How to Adapt to Climate Change

The UN encourages policymakers to prepare for the worst.

Smog over Kampala, Uganda where the IPCC held its conference.

An image appears on the slide showing a line of Kenyans carrying their belongings across a plane of ankle-deep, churning waters. Its heading reads, “Managing the risks: flash floods in Nairobi.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has outlined how climate change spells disaster for unprepared communities.

The IPCC released a report in November that it called its “Summary for Policymakers.” The summary is 29-page short-version of the  scientific report due out in February which is on “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disaster to Advance Climate Change Adaptation.”  The IPCC is a United Nations body that regularly reports on climate research and has even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 alongside American Al Gore.

The IPCC report last year is not based on new research. It is an analysis of the trends suggested by the findings of other research groups released in recent years. The New York Times reported how the IPCC’s recent analysis doesn’t break any new ground and was even cautious to accept some predictions of climate change that it had deemed premature. The report reveals what degree of confidence the IPCC has in each of the reports it adopts and thus the likelihood of predicted outcomes that are based on those reports.

“Climate Change Adaptation,” however, is the key phrase in the title of the report. What the IPPC has done for the first time is combine analysis from the fields of climate science and disaster risk management in order to adapt to climate change. The report aims to create a discussion of “how to reduce and manage the risks of extreme events and disasters in a changing climate.” By not only offering predictions, but also analysing them in the context various at-risk areas of the globe, the IPCC report hopes to reduce the effect of climate change on our societies.

The report addressed the causes of climate change with barely more than a footnote. Other than encouraging policymakers to minimize greenhouse gas emissions, the IPCC did not specify what should be done to halt the current trends in the climate. The report did admit with a certainty of greater than 66% that human influences have led to a “warming of extreme daily minimum and maximum temperatures on the global scale” as well as an “increasing extreme costal high water due to increase in mean sea level.”  But while the IPCC recognized that preventing climate change would minimize the risk of disaster, to what degree anthropogenic climate change could be mitigated was recognized as “outside the scope of this report.”

The IPCC’s General Predictions

Likelihoods are given in parenthesis.

  • Frequency of warm temperature extremes will increase (>99%)
  • Frequency of cold temperature extremes will decrease (>99%)
  • Average sea levels will rise (>90%)
  • Heat waves will increase in length, frequency, and/or intensity (>90%)
  • Average maximum wind speed of tropical hurricanes will increase (>66%)
  • Frequency of heavy precipitation will increase over many regions (>66%)
  • Number of tropical hurricanes will either decrease or remain constant (>66%)
  • Droughts will intensify (33-66%)

Leaving analysis into the causes of climate change for future reports, the IPCC “Summary for Policymakers” focused most heavily on what will occur over the next 100 years in the climate and what can be done to minimize its effect on our nations.

The bulk of the report focused on what our changing climate means for unprepared nations and what they can do to prepare.  It outlined that though the changing climate may be responsible for extreme weather events, it is the preparedness of a society that makes those events a disaster or not.  The report outlined how a disaster can be measured either in the toll on human well-being or in the financial cost to a nation. The IPCC put equal weight on both in its report, recognizing that different sorts of weather events threaten regions in different ways, and it is valuable for a society to be prepared to minimize both the loss of life and the economic damage caused by a disaster.

As a result of weather- and climate-related disasters , the IPCC reported with a high degree of confidence that both economic losses expressed as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product and loss of life are higher in developing countries. Total economic losses, on the other hand, are higher in developed countries.

Other than improved forecasting and warning systems for severe climate events, the IPCC  said that “Vulnerability” and “Exposure” are the two factors policymakers need to consider when planning for climate change. It addition, it argued that “risk management works best when tailored to local circumstances.”

Vulnerability is the nature of a people to be susceptible to severe climate events on account of sociological and economic reasons. For instance, areas with poor drainage systems, like Nairobi in Kenya are vulnerable to floods, and areas with few drought-resistant crops, like West Africa, are more vulnerable to famine caused by droughts. Decreasing poverty and encouraging education are two of the methods the report outlines that a government can reduce the vulnerability of its people.

Exposure is the nature of an area to be susceptible to severe climate events on account of location. For instance, small island developing states are most at risk of rising sea levels, and ocean-side lowlands in the United States and the Caribbean are at risk of hurricanes. Relocating people and valuable assets or improving weather-proofing on buildings through national funding or stricter building codes are ways a government might prevent disaster in exposed areas.

Perhaps more so than as a result of climate change thus far, the report indicated with a high degree of confidence that an increasing economic loss from natural disasters over the last thirty years has been a result of the increased exposure of people and economic assets. Population growth in at-risk areas has turned out to been the principal cause of loss.

This is why the IPCC’s chose to focus on ways to minimize the damage caused by weather- and climate-related disasters—though such a method at first seems counterintuitive in comparison to preventing or reversing climate change. According to the IPCC, a prepared society can mitigate the negative effects of climate change by preventing severe weather events from turning into disasters. It seems that many of these disasters occurred as a result of manageable weather patterns striking predictable areas where people with a high vulnerability had been forced to live. Given the herculean nature of preventing climate change, the IPCC looked instead at ways to adapt to it. Their ultimate message is that until climate change can be reversed, we must learn to live with it.