.
Instead of attempting to predict farmers’ responses to climate change by modelling human behavior, we can look to the responses to environmental changes of farmers from the past as analogues for many subsistence farmers of the future. Methods to fill in historical gaps, and reconstruct the prehistoric record, are valuable because they expand the set of observed cases of societal-scale responses to environmental change. For instance, some 2000 years ago, an expansive maize-growing cultural complex, the Ancestral Puebloans (APs), was well established in the arid American Southwest. By AD 1000, members of this AP complex produced unique and innovative material culture including the famed “Great Houses”, the largest built structures in the United States until the 19th century. However, between AD 1150 and 1350, there was a profound demographic transformation throughout the Southwest linked to climate change. We now know that many APs migrated elsewhere. As a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles, I wondered whether a shift to cooler, more variable conditions of the “Little Ice Age” (LIA, roughly AD 1300 to 1850) was linked to the production of their staple crop, maize.
I came to IIASA as a YSSP in 2016 to collaborate with crop modelers on this question, and our work has just been published in the journal Quaternary International. I brought with me high-resolution data from a state-of-the-art climate model to drive the crop simulations, and AP site information collected by archaeologists. Because AP maize was quite different from modern corn, I worked with IIASA soil scientist Juraj Balkovič to modify the crop simulator with parameters derived from heirloom varieties still grown by indigenous peoples in the Southwest. I and IIASA economic geographer Tamás Krisztin developed a statistical technique to analyze the dynamical relationship between AP site occupation and simulated yield outcomes.
We found that for the most climate-stressed high-elevation sites, abandonments were most associated with increased year-to-year yield variability; and for the least stressed low-elevation and well-watered sites, abandonment was more likely due to endogenous stressors, such as soil degradation and population pressure. Crucially, we found that across all regions, populations peaked during periods of the most stable year-to-year crop yields, even though these were also relatively warm and dry periods. In short, we found that AP maize farmers adapted well to gradually rising temperatures and drought, during the MCA, but failed to adapt to increased climate variability after ~AD 1150, during the LIA. Because increased variability is one of the near certainties for dryland farming zones under global warming, the AP experience offers a cautionary example of the limits of low-technology adaptation to climate change, a business-as-usual direction for many sub-Saharan dryland farmers.
This is a lesson from the past that policymakers might take note of.
 Kelley, C. P., Mohtadi, S., Cane, M. A., Seager, R., & Kushnir, Y. (2015). Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201421533.
 Thomson, M. J., Balkovič, J., Krisztin, T., MacDonald, G. M. (2018). Simulated crop yield for Zea mays for Fremont Ancestral Puebloan sites in Utah between 850-1499 CE based on temperature dailies from a statistically downscaled climate model. Quaternary International. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2018.09.031
In 2016, Bolivia saw its worst drought in nearly 30 years. While the city of La Paz faced an acute water shortage with no piped water in some parts, the agricultural sector was hit the hardest. According to The Agricultural Chamber of the East, the region suffered a loss of almost 50% of total produce. Animal carcasses lay scattered in plain sight in the valleys, where they had died looking for watering holes.
One of the most dramatic results of this catastrophic drought was that Lake Poopo, (pronounced po-po) Bolivia’s second largest lake was drained of every drop of water. Located at a height of approximately 1127 meters, and covering an area of 1,000 square kilometers, what remains of it now resembles a desert more than a lake. This event forced the fishing community of Uru Uru, which depended on the lake, to either migrate to other lakes or look for alternate livelihood options.
Lake Poopo is located in the central South American Altiplano, one of the largest high plateaus in the world (Bolivia’s largest lake, Titicaca, is located in the north of the region). Due to its unique topography, the highland faces extreme climatic conditions, which are responsible for difficult lives as well as widespread poverty among the people who live there.
While Titicaca is over 100 meters deep, Poopo had a depth of less than three meters. Combined with a high rate of evapotranspiration, erratic rainfall, and limited flow of water from the Desaguadero River, Poopo was in a precarious position even during the best of times. Whatever little water flowed in from the river is further depleted by intensive irrigation activities at the south of Lake Titicaca before the water makes it way down to Poopo.
The lake’s existence had been threatened several times in the past. However, the 2016 drought was one of the most devastating ones. According to the Defense Ministry of Bolivia, early this year the lake started recovering after several days of heavy rain, restoring as much as 70% of the water. However, since the lake is a part of a very fragile ecosystem, there have been some irreversible changes to the flora and fauna in addition to the losses to the fishing communities living around the lake.
Charting a better future
Claudia Canedo, a participant of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) at IIASA, is exploring the impact of droughts and the risk on agricultural production in the light of this event, after which Bolivia declared a state of water emergency. Canedo was born and raised in the city of La Paz and experienced water shortages while growing up close to the Altiplano. This motivated her to investigate a sustainable solution for water availability in the region. With the results of her study she is hoping to ensure that such a situation doesn’t arise again in the Altiplano – that other communities directly dependent on ecosystem services, like that of Lake Poopo, do not have to lose everything because of an extreme weather event.
For a region where more than half the population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, droughts serve as a major setback to the national economy. “It is not just one factor that led to the drought, though. There were different factors that contributed to the drying up of the lake and also contribute to the agricultural distress,” she says.
