The UN's New Focus: Surviving, Not Stopping, Climate Change

The international body has issued a manual for adapting to a warming world.

A worker inspects solar panels in China's Gansu province. (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

The United Nations' latest report on climate change contains plenty of dire warnings about the adverse impact "human interference with the climate system" is having on everything from sea levels to crop yields to violent conflicts. But the primary message of the study isn't, as John Kerry suggested on Sunday, for countries to collectively reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Instead, the subtext appears to be this: Climate change is happening and will continue to happen for the foreseeable future. As a result, we need to adapt to a warming planet—to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits associated with increasing temperatures—rather than focusing solely on curbing warming in the first place. And it's businesses and local governments, rather than the international community, that can lead the way.

“The really big breakthrough in this report is the new idea of thinking about managing climate change,” Chris Field, the co-chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study, said this week, adding that governments, companies, and communities are already experimenting with “climate-change adaptation.”

First, a definition of terms is in order. Since the 1990s, the climate-policy community has been engaged in a debate about whether to focus on reducing emissions ("mitigation"), managing climate change ("adaptation"), or both. But in a 2007 article for Nature, a team of academics gave three reasons for why the "taboo on adaptation" was gradually disappearing:

1.  The "timescale mismatch": Even if world leaders take decisive action to cut emissions (a big "if"), it won't have an impact on the climate for decades, and greenhouse-gas concentrations will continue to increase in the meantime.

2.  The emissions fallacy: People are vulnerable to the climate for reasons other than greenhouse-gas emissions, including factors like socioeconomic inequality and rapid population growth along coasts.

3.  The demands of developing countries: While wealthy countries account for most greenhouse-gas emissions, poor countries suffer the most damage from climate change. And these developing countries want the international community to help them become less vulnerable to the extreme climactic events they're facing now, rather than arguing over emission targets that will theoretically protect them in the future.

The IPCC's early climate reports in the 1990s barely mentioned climate-change adaptation. But that changed in the panel's 2001 edition, which noted that "adaptation is a necessary strategy at all scales to complement climate mitigation efforts." The IPCC spent two pages discussing "adaptation options" in its 2007 study, and this week has devoted more than four chapters to the strategy, including a graph that shows our ability to adapt to climate change in three eras: the present; the near-future we've committed ourselves to based on current emissions; and the distant future we still have the capacity to shape.

Adaptation hasn't received nearly as much attention on the international level as mitigation has, though that could change with this latest UN report. But on the national level, where much of the action on climate change has shifted amid international gridlock, adaptation-focused thinking is becoming more common. According to a recent study by Globe International, which tracked climate legislation across 66 countries, the number of national climate laws around the world has increased from 40 in 1997 to nearly 500 now. Some of these laws are mitigation-focused, like Switzerland's aggressive carbon-dioxide-reduction act, but overall the "momentum in climate change legislation [is] shifting from industrialised countries to developing countries and emerging markets," which "has gone hand in hand with a rise in legislation covering adaptation."

This shift is a positive development for two reasons. First, adaptation measures are less politicized than mitigation measures. People may not agree on the science of climate change, but uncertainty about the future is no excuse for failing to prepare for the worst. "The dam of orthodoxy is cracking," Simon Jenkins wrote in The Guardian on Monday. "If Rome is burning, there is no point in endlessly retuning Nero's fiddle."
Second, preparing for the worst actually presents major opportunities for the private sector and local governments. In its report this week, the IPCC is indeed calling for action—but not in the form of grand international declarations or promises. "Among the many actors and roles associated with successful adaptation, the evidence increasingly suggests two to be critical to progress; namely those associated with local government and those with the private sector," the report states. The implicit message: Citizens should stop waiting for world leaders to legislate climate change away—because that can't be done. Instead, individuals and communities need to show entrepreneurial initiative and figure out how best to survive in an increasingly volatile climate.
But what exactly does "adaptation" look like in practice? Americans have long practiced climate-change adaptation—by, for instance, commissioning public art to make hurricane-evacuation routes more visible, systematically planting trees to combat urban heat, and genetically engineering drought-tolerant crops. In many of these cases, people aren't even aware that they're "adapting" to climate change; they're just doing what needs to be done to keep the water flowing or the business growing.
This year's IPCC report goes into great detail about how these strategies can work on every continent, identifying "key risks" and "adaptation prospects" that players—whether they be governments, businesses, or non-profits—should be prioritizing. (The World Resources Institute also has an excellent series of blog posts on the different roles that multinational corporations, small- and medium-sized businesses, and public-private partnerships can play here.)

In Africa, key risks revolve around insect-transmitted illnesses, clean-water availability, and agricultural productivity due to intensifying droughts. Terms such as "sustainable urban development," "agroforestry," and "diversifying livelihoods" pop up in the corresponding list of adaptation prospects. Central and South America face all of the above, too, though adaptation responses may focus more on equipping public-health services to fight the spread of vector-borne diseases.

In Europe, according to the IPCC, it's time to focus on the increased risk of flooding and wildfires. Some people will profit from beefed-up flood-insurance policies; others will be forced to relocate their homes. New forms of insurance may develop against "weather-related yield variations" in the agricultural sector. North America's situation is similar. In addition to wildfires and urban floods, there will be extreme heat waves, which may incapacitate and kill people; communities may invest in public "cooling centers," and employers will have to adjust workers' hours—perhaps people will start sleeping during the day and going to work at night.
In Asia, one of the main concerns is anticipating natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Technological innovations are needed for early-warning systems that can save lives when disaster is about to strike. Addressing current vulnerabilities of essential infrastructure (water, energy, telecommunications, mobility) is another worthwhile investment. Japan's four major cell-service providers all had their infrastructure destroyed during the country's 2011 earthquake and tsunami; in situations like these, satellite companies like IPSTAR can swoop in and restore disrupted services quickly.
In Australia, meanwhile, the focus is on the coasts and the ocean: sea-level rise, intense floods, and acidifying coral reefs. Here, the adaptation options seem slimmer. The IPCC suggests "land-use controls" and "relocation" as possible workarounds. The "ability of corals to adapt naturally appears limited and insufficient to offset the detrimental effects of rising temperatures and acidification," the report adds, highlighting a sad truth about climate change. Humans may be able to build resilience in a warming world, but other species have fewer ways to avoid becoming victims.