Climate Change in the Midwest: Impacts, Risks, Vulnerability, and Adaptation

By S. C. Pryor | Go to book overview

4.
Uncertainty and Hysteresis
in Adapting to Global Climate Change

J. ZHAO

Global climate change is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing our civilization, and despite efforts in mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), global temperature is likely to rise, possibly significantly (Bernstein et al. 2007, also chapter 1 of this volume). Recognizing this challenge, the global community is increasingly focused on adapting to climate change. These measures include research and development (R&D)—such as downscaling global circulation models (GCMs) to support development of local adaptation strategies—and international assistance and cooperation in adaptation. America’s Climate Choices devoted an entire report to adaptation in the United States (National Research Council 2010), and the United Nations Climate Change Conference’s (UNFCCC) sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP) held in Cancun, Mexico, declared that “adaptation must be addressed with the same priority as mitigation” (COP-16 2010).

In this chapter, I define adaptation as a set of activities through which economic, technological, institutional, and demographic resources are reallocated on a large scale across economic sectors, geographical regions, and time periods in response to long-term significant environmental changes. It includes mitigation activities, technological and institutional innovation and adoption, and environmentally driven mass migration. As documented in Orlove (2005), human society has a long history of responding to major environmental shocks, including climate and weather variations. Prominent among the responses are technological and institutional innovations (e.g., the development and diffusion of irrigation technologies in response to droughts and the private-public partnerships in Colonial India in response to floods). However, if local responses fail to be adequate or effective, environmental changes can lead to mass migration and population decline (e.g., the rise and fall of Easter Islands) (Diamond 2005). Unlike the many environmental shocks that have occurred in history, global climate change is characterized by the unique combination of the following features:

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