Tuesday, 3 December 2013

"Limits to adaptation to climate change: a risk approach:" event 16th December

Exeter University is a centre of research into sustainability and climate change:
Environment and Sustainability - University of Exeter
Futures Forum: The University of Exeter... and Climate Change

An event is coming up at the University:

Limits to adaptation to climate change: a risk approach

Part of the Environment and Sustainability HASS theme

A Humanities and Social Sciences Strategy research event
Date16 December 2013
Time16:00 to 18:00
Video conferenced to Daphne Du Maurier Seminar G, Penryn.
Professor Frans Berkhout, Professor of Environment, Society and Climate at Kings College London


As attention to adaptation to climate change increases, there is a growing call for adaptation approaches that focus on risk management. 
There is also greater recognition that the rate and magnitude of climate variability and change may exceed the limits to adaptation of socio-ecological systems. 
The talk will set out an actor-centred, risk-based definition for adaptation limits in social systems. 
Adaptation limits are framed as the point at which an actor's objectives cannot be secured from intolerable risks through adaptive actions. 
These limits are significant because exceeding a limit will either result in intolerable losses on the affected actor or system, or precipitate a discontinuous (or transformational) change of behaviour by actors. 
Such discontinuities in behaviour have implications for the distribution of risks, with potentially significant governance consequences. 
Professor Berkhout will discuss further research into adaptation limits and challenges to risk governance.
For more information about Professor Frans Berkhout please click here.


16.00    Arrival
16:15    Limits to adaptation to climate change: a risk approach
17:15    Drinks reception with mulled wine and mince pies
18:00    Close


Please register for this event using the contact details below.

ProviderHumanities and Social Sciences Strategy
OrganizerResearch and Knowledge Transfer Events
Humanities and Social Sciences Strategy : Research events : Limits to adaptation to climate change: a risk approach :

This lecture is based on the paper which Prof Berkhout contributed to:
Limits to adaptation to climate change: a risk approach
Limits to adaptation : Nature Climate Change : Nature Publishing Group

There have been several critiques published too: 

What are the limits to climate change adaptation?

JOHANNESBURG, 2 July 2013 (IRIN) - In the absence of decisive action to significantly cut the emission of earth-warming greenhouse gases, most poor countries have resigned themselves to adapting to the effects of climate change. But as recent data show, the global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit 400 parts per million - something that has not happened in the last million years, and possibly not in the last 25 million years, according to aNational Aeronautics and Space Administration scientist - leading to the questions: do even we know what we are adapting to, and what are the limits to our adaptation?

A recent paper published in Nature Climate Change points out that many communities are already facing limits to their capacity to adapt. They suggest the development of a framework to define and identify these limits, both for individuals and for communities.

One of the paper’s six authors, Richard Klein, a senior researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute and an author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, explained in an email to IRIN, "For example, a farmer may no longer be able to grow enough food to sustain his or her family (e.g., due to saltwater intrusion or recurring droughts) and decide to give up farming and move to the city to become an informal worker. On the one hand, that's a form of adaptation, but from the perspective of the farmer, who would have preferred to keep farming, a limit has been reached. But from the perspective of the community or the country, food security may not be at risk so no limit has been reached.”

Knowing the extent to which an individual, community or country can adapt will be critical for policymakers, including those charting a country’s agricultural path and those planning for urban growth.

Yet little is known about the limits of adaptation. “It's intuitive that the existence of limits should have policy implications, but the challenge is that, even though we know that limits are real, our ability to predict them is very small indeed,” said Klein.

Defining limits

The authors suggest a risk-based approach to define these limits and a framework to identify them.
"It's intuitive that the existence of limits should have policy implications, but the challenge is that, even though we know that limits are real, our ability to predict them is very small indeed"
“Limits to adaptation are a function of both the rate and magnitude of climate change, and adaptive capacity,” wrote Klein. “Limits are also scale-dependent; they could refer to individual farmers or households, to communities, to sectors, to countries, and so on.”

The authors propose defining an “adaptation limit as a point at which an actor can no longer secure valued objectives from intolerable risk through adaptive action.”

They offer rice farming as an example. South Asian rice plants' ability to pollinate and flower peaks at 26 degrees Celsius; there is a 10 percent decline in yield for every one degree Celsius above that. Here, the “adaptation limit” is the inability to breed rice varieties that pollinate at all above 32 to 35 degrees Celsius. The “valued objective” is to produce rice as a staple crop and for export. The “intolerable risk is a level of loss in rice production, farmer livelihoods, income from exports and food security. Rising temperatures increase the future probability that rice harvests may fail.”

If this adaptation limit is reached, alternative sources of affordable rice will have to be found for consumers, and rice farmers will have to grow other crops to compensate for the loss of income.

Preparing for hardships

Collective efforts to adapt will likely be a complex process, as the authors point out the tolerable degree of risk varies from individual to individual. The best policies would better manage change before the capacity to adapt is exhausted.

But much more must be learned before appropriate policies can be developed. The authors underscore the urgent need for research in key areas - including agriculture, water resources management and disease control - “to determine where limits may exist so that actors may anticipate and plan to mediate the hardships that cannot be avoided.”

They suggest a focus on strengthening early warning systems within countries and communities and improving the capacity to operate across the various scales - from individuals to sectors - as the impact of climate change unfolds.

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
IRIN Global | What are the limits to climate change adaptation? | Global | Aid Policy | Disaster Risk Reduction | Early Warning | Economy | Environment | Food Security | Governance | Health & Nutrition | Natural Disasters


Our e-books, Adapting to Climate Change: 2.0 Enterprise Risk Management (Dō Sustainability:London 2013), and The Changing Profile of Corporate Climate Change Risk (Dō Sustainability:London 2012) now have Kindle editions — available on Amazon.com for a reduced price of $9.99 through June.
DoShort adaptation book coverDoShort book cover

Should Planning for Waterworld be a Research and Policy Priority?

