Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Adaptation - reconsidered

Obviously, everybody agrees on adaptation. Already in 2001, Sarewitz and Pielke jr. suggested that focusing on vulnerability helps to 'Breaking the global warming gridlock' in climate debate; the same seems to be true for this climate blog, almost ten years later. Warmists, deniers, moderates, skeptics, neutrals - all good people seem to agree that it is necessary to adapt. Adaptation as common ground. I do agree, too. This is a good reason to have a closer look at the concept of adaptation. What exactly are we talking about?
Adaptation as common ground. I looked up wikipedia and found an entry that defines adaptation as an evolutionary process; species adapt to their changing environments in order to survive. Of course, they do so unconsciously.
I guess this is not the meaning we would give to adaptation. Of course, humans have to adapt consciously, they have choices. There is no God, no uni-linear evolution, no outside force that can guide us (as far as I know). So where do we know from what we have to adapt to and how? Climate science? Scientists tell us that we have to adapt to nature, to extreme weather events, to flooding, heat waves etc. But where do they know from? The predictions or scenarios are the result of downscaling from global models - will you climate guys not end up in the very same trouble, with some being alarmists and others skeptics? As much as I know,  downscaling is even more difficult than making global climate statements. Will there be an 'adaptation gridlock', to paraphrase Sarewitz / Pielke jr?

Furthermore, are human beings really opposed to nature? They live in constructed environments, along channeled rivers or protected coastlines, in swamps, deserts, cities or in other 'artificial' worlds. Even regional climates are influenced by human intervention (acc. to Pielke sen., for example); where to draw the line between nature and culture, between inside and outside? Where is the boundary between artificial and natural? Does this distinction still make sense? If not, what does this mean for the concept of adaptation?

Furthermore, in adaptation there is of course a good potential for a new environmental determinism. Scientists define the extreme weather events etc people have to expect, and politics have to plan accordingly. Climate effects legitimize politics - a bad idea, I guess. History knows lots of bad examples (eugenics, just to name one).  In reality, things are indeed much more complex, of course.
For example, I have read that for the people in Bangladesh rising sea levels are not their major concern. Instead, they have economic, religious, ethnic, demographic and social problems (some of them as deadly as natural events, I guess). What role does adaptation to rising sea levels play here? And how to integrate it into this complex society with its manifold problems? What does this mean for climate science? And for the concept of adaptation?

In contemporary biology and ecosystem studies, some say that organisms do not exactly adapt, but they create actively the environment they inhabit. This seems to fit better for human beings, I guess. To live with the effects of climate change, that is, with extreme weather events, is a problem of design, of construction. To paraphrase Al Gore, who is so concerned about Creation: Creation with a capital C is indeed a problem of creativity, of creating an environment that is sustainable.  How to construct or design an environment that is less vulnerable? Design or construction are more active than the concept of adaptation, maybe. Contemporary urban / rural / spatial design has to consider climate effects and to integrate them into its planning concepts, alongside all the other problems conditioning life in the respective society. Sustainable design - does this describe what we mean by adaptation?

These are just a few questions and considerations that come to my mind. What does adaptation mean? I am looking forward to learning more about this concept and how to put it into practice from your contributions.


_Flin_ said...

The economic, religious, ethnic, demographic and social problems of societies are their own problem. They are a matter of sovereignty of the nations.

Adaption for climate change would be:
- building of dams
- designated flooding areas at rivers
- evacuation plans for storms
- preparedness for weather events (e.g. snow)

(A little off topic:
A thought that has recently often crossed my mind: An international (military?) strike force to battle the effects of natural disasters would be a good idea. The strike force had to be spread out around the globe, for parts of them should reach points of crisis in less then a day. There they could
- supply the people with tents, blankets, food and fresh water
- medical help
- help with rescue operations and salvage work

These are things that regularly do not work very well and cost hundreds of lives.

Just looking back one decade, there were a lot of incidents where such a strike force would have proven useful:
- Earthquake Gujarat 2001
- Earthquake Iran 2003
- The Tsunami 2004
- India / Pakistan Earthquake 2005
- Hurrican Katrina 2005
- Sichuan Earthquake 2007
- Cyclone Nargis 2008
- Haiti earthquake 2010

I am aware that most of these are earthquakes and have nothing to do with climate change.)

Werner Krauss said...


one the one hand, I do agree and think this is common sense. On the other hand I know that things like building of dams, designating flooding areas, and even evacuation plans are highly controversial.
The dike system in the Netherlands only works because of Dutch mentality. You couldn't export it to New Orleans, because people there do not have this trustful and intimate relation to government and its administrations - which is indispensable for maintaining such a system.
Or look at Haiti: to understand the post-earthquake situation, you don't have to look at nature, but at history, as the New York Times correctly noted. National sovereignty is a difficult affair in Haiti, and the catastrophe is indeed related to all these things you subsume under national sovereignty. Sustainable adaptation, this is my argument, is only possible when it is integrated into the existing (and often messy) system.
Everywhere rivers, coastlines, dams, flood areas etc are all related to social organization, to belief systems, and intervention causes legal, economic, and ownership problems etc. Every place belongs to someone, is part of someone's identity, is marked by state or common law, by tradition, by Gods, by ancestors, you name it...
The idea of outside intervention in order to build dams etc is comparable to the idea of going to Iraq or Afghanistan with a strike force in order to bring democracy. It does not look promising.
But I do agree that for immediate help in case of catastrophes such forces are indeed useful; the problem is sustainable adaptation.

