Climate change: preparing for hell and high water

By By Mary Beckman | 08 Nov 2013


An international team of climate and social scientists say a new approach to climate preparedness is essential to help people adjust to the coming changes.

Changes are already happening to Earth's climate due to the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and large-scale agriculture.

Some parts of the natural and manmade world will bounce back better than others from climate change, but scientists don't yet know who or what. (Image courtesy ARM Research Facility.)  

As changes get more pronounced, people everywhere will have to adjust. In this week's issue of the journal Science, an international group of researchers urge the development of science needed to manage climate risks and capitalize on unexpected opportunities.

"Adapting to an evolving climate is going to be required in every sector of society, in every region of the globe. We need to get going, to provide integrated science if we are going to meet the challenge," says senior scientist Richard Moss of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). "In this article, we describe the foundations for this research and suggest measures to establish it."

Climate preparedness research needs to integrate social and climate science, engineering, and other disciplines. It prepares for impacts by determining who and what are most vulnerable to changes and by considering ways to adapt.

"Science for adaptation starts with understanding decision-making processes and information needs, determining where the vulnerabilities are, and then moves to climate modelling. A final step tracks whether adaptation is effective," says Moss, who is based at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a collaboration between PNNL in Richland, Washington and the University of Maryland.

The article grew out of a workshop held in August 2012 at the Aspen Global Change Institute in Aspen, Colorado, on how to improve support for decision-making in the face of a changing climate. The authors arrived at this approach to guide preparedness research based on the need to reduce the risks that climate change presents.

"The need to adapt and adjust is going to be global," says Moss. "We need a flexible, integrated approach that merges theoretical and problem-oriented sciences around four general challenges."

The four challenges are:

  • Understanding what information is needed to make decisions about adapting to climate change
  • Identifying vulnerabilities in society, the economy and the environment
  • Improving forecasts and climate models in ways that can address specific problems
  • Providing technology, management, and policy options for adapting

As an example of how practical and basic research can work together, Moss described work in the US involving water utilities, university scientists, and private firms to pilot use of climate models and water utility modeling to design resilient water systems.

"This research is motivated by a practical challenge, ensuring reliable water supplies. Among the scientific advances that will be required is better integration of weather and climate models to improve decadal climate information to help people plan," Moss says.

Bringing together diverse disciplines at the Aspen workshop allowed the international team to explore all facets of adaptation, including less examined ones such as how scientific information is (and isn't) used in making decisions.

"Traditionally we think that what society needs is better predictions. But at this workshop, all of us - climate and social scientists alike - recognised the need to consider how decisions get implemented and that climate is only one of many factors that will determine how people will adapt," he says .

The focus on problem-solving could open up new sources of funding as well, sources such as non-governmental organizations, industry - any group with specific problems that adaptation science could solve.

"We will make a virtue of necessity," says Moss.

Funding for the Aspen workshop was provided by NASA.

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