Warmer temperatures, rising sea levels, and shifting rainfall
"Climate changes," observes Daniel Sarewitz. "Let's deal with
His approach appears at odds with global efforts to reduce
humanity's impact on climate by cutting the amount of heat-
trapping gases pumped into the atmosphere each year.
But to Dr. Sarewitz and a growing number of analysts, adapting to
climate change is an approach that has been overlooked for too long.
In the end, they say, adaptation may prove more effective than
trying to control emissions in easing the impact of climate change
on human activities.
This does not sit well with hard-core conservationists, who,
since climate change burst to the fore as a global environmental
issue in the 1980s, view adaptation as a form of environmental
Next Monday, diplomats from 160 countries meet in the Netherlands
to begin an 11-day negotiating marathon designed to write the rules
under which countries that ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocols would
operate. Under the protocols, nations would be required to cut
their collective CO2 emissions by at least 5 percent between 2008
Yet even if every nation on the planet were to ratify and
implement the pact, "Kyoto is not going to reverse climate trends,"
says Sarewitz, a senior research scholar at Columbia University's
Center for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. "Its impact on carbon
dioxide is relatively trivial."
"The simple truth is we don't have a way of figuring out how to
keep CO2 from doubling" during the 21st century, adds Jerry
Mahlman, recently retired director of the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
at Princeton University.
Based on doubling atmospheric CO2, the United Nation's
International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now estimates that
global temperatures will rise an average of 1.5 to 6 degrees
Celsius (2.7 to 10.8 degrees F.) between 1990 and 2100.
Trends in CO2 emissions and their projected effects on climate,
Sarewitz says, make a strong case for giving adaptation - from
improved hazard mapping, weather forecasts and warnings, and
building codes to more environmentally responsible land-use
practices - a higher spot on the international climate-change
The concept of adaptation is hardly new, notes Roger Pielke, who
studies the interplay between science and climate policy at the
National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.
"Adaptation to climate is something we do all the time," he says.
Nor would all the effects from climate change be harmful. But, he
adds, the issue is taking on greater importance because "losses are
certain to rise" worldwide as changing climate alters regional
weather patterns and as population and wealth grow.
Indeed, he and others argue that if governments are concerned
about an increase in severe weather, they don't need 100-year
climate forecasts to prepare, since severe weather, floods, and
other extreme events happen regularly enough today. Thus, for
example, restricting the development of barrier islands not only
reduces society's immediate vulnerability to hurricanes; it also
reduces vulnerability to hurricanes decades hence.
Yet even without global warming as an incentive, efforts to adapt
based on past experience or even on impending climate swings have a
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch made landfall over Honduras and
Nicaragua. It wasn't the first time portions of Central America had
been devastated by tropical cyclones. Yet of the $5 billion in aid
that Honduras received, 80 percent went to the towns devastated by
floods and mudslides.
The towns "rebuilt in harm's way," says Michael Glanz, an NCAR
scientist who last month completed a study of global responses to
the 1997-98 El Nino for the UN. …