Why we can no longer afford to ignore the need for climate adaptation

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As a professional field, climate change adaptation remained neglected, misunderstood, and small through the early 2000s, when Lara Hansen, an ecotoxicologist by training, began working on the subject for the World Wildlife Fund. