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  Geotimes - December 2007 - Comment

Geoscience and International Decisions on Adapting to Climate Change
Nathan Hultman

Since the conception of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, much of the focus of international climate policy has been on addressing the root causes of anthropogenic climate change — especially greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, the convention itself emphasizes this focus on mitigation, stating that “the ultimate objective … is to achieve … stabilization of greenhouse gases” at levels that would prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate.” On the other hand, developing strategies to enhance societal resilience to expected climate changes have often been ignored, or worse, viewed as counterproductive distractions to the mitigation mission.

Increasingly, however, attention is focusing not only on mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases but also on enhancing the ability of societies to reduce damages and recover more quickly from expected climate disturbances. For awhile, adaptation was seen as a secondary priority, as if admitting the need to adapt might reduce the political urgency of reducing emissions that contribute to climate change. Fortunately, this false choice has faded. Indeed, unlike for the more geopolitically contentious problem of mitigation, adapting to climate change now seems to provide a politically attractive point of consensus for a wide variety of often oppositional negotiating blocs. China, India, the United States, the European Union, oil-producing countries, small island states and the wider developing-country community all have reasons to support adaptation, and there is little potential downside — especially with broad participation.

The coalescing support for adaptation raises old questions about scientific uncertainty and risk assessment in a new and urgent light. International institutions for financing adaptation are now being established. While potentially good news for vulnerable communities, these changes highlight the challenges of appropriating funds to competing adaptation projects and the still uncertain role of scientific assessment within this process.

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol have already established three multilateral funds to assist developing countries with adaptation. The Global Environment Facility, an independent financial organization that provides grants to developing countries for projects that benefit the global environment, has also initiated a “Special Priority on Adaptation” within its operations. The World Bank thus far has not established an adaptation-specific fund, but is investigating ways to integrate climate adaptation considerations into all project decisions. Yet the guidance for making decisions on any funding allocation remains clouded. The U.N. Adaptation Fund, for example, goes no further than requiring it to support “concrete adaptation projects” while ensuring “competency in adaptation and financial management.” But it leaves the definition of such terms open to interpretation, which are up for debate in the climate policy meeting in Indonesia this month.

Then there’s the question of what defines a good adaptation project, and how science might be used — or misused — when development agencies try to choose the best among competing projects. Imagine one example: Project A proposes to enhance a seawall to protect against the low end of expected sea-level rise; Project B proposes to enhance a system of flood defenses on a river in a region that is projected to have greater precipitation extremes. What criteria might be used to select the winning proposal? Given the already great uncertainties in projecting future changes, the project with greater certainty may prove to be more compelling, even if the potential benefits may be less. In this example, scientists have a relatively confident projection of the lower bound of sea-level rise: It arises from the thermal expansion of the oceans, which in turn is driven by a relatively well-constrained future climate variable (global average surface temperature). Compared to Project B’s highly uncertain point prediction of extremes from a regional model, Project A is the “safe choice,” more easily defensible to members of a skeptical funding committee. If projects are being judged by their adaptation benefits alone, then risk-averse decision-making and uncertainty could combine to create suboptimal choices.

This illustrates two possible improvements in how adaptation projects are assessed, both of which will require sensitive engagement from the geoscience community. First, regional, decadal-scale climate models can begin to offer information on shorter timescales that can mesh with development needs and short-term policy imperatives. A new regional model from the Hadley Centre in the United Kingdom is already helping researchers realize substantial improvement in the accuracy of surface temperature predictions.

And second: Embed the climate adaptation initiative within the wider context of human development and natural hazards mitigation. The existing institutions for adapting to climate change grew largely out of a mitigation-centered international negotiating process. Well-rehearsed lessons from the geosciences and development communities are essential for informing the newer, broadened scope of climate adaptation initiatives.

The new dialogue on adaptation will require collaboration and engagement between scientists, project developers and financing organizations. Each of these parties brings its own priorities and views on risk, but a joint focus holds the best promise for understanding the most effective ways to deploy limited funding.

Hultman is an assistant professor in Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

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