Adapting to the impacts of America’s climate choices

By: Erica Crawford, MA Planning; Adaptation Specialist, BC Food and Agriculture Climate Action Initiative. contact:

Policy and action on climate change is rapidly expanding beyond an initial focus on mitigation (reduction of greenhouse gas emissions) into the realm of adaptation (responding to the impacts of climate change). Managing the impacts of climate change is in some ways a natural extension of risk and hazard management—James Howard Kunstler has called climate change (and a suite of associated crises), “the long emergency.” But in other ways it poses novel challenges.

“Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change” was produced in response to a request from the U.S. Congress. It presents the findings of an interdisciplinary committee, one of four tasked with presenting strategies and recommendations for how the U.S. can respond to climate change. Accordingly, it is a high-level policy perspective that covers the types of vulnerabilities and impacts expected, possible adaptation options, approaches to developing a national strategy, issues around global engagement, and science and technology needs to support effective adaptation.

The report makes important contributions in a number of respects. It provides a comprehensive overview of principles, approaches and concepts required to engage with the complexity of decision-making for climate change adaptation. An interesting quality of the report is the way that it both presents and models elements of “best practice” in formulating policy guidance for climate change adaptation. For example, the authors clearly state the limitations of current information, emphasizing the ways that existing knowledge around climate change adaptation can be used as well as the importance of continuing to improve knowledge, understanding and resulting policy over time. The report reflects a systems approach to adaptation decision-making, pointing out various ways that an integrated and multi-level approach is required to effectively deal with cross-cutting challenges posed by climate change.

The comprehensiveness of the report is both a strength and a limitation. It succeeds in capturing the complexity and nuance of the subject, but to some extent this comes at the expense of readability. For those who seek a comprehensive framework and deeper understanding of adaptation planning and policy, this publication will be very instructive. For others who are looking for an accessible introduction to the issue, it is overwhelmingly detailed. Nonetheless, it is punctuated by the use of case studies that help to illustrate the general and conceptual ideas in the text, and is a comprehensive reference for adaptation work in the U.S.

A key contribution of the report is its focus on institutional and governance dimensions of climate change adaptation. Many current adaptation projects focus on identification of concrete tasks and actions that can be taken to manage impacts, and do not address the ways that the decision-making infrastructure makes it difficult or impossible for those actions to have the desired effect. It is an encouraging sign that governance considerations feature prominently in this discussion of a national strategy for climate change adaptation, as this is fundamental to any progress towards greater adaptability.

As acknowledged in chapter 4 of this report, lessons from the field of risk and hazard management have a lot to offer development of climate change adaptation planning and policy. In turn, this report is an insightful resource on climate change adaptation for those in the risk and hazards field.

National Research Council

National Academies Press, Washington D.C., autumn 2010