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Adapting to Climate Change

May 3, 2022
Est. Reading: 5 minutes

The risks are many and complex — and so are the actions we can take to reduce our vulnerability

Prescribed fire in a ponderosa pine forest in eastern Washington by the Forest Service to reduce wildfire risk.
Prescribed fire in a ponderosa pine forest in eastern Washington by the Forest Service to reduce wildfire risk (File: USFWS Resilient Landscapes)

Climate change is here and it’s only going to get worse. We can slow it down but warming will continue for decades barring a virtually impossible complete shutdown in global use of fossil fuels. The world, therefore, has no choice but to focus much more on adapting to the many direct and indirect impacts of climate change — sea level rise, extreme temperatures, intense rainfall and droughts, and more powerful storms. A burgeoning literature offers advice on the best locations to reduce vulnerability to climate disasters, a consideration reportedly already an influence on many relocating to Vermont and the upper Midwest. Yet most of us will not be able or want to relocate. Adjusting to our climate future will therefore be a subject of increasing import.

The meaning of adaptation is much more complex than mitigation, measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (the latter a subject I addressed in a previous blog). While there are multiple sources of warming with different characteristics, the metrics for comparing them are established and largely independent of location. In contrast, adaptation must be locally determined, and the nature of the risks is very diverse. Consequently, the measures to be implemented are comparably wide-ranging:

· Sea level rise and intense rainfall events: flood barriers, improving drainage, elevating buildings.

· Drought: water supply management, more efficient irrigation.

· Extreme heat: vegetation and building design to reduce temperatures, air conditioning, urban planning to reduce heat islands, emergency shelters.

· Wildfires: careful selection of vegetation and building materials can minimize fire risk in residential areas, public lands can be managed to reduce wildfires, and emergency evacuation plans can reduce risks to human life.

· More powerful windstorms: designing buildings for greater wind resistance (e.g., wind resistant roofs), trimming trees and locating away from homes, protective materials for emergencies

Effective implementation of these measures can reduce risk considerably, although what is good enough now may not be adequate in five or ten years — there are limits to adaptation. For example, sea level rise is projected to increase tidal flooding in Florida from a few days in 2019 to more than 200 by 2050.

Adaptation will also require action at many levels, from the global to the individual, and most effective when the full range of strategies are applied:

1. International assistance, particularly finance, is critical for developing countries most at risk from climate change. According to S&P, poor countries are four times more exposed to climate risk than richer ones. Beyond compelling humanitarian concerns, this matters to Americans and other developed nations for several reasons including the likelihood of massive migration, civil conflict, and unrest. There are also moral and ethical issues as the US is by far the largest source of greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere.

2. The U.S. government has multiple responsibilities and unique resources for climate adaptation:

a. Financing for expensive infrastructure projects beyond the means of state and local governments, e.g., the $30 billion “Ike Dike,” a storm protection project in Texas.

b. Managing public lands to protect old trees and reduce risk of wildfires.

c. Requiring analysis and disclosure of climate risks by banks and publicly traded corporations, a source of information for investors and other financial institutions.

d. Eliminating perverse incentives that encourage occupation in flood-prone areas like flood insurance, and measures with very limited benefits like dumping sand on beaches.

3. State and local governments share responsibility for building codes key to urban planning and design requirements critical for managing extreme heat and wildfire risks. (Many codes are based on the work of the International Code Council with limited recognition of climate risk.) State governments also have significant responsibility for water management and incentives for farmers to irrigate and use groundwater more efficiently. Heat action plans such as those being implemented by Phoenix include installation of highly reflective roofs and pavements, along with planting shade trees. Such measures have been shown to reduce a city’s ambient air temperature by 2 to 4 degrees Celsius (4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) in summer months.

4. Community-level climate action. Climate can vary as much as seven degrees within a small area, almost always to the disadvantage of lower-income, non-white communities. These disparities exist in many places and not only in large cities. Neighborhood and community organizing is therefore becoming increasingly important for effective climate risk management.

5. Property insurance, if properly structured, can be a significant source of risk awareness and incentives for action for homeowners as recently proposed in California following devastating wildfires. States have a primary role for regulating insurance rates and coverage and should take a more active role in mandating consideration of climate risks. Insurance companies at risk from flood and fire damage to property have unfortunately underestimated their exposure and consequently not been the sources of climate signals that one might expect. Sadly, some communities have also allowed rebuilding after disasters without requiring compliance with more stringent conditions.

6. Individual homeowners:

a. Guidance for residents in fire-prone areas is becoming increasingly specific and often incorporated in building codes and insurance requirements and include use of fire-retardant building materials in new construction; siding made of non-flammable materials; double pane windows; and landscaping choices designed to minimize fire risk. Homes in areas where building codes required compliance with such measures have been shown to have significantly enhanced resistance to damage from wildfires.

b. For many Americans in locations unaccustomed to extreme temperatures such as the Pacific Northwest, preparing for heat begins with measures to reduce heat infiltration such as adding roof insulation, awnings, and better windows. Attic fans and light-colored shingles can lower temperatures by 10 degrees. The next decision is air conditioning. For short periods of time a room air conditioner may be adequate and much less expensive than a full house system. Choosing energy-efficient equipment will reduce operating costs and climate impact; the most efficient models receive an ENERGY STAR label from the Department of Energy. Trees and effective use of vegetation can also significantly reduce heat.

c. Finally, families in areas at risk from floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters should have evacuation plans. Early warnings and planning for relocating large populations have proven effective in reducing death and destruction from hurricanes, but is becoming more difficult as wind speeds are intensifying much more rapidly and less predictably due to climate change.

Localized, future-oriented information on climate risks is becoming more readily available, particularly with respect to flooding. Specialized consulting firms and searchable websites now offer localized assessments of sea level rise, a “risk footprint” comparable to a carbon footprint. High tech startups are even promising to make weather forecasts targeted to areas as small as a city block.

Investigation of the climate risks where we live — or places we are thinking about living — has become a necessity of life planning. Thinking this way will require a change in how we think and decide about managing risks today and in the future.

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003)

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