Adapting to Climate Change the Right Way

Faced with more frequent natural disasters caused largely by climate change, global and local decision-makers need to have greater foresight in their efforts to prevent and recover from future crises.

Tropical Storm Irene brought that need home brutally to Vermont, where authorities reacted earnestly but in ways which may worsen damage from future severe weather events. The storm caused little harm in urban areas of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, so few expected the once-in-a-century flooding in rural upstate New York and Vermont that caused 56 deaths an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion in damage.

Although the damage was surprising, the causes behind it were not. For decades, scientists have warned that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and the climate change they induce would result in weather extremes that grow more numerous and more intense. Climate change adaptation -- adjustments in natural or human systems in response to the impacts of climate change -- has thus become an international priority.

Such investments in adaptation make sense. Adaptation is necessary if communities and countries are to survive drastic changes in climate once environmental tipping points -- such as acidification of ocean, alteration of the Gulf Stream, or thawing permafrost -- are crossed.

Adaptation can also produce benefits beyond resilience to climate change, such as economic stability, improved environmental quality, community investment, and local employment. In many developing countries, climate change adaptation efforts are being integrated into strategies to reduce poverty. The Asian Development Bank has estimated, for instance, that every $1 invested in adaptation now could yield as much as $40 in economic benefits by 2030.

Global efforts are therefore underway to adapt in the face of droughts, rising sea levels, storms, and floods. The city of Perth in Western Australia, for example, is building a desalination plant to offset losses in water from declining precipitation. Planners in the Netherlands are constructing dikes, dams, and floating houses to cope with increased flooding and rises in sea level. Londoners are investing in a Thames River barrier system to better respond to floods.

Yet some of these interventions can have unintended, and dangerous, consequences. In Vermont, after Tropical Storm Irene, local and state officials allowed an unusual amount of dredging by heavy equipment in stream and riverbeds to collect gravel to help quickly repair roads. These actions, however, reduced the ability for ecosystems to lessen future flood surges, thus making those roads even more susceptible to storms and undermining the repair work itself.

Vermont is not alone in pursuing adaptation methods with unexpected consequences. In the Maldives, nicknamed the "flattest country on earth," poor coastal protection measures such as dredging to create sandbars and erecting seawalls have unintentionally reduced the flow of nutrients to coral reefs, weakening a natural shield against storm swells and surges. Coastal communities there have also removed vegetation to expand settlements and resorts and have mined sand for use in construction. These activities have increased the exposure of the Maldives to rising sea levels and floods. In Uganda, national leaders have planted thousands of hectares of fast-growing eucalyptus and pine trees to "sink" large amounts of carbon and create a buffer against strong winds. Such efforts, however, have inadvertently eroded the vitality of native forest ecosystems and displaced hundreds of communities from their livelihoods and land, lowering overall social resilience.

These examples -- and dozens more like them -- illustrate that sometimes the best intentioned adaptation efforts can increase environmental, economic, or social vulnerability. Part of the explanation may be the ad hoc and frenetic way local, state, and national officials sometimes respond to disasters. Following Tropical Storm Irene, some Vermont state policymakers were so overwhelmed that one local senator publicly announced that "the state became lawless for several weeks." He argued that Vermont's emergency policy amounted to a de facto "Do what you have to do and we'll sort it out later."

Economic incentives, some very understandable, can also play a role in the rush to action. The Ugandan tree planters mentioned above will receive millions of dollars for the carbon credits generated from their project. Vermont businesses, especially those involved in tourism, were anxious to see rapid road, bridge and other repairs completed before the fall foliage and winter ski seasons.

Good intentions, however, aren't enough. Climate change adaption efforts must meet the needs of the localities they intend to serve. The fact that such interventions are often done hastily should make us all the more diligent that they do not accelerate, rather than reduce, risk. Decisions made today on adaptation will greatly determine how vulnerable we are to future climate-induced events. Tropical Storm Irene was a powerful lesson that today's weather-related disaster can become tomorrow's humanitarian crisis.

The challenge now is to ensure that crisis recovery efforts rebuild for long-term resilience. After all, poorly designed and implemented investments in adaptation are worse than none at all.