“The southern Altiplano lies in an arid zone and receives low precipitation due to its proximity to the Atacama Desert. Poor soil quality (high saline content and lack of nutrients) makes it unsuitable for most crops, except quinoa and potato in some areas,” adds Canedo. Residents also lack the knowledge and the monetary resources to invest in newer technology, which could possibly lead to better water management.
One of the most critical factors in the recent drought was the El Nino- Southern Oscillation, the warming of the sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which in turn carries the warmer oceanic winds and lowers the rate of precipitation in the highland leading to increased evapotranspiration. In 2015 and 2016, the losses due to this phenomenon were devastating for agriculture in the Altiplano, says Canedo.
In her quest to find solutions, the biggest challenge is the lack of recorded data from local weather stations for the past years. Although satellite data is available, it is too generic in nature to do a local analysis. Therefore combining ground and satellite data could enhance the present knowledge and provide consistent results of the climate and vegetation variability. If done successfully, Canedo hopes to identify a correlation between precipitation and vegetation. With this information, she can improve climate forecasting that could help the local people adapt to droughts powerful enough to turn their lives upside down.
With weather forecasts and early warning systems for extreme weather events like droughts, farmers would know what to expect and would be able to plant resilient varieties of crops. This might not earn them the same profits as in a normal year, but would not result in a failed crop. Claudia aims to come up with a drought index useful for drought monitoring and early warning, which will integrate short-term and long-term meteorological predictions.
Perhaps, in the future, with this newfound knowledge, the price for extreme weather events won’t be paid in terms of lost ecosystems like that of Lake Poopo, robbing people of their lives and livelihoods.
About the Researcher
Claudia Canedo is a participant in the 2017 IIASA YSSP. She is pursuing a doctoral program in water resources engineering at Lund University, Sweden. She is interested in studying the hydrological and climatological conditions over small basins in the South American highlands. The aim of her research is to define water resources availability and find strategies for sustainable water management in the semi-arid region.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
Adil Najam is the inaugural dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and former vice chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan. He talks to Science Communication Fellow Parul Tewari about his time as a participant of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) and the global challenge of adaptation to climate change.
How has your experience as a YSSP fellow at IIASA impacted your career? The most important thing my YSSP experience gave me was a real and deep appreciation for interdisciplinarity. The realization that the great challenges of our time lie at the intersection of multiple disciplines. And without a real respect for multiple disciplines we will simply not be able to act effectively on them.
Recently at the 40th anniversary of the YSSP program you spoke about ‘The age of adaptation’. Globally there is still a lot more focus on mitigation. Why is this? Living in the “Age of Adaption” does not mean that mitigation is no longer important. It is as, and more, important than ever. But now, we also have to contend with adaptation. Adaptation, after all, is the failure of mitigation. We got to the age of adaptation because we failed to mitigate enough or in time. The less we mitigate now and in the future, the more we will have to adapt, possibly at levels where adaptation may no longer even be possible. Adaption is nearly always more difficult than mitigation; and will ultimately be far more expensive. And at some level it could become impossible.
How do you think can adaptation be brought into the mainstream in environmental/climate change discourse?
Climate discussions are primarily held in the language of carbon. However, adaptation requires us to think outside “carbon management.” The “currency” of adaptation is multivaried: its disease, its poverty, its food, its ecosystems, and maybe most importantly, its water. In fact, I have argued that water is to adaptation, what carbon is to mitigation.
To honestly think about adaptation we will have to confront the fact that adaptation is fundamentally about development. This is unfamiliar—and sometimes uncomfortable—territory for many climate analysts. I do not believe that there is any way that we can honestly deal with the issue of climate adaptation without putting development, especially including issues of climate justice, squarely at the center of the climate debate.
COP 22 (Conference of Parties) was termed as the “COP of Action” where “financing” was one of the critical aspects of both mitigation and adaptation. However, there has not been much progress. Why is this?
Unfortunately, the climate negotiation exercise has become routine. While there are occasional moments of excitement, such as at Paris, the general negotiation process has become entirely predictable, even boring. We come together every year to repeat the same arguments to the same people and then arrive at the same conclusions. We make the same promises each year, knowing that we have little or no intention of keeping them. Maybe I am being too cynical. But I am convinced that if there is to be any ‘action,’ it will come from outside the COPs. From citizen action. From business innovation. From municipalities. And most importantly from future generations who are now condemned to live with the consequences of our decision not to act in time.
What is your greatest fear for our planet, in the near future, if we remain as indecisive in the climate negotiations as we are today? My biggest fear is that we will—or maybe already have—become parochial in our approach to this global challenge. That by choosing not to act in time or at the scale needed, we have condemned some of the poorest communities in the world—the already marginalized and vulnerable—to pay for the sins of our climatic excess. The fear used to be that those who have contributed the least to the problem will end up facing the worst climatic impacts. That, unfortunately, is now the reality.
What message would you like to give to the current generation of YSSPers? Be bold in the questions you ask and the answers you seek. Never allow yourself—or anyone else—to rein in your intellectual ambition. Now is the time to think big. Because the challenges we face are gigantic.
Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.