Don Shor said...

Roger Pielke Sr. refers to a "vulnerability paradigm, focused on regional and local societal and environmental resources of importance...."

This is a process that involves considerable planning and expertise in science and engineering. But for an example of how it is to be done, often it is just a matter of integrating existing research and planning work. In California, for example (where we are quite used to dealing with natural catastrophes), we would need to focus on
-- water supplies affected by the change from snow pack to winter rain; this is mostly a matter of water storage and flood management.
-- dealing with erosion, flooding, and habitat changes due to rising sea levels. The most important part of the state's water system runs through a low-lying delta. Some parts of the San Francisco Bay area are built on filled areas of the bay.

The research is there, and models are already being developed. Examples:

Water supply: http://cee.engr.ucdavis.edu/faculty/lund/CALVIN/

Sea level rise:http://www.pacinst.org/reports/sea_level_rise/

Adaptation to reduced snow pack will mean providing more storage for spring rains. Voters here this fall will decide on a $10 billion package of bonds for water system improvements, including new reservoirs. So in these messy democracies, the voters will have to assess the costs and benefits of projects that can be considered "adaptations" to long-term water supply concerns.

ghost said...

the interesting thing of Flin opionion is, it concentrates only on disasters. That is important, but as in the third post described, a change in climate causes a change in many areas of the daily life: from infrastructure, agriculture, or personal life.

I would also say, a complete package is necessary, that must combine all information from many areas and it should be specialized on regional issues.

One example is the permafrost soil in the far north. Coastal erosion can be increased, housings and infrastructure can be damaged. One must adapt pipelines and streets etc which all rely on permafrost. Surely, maybe a small problem compared to possible water supply issues, but it is expensive. And we rely on these areas, because we get oil and gas from there. Is this sustainable? I do not know, but it will be necessary, probably.

Another, maybe better, example, in the Sahel zone (Niger), they have a real nice and sucessful reforestation program. It is maybe slightly offtopic because it is an adaptation to the global warming, but to regional climate problems. The program uses traditional methods, local people developed the program, and it helps. I think this could be sustainable. http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/0,1518,619742-2,00.html

the best is: it does not come from the government, NGOs, foreign countries etc, local people invented it and supports it. Therefore, the credibility is so high.

Maybe the best is in some regions: initiatives from the people there who understand their area, maybe additionally supported by science expertise.

Werner Krauss said...

@ghost and Don Shor

all of your examples seem to accept that adaptation measures always have to be carefully integrated into the respective societies; this differs from large scale social engineering fantasies or top down projects, be it from governments or international organizations.

It is also interesting to think about how the role of the involved scientists change. In mitigation debates, scientists play mostly an outstanding role, as definers of limits and as advisers (2 degree limits, thresholds etc). In adaptation, they are ideally more part of the local decision and planning processes; their suggestions have to go through the respective decision processes. Another important role is to tell people the possible consequences of their decisions; this is different from telling people what they have to do.

_Flin_ said...

@Werner Krauss: I am sorry, but I think there was a misunderstanding. The strike force idea was not about adaption, but as immediate reaction to natural disasters.

States have to build their dams themselves. Or invite other people to build them for them. Sovereignity of nation is a basic principle.

@ghost: Concentrating on disaster is probably due to my father sitting on island that is flodded twice a year with nothing but the houses looking out of the ocean and myself living next to a river that in the last 10 years came twice much to near to my house for my taste. So I talk about dams and flooding areas, because this is what I am near to. This is what I can observe.

If I where a farmer, I'd probably go on about the different crops that I have to plant now and the different farming seasons. Or as an engineer in roadworks how the draining systems have to be constructed differently to allow for higher precipitation to flow away.

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed following this discussion, and the discussion on the previous post by Hans.

I'm exploring some of these very same issues at my blog, Adapt Already (http://adaptalready.wordpress.com/).

Here in Australia the federal government has begun to implement "adaptation policy," which raises a number of interesting questions. For example, given the fact that we are always adapting to many different kinds of change, how does one define "climate adaptation"?

There are also some fascinating interactions between adaptation and mitigation. For example, desalination is a great way to eliminate vulnerability to uncertain rainfall. However, it involves a huge energy input, which currently comes mostly from coal.

Adaptation policy also raises some tough questions for scientists who now receive funding with the explicit purpose of helping people to adapt. Does this require doing science a little differently? How do we evaluate the outcomes of research? How do we decide what groups/sectors/regions should benefit from research investments?