In its April issue, the journal Nature Climate Change published an Opinion and Commentary piece, “Limits to Adaptation.” The authors of the Commentary suggest that the time has come for researchers and policy makers to “begin making progress in predicting and anticipating climate change adaptation limits,” and “to start making plans for managing the consequences of exceeding adaptation limits.”  The piece suggests a “third phase” of climate change planning.  Phase I, planning for climate change mitigation, began some 25 years ago.  Phase 2, planning for adaptation to climate change, began in earnest about 10 years ago. The Commentary authors propose we now start planning for Phase 3, when we cross the “limits to adaptation.”  In other words, to use Kevin Costner’s 1995 movie as a metaphor, planning for Waterworld.
The authors argue that climate change poses “acceptable risks” (i.e., risks that we can absorb without new adaptation measures), “tolerable risks” (i.e., risks that can be kept “reasonable” through adaptation measures), and “intolerable risks,” (i.e. risks we encounter after crossing “adaptation limits.”)  But how do these terms translate into practice?  How many species extinctions are “acceptable risks”?  And when discussing “tolerable” and “intolerable” risks, whose perceptions of risk establish the risk baseline?  Rich nations or poor nations?  Coastal nations or landlocked nations? Natural systems or social systems? The construction sector or the agricultural sector? Businesses or individuals?  To be fair, the Commentary authors seem to recognize the complexity of what they are suggesting, pointing to an almost infinite number of adaptation limits that could be encountered, each of which can be analyzed as shown in the figure below.
Source: Dow et al., Limits to Adaptation, Nature Climate Change 3: 305–307 (2013), doi:10.1038/nclimate1847. Published online 26 March 2013.
Source: Dow et al., Limits to Adaptation, Nature Climate Change 3: 305–307 (2013), doi:10.1038/nclimate1847. Published online 26 March 2013.
In the abstract, I don’t question the existence of adaptation limits; their existence seems obvious.  But should planning for the “intolerable risks” of crossing a myriad of potential “adaptation limits” be a research and policy priority as the authors propose?  That I do question, and explore below several of the assumptions that necessarily underlie the authors’ proposal:
1)      That we will not successfully engage in climate change mitigation efforts that prevent us from reaching “adaptation limits.”
2)      That we can, through adequate study, accurately characterize adaptation limits in a way that is useful and actionable today.
3)      That policy makers and other decision-makers will translate this new understanding of adaptation limits into some sort of problem-solving response.
Each assumption is open to challenge. True, the failure to date of Phase 1 mitigation efforts is responsible for the growing focus on Phase 2 adaptation planning.  But does that mean  that serious mitigation efforts will  NEVER kick in (We’ve discussed elsewhere the Climate Response Tipping Point, the point at which dramatic action against climate change could be expected to become a policy priority).  All sorts of analysis points to the fact that we have the technical tools needed to limit climate change, or even to reverse it; the question is whether, perhaps in the face of events that trigger a tipping point in public opinion and policy response, we will deploy those tools at the needed scales.
Moving on, can we really forecast “adaptation limits” in an actionable and policy-useful way?  Given the complexity of natural and human systems, sorting out the adaptation limits of rice varieties, vs. the adaptation limits of rice farmers, vs. the adaptation limits of rice exporting countries, quickly becomes a quagmire of assumptions and scenarios.  Even if you could sort out answers to all these questions, isn’t it equivalent to studying the temperature at which each of your individual belongings will burst into flame if your house burns down?  That’s not the information we use in deciding whether to buy fire insurance.  Even more fundamentally, if we get beyond mitigation, and beyond adaptation, what kind of actionable response are we even talking about?  Are we talking about disaster relief?  If so, we have to ask how practical disaster relief efforts can be if required on an ongoing basis at a global scale.
Lastly, even if we could generate useful estimates of adaptation limits, the next question is whether decision-makers would act on the information. To date, policy makers have largely failed to act to mitigate climate change despite enormous amounts of relevant analysis.  Similarly, we’ve hardly scratched the surface of what adaptation analysis has already suggested as prudent (see, e.g., “6 Steps to Managing Your Company’s Physical Climate Risks,” GreenBiz.com, March 29, 2013).  The Phase 3 approach proposed in the Commentary relies on exactly the same policy analysis “frame” that Phases 1 and 2 have (unsuccessfully to date) relied upon.  If that frame hasn’t generated an adequate risk management response to date, why should we believe that it will when discussing even more abstract and longer-term prospects like “adaptation limits” and “intolerable risks?”
