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Adaptation Research and Climate Science – What’s the relationship?

December 7, 2009

At least in terms of institutions and fancy websites, Australia really seems to be taking on the task of climate adaptation, and climate adaptation research (always important to remember that there’s a big difference between those two things!). For example, the CSIRO has a high profile Adaptation Flagship. On the university side, there is the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF – just try pronouncing that acronym. Fun!). I’m still not sure what the annual funding of adaptation research is overall, but more on that later, perhaps.

Here’s my question: what is the relationship between adaptation research and climate science?

Well, according to the 2009 National Framework for Climate Change Science, you can’t have adaptation without lots and lots of climate science:

[Fundamental climate system science] is the essential system knowledge without which adaptation strategies and mitigation strategies cannot readily be built – we need to know to what climate future we are adapting, and how this will be influenced by international efforts to reduce levels of greenhouse gases.

 This document is arguing for major increases in funding and other support for climate science, all of which is organized around the goal of predicting future climate behavior:

An effective national science effort, which delivers on these challenges, must be based on a scientific capability encompassing observations, process studies and model development, leading to quantitative prediction.

 Ok, seems straightforward. How could you adapt to climate change in a proactive way, without knowing what the climate is going to do? Well, take a look at this list of examples, featured prominently on the website of the NCCARF:

Examples of adaptation measures include:
  • construction of sea walls;
  • building of new water reservoirs;
  • establishment of early warning systems;
  • revision and/or modification of building codes;
  • alteration of farming practices and crop use;
  • improvement of risk management; and
  • enhancement of water use efficiency.

 Not one of those needs improved predictive capability in order to proceed. Some very simple scenarios describing potential changes would be sufficient. In fact, the third, fourth, and last items wouldn’t need any information about the future at all to be successfully implemented. What’s more, many of those activities would be a good idea, even if climate change were of little to no concern at all.

In my view, this is the beauty of adaptation research, and adaptation itself. We can do a lot now, with the knowledge we already have, in order to improve our resilience to environmental change on various scales. But to others this revelation is a liability. Recognizing that we can find ways to adapt without the use of expensive, complex computer models jeopardizes one of the key justifications driving the use of public funds for this kind of scientific work.

Stakeholders in the climate science community work very hard to maintain the axiomatic linear connection between their work and adaptation. I found this to be true in my research in the US, and my reading of the Australian Climate Science Framework suggests that similar dynamics are at play in this country as well.

Obviously this is just an initial impression, but I will have plenty more to write about these issues as my research progresses.

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