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Adapting to Climate Change



Domestic Adaptation Policy: Phase One

Our domestic adaptation research is proceeding in two phases. In the first phase we commissioned experts to summarize the understanding of the effects of climate change in six areas (corresponding roughly to how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has organized its scientific assessments):  terrestrial ecosystems, marine ecosystems, fresh water resources, agriculture, human health and built infrastructure. 

Experts in these fields tracked the likely impacts climate change would have on the continental US over the next 50-100 years and the strategies that might be employed to cope with and reduce these impacts.

The six commissioned papers were presented at a two-day workshop in in October 2008.

Results of Phase 1 Research

This scientific assessment led to three findings that we find important for the design of adaptation policy. These findings underpin our policy analysis in phase two of the project

Finding 1

Many climate-related impacts are not new. These already-experienced effects include loss of freshwater resources and terrestrial and marine species, droughts, climate-induced variability of agricultural yields, heat waves, and coastal and inland flooding. So, what’s new? In addition to pointing out these existing problems, the scientific assessments identify two new concerns. One is new types of impacts, such as increased acidification of the oceans. And, there are types of impacts that are less likely than what we have experienced before, but that could be much more extreme and even catastrophic in their effects in the future.


Finding 2

Our existing public and private institutions have had very mixed success in preparing us to deal with the impacts we’ve already been experiencing. For example, in the case of extreme heat waves, it appears that our public health policy response has been quite good. Similarly, in the case of shifting agro-ecological zones, the private agricultural sector has managed to adapt to changing conditions reasonably well. However, in many areas the private and public response has been exceedingly poor.  Vast marine fisheries have collapsed (primarily due to over fishing) because of the absence of effective fishery policy. Western freshwater resources are being depleted at unsustainable rates in spite of a century of western water policy (and eastern resources are now at risk).  People and infrastructure have long been at risk due to extreme weather events such as hurricanes, yet our emergency response policies seem inadequate and our political institutions have failed to develop forward-looking land use policies that would leave lives and property out of harm’s way.

This finding points to the poor performance of existing public policies and institutions to deal with the impacts that will result from climate change.  There are some bright spots, including public health and, possibly, agriculture, but the policy failures greatly outweigh successes.  Thus, we need not only new public policies to address the impacts of climate change -- but we will also need a major reform of the existing policy suite.

Finding 3

Science assessments suggest climate change will lead to a combination of more severe impacts and greater frequency of these impacts.  Uncertainty surrounds precisely how much more severe and frequent.  But taken together, these changes suggest that the losses to society due to impacts will, on average, be larger. This implication reinforces the need for reform of existing policy, given its already inadequate design and ineffectiveness. This result also underscores the need for some wholly new policy approaches as well, to address the increasing probability of extreme and very costly events.


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