So why are we even talking about “adaptation limits”?  The Commentary authors suggest that we need to investigate adaptation limits because: “If the capacity to adapt is unlimited, a key rationale for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is weakened. . .”  Is that really the situation we’re in today, after decades of climate change concern?  Does any reasonable person believe the capacity to adapt is unlimited?  Even setting aside James Hansen’s hypothesized “Venus effect,” the consequences of a significant change in average global temperature, e.g. 8oC, would by all accounts be catastrophic for most social and natural systems.  Surely that would be considered “intolerable risk” by any reasonable observer.  If so, what’s the real added value of making “adaptation limits” a policy and research priority?
The Nature Climate Change Commentary does implicitly raise three interesting issues not addressed by the authors.  First, what actionable conclusions might we suggest today if we wanted to prepare for the consequences of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld scenario (which, presumably, would be considered an example of “intolerable risk,” at least for the majority of the earth’s population that has passed on in the interim)?  Is the proposal to research adaptation limits analogous to arguing that we should actively prepare for what could happen if nuclear waste depositories are accidentally opened while they’re still highly radioactive?  Is anyone really doing such planning (as opposed to proposing to mitigate the risk of such an event through technological and communications means?)
Second, what do we even mean at a societal level by the term “adaptation limits”?  Are Kevin Costner’s webbed fingers and feet in Waterworld an example of successful adaptation, or are the billions of dead an example of failed adaptation and crossing adaptation limits?  A curious aspect of defining  “successful” or “failed” adaptation is that whoever might ask the question in the future is likely to conclude “yes, we successfully adapted,” simply because they are in a position to ask the question (i.e., they survived).  So will the billions of people who didn’t make it on Kevin Costner’s Waterworld simply not matter to the question of adaptation success or failure once they’re gone?  Does Waterworld exemplify both failed and successful adaptation?  Even this simple example illustrates the intellectual and moral quagmire we are likely to encounter when we start talking about planning for adaptation limits.  Instead of advancing the cause of climate risk management, it could become an enormous distraction, and provide yet more grist for the mill of those who argue we don’t need to act now to address climate risks (by suggesting that we need a massive amount of new cost-benefit analysis to determine all of the adaptation limits, analysis that by its very nature e.g. through discounting the future, tends to undercut the priority of near-term risk management).  The whole topic of “success and failure” when it comes to societal mitigation and adaptation efforts is a challenging topic that has yet to be widely tackled.  That is indeed a priority.
Policy analysis and scenario building are useful tools.  But those of us trained in the use of the policy analytic frame need to be able to argue that we are providing added value through its application, leading to conclusions that help advance agreed upon policy and societal objectives and outcomes.  The policy analytic frame can fall into the trap of assuming that it is the only hammer in the toolbox, missing the fact that there’s not a nail in sight.  Based on our experience with Phases 1 and 2 of climate change planning, launching an “adaptation limits” Phase 3 reflects a misunderstanding of how to best advance the end-game of climate risk management.  Before spending time and effort on this new Phase 3 of climate change planning, let’s redouble our efforts to come up with risk-based arguments that effectively motivate decision makers to engage seriously with Phases 1 and 2.  Any serious look at potential climate change scenarios in the absence of successful mitigation efforts, and any serious look at adaptation needs in the face of unrestrained climate change, brings us back to the need for mitigation and adaptation at a scale far beyond what we’ve seen so far.  If we can’t communicate that fact (which we obviously haven’t), I don’t think that a massive new effort to explore “adaptation limits” is likely to move us in the needed direction. Let’s re-think some of the first principles of the communications and risk-management challenges we face when it comes to climate change.  It’s not new and sexy, and it’s not easy, but it’s what we need to do.

adaptation to climate change | The Climatographers

The limits of climate adaptation are social, not physical or economic

Presidential science advisor John Holdren is fond of saying that there are only three possible responses to climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We’ll prevent what we can, adjust to what we can’t prevent, and suffer through what we can’t adjust to. All that remains is to determine the proportions.
Lots of people are averse to large-scale suffering. But lots of people are also averse to substantial mitigation measures. This leaves them placing a great deal of faith in adaptation. Just based on conversations I’ve had over the years, I think there are lots of people who are vaguely aware of climate change, convinced that something is really happening, but who have a kind of free-floating confidence in human beings’ ability to adjust to circumstances. Adjusting is what we do — humans live in just about every kind of microclimate the planet offers, after all. If climate zones shift or move around, we’ll get used to it. Why break the bank trying to prevent something that we can just learn to live with?
Now, on the merits, this is crazy. Our best understanding is that preventing (mitigating) a degree of global temperature rise is much, much cheaper than adapting to it. Compared to adaptation, mitigation is a huge bargain, whether you’re measuring by money, time, disruption, ecosystem integrity, whatever.
But still, people have an extremely deep-seated faith in adaptation. What’s odd is that, as much as we talk about it, as much as we trust in it, we don’t have a very good understanding of its dynamics or its limits. It remains, in popular discussions of climate policy, a kind of unexamined deus ex machina.
A new commentary in Nature Climate Change attempts to move the ball forward a little by offering an analytical framework for thinking about adaption. The key insight is that human adaptation is an intrinsically social process, so the most salient limits on adaptation may be social rather than biophysical or economic. However, the authors note …
… little is known about limits in social systems — whether there are social limits to adaptation, what influences their likelihood, where these might lie, who they would affect and what the consequences of reaching such limits might be.
To help start exploring those questions, the authors introduce a framework for thinking about social adaptation. It is an “actor-centered, risk-based approach,” which means that it begins by asking how individuals assess the risks they face. The authors draw on previous research showing that …
… actors will implicitly or explicitly place risks to their valued objectives into one of three categories involving different types of response: acceptable risks are risks deemed so low that further efforts in risk reduction (adaptation) are not justified;tolerable risks relate to situations where adaptive, risk-reduction efforts are required for risks to be kept within reasonable levels; and intolerable risks are those which fundamentally threaten a private or social norm — threatening, for instance, public safety, continuity of traditions, a legal standard or a social contract — despite adaptive action having been taken. On reaching an intolerable risk level, we normally expect a discontinuity of behaviour in order to avoid the risk, whether this is a homeowner’s decision to move, or a forester selling off land, as the alternative is increasing losses. The question of what is acceptable, tolerable or intolerable remains with the individual actors, as they shape collective responses. [my emphasis]
So: as individuals, we do nothing as long as risks are acceptable. When they cross from acceptable to tolerable, we begin taking adaptive action. And when they cross from tolerable to intolerable, we exhibit “discontinuity of behavior,” which is a dry, antiseptic way of describing what are often acts of desperation — abandoning, fleeing, migrating — that end in radically diminished quality of life.
Here’s a kind of map of risk perception, with frequency of bad stuff as the vertical axis and severity of bad stuff as the horizontal axis:
Nature Climate Change: risk assessment
Nature Climate Change
Click to embiggen.
One interesting thing about this framework: in the case of extremely frequent or extremely severe risks, we quickly reach the limits of adaptation; the distance between acceptable risk and intolerable risk is quite small. In other words, if we face bad things happening very frequently, or very bad things happening, there’s very little space for adaptation. It is in that wide swath in the middle, the mid-frequency, mid-severity impacts, that adaptation will take place.
So think about, for instance, Superstorm Sandy. As it is, it seems barely to have bumped NYC into seeing climate change as a tolerable risk, i.e., something to take adaptive action on. Try to imagine, now, what it would take to bump it over the line to intolerable risk — what it would take to cause people to start abandoning coastal areas of NYC. How frequent would storms have to be? How severe?
The authors begin with an example of individual risk assessment in the form of a rice farmer in South Asia. Rice yield declines 10 percent with every degree of nighttime temperature over 26 degrees C. There are near-term adaptive responses that can cushion the blow as temperature rises, but at a certain point, profitable rice farming becomes impossible. Facing intolerable risk, the farmer sells or abandons the farm.
Things get more complicated at the social or cultural level, where such individual responses are aggregated. The authors cite, as a cultural example, the mid- to late-15th century Norse Greenland society, which was around for about 400 years before … it wasn’t. They adapted and adapted to the “Little Ice Age” until finally they faced too many pressures, couldn’t adapt any more, and went bye-bye.
It’s interesting to imagine the internal discussions among the Norse Greenlanders. Surely some found the risks tolerable — i.e., were advocating action — while others still found them acceptable. And surely some found them intolerable — were unable to maintain their own practices and lifestyles — while others still found them tolerable. Different individuals assess risk differently. And crucially, debates over what is acceptable vs. tolerable vs. intolerable risk can slow collective responses.
There’s also a rather obvious point to make here about equity, though the authors do not make it. The members of a society with the most economic or political power will also be the ones most buffered against risk. As the last to be adversely affected by risks, they will be the least inclined to take adaptive action, especially if it’s expensive. And because they are also the ones with the most political influence, they will be able to delay collective action even as risks are ravaging the more vulnerable.
To put the point more bluntly: The 1 percent can delay adaptive action even when the 99 percent are suffering. By the time the 1 percent are swayed to action, the risks to the broader collective may already have become intolerable. Thus do the social limits of adaptation bite harder, and faster, than any physical or economic limits.
We badly need further research into these areas, to help us understand individual limits to adaptation and how they aggregate into social limits on adaptation. Only then can we accurately forecast the impacts of climate change. “Identifying ‘dangerous climate change’,” the authors write, “relies on understanding which actors will be affected and whether they are facing adaptation limits.”
Many communities in vulnerable regions like the Arctic are already bumping up against the limits of adaptation. More and more communities, regions, and economic sectors will do the same as climate change accelerates in coming decades. “Researchers need to begin making progress in predicting and anticipating adaptation limits,” the authors conclude, “and policymakers need to start making plans for managing the consequences of exceeding adaptation limits.”
David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed attwitter.com/drgrist.
The limits of climate adaptation are social, not physical or economic | Grist

No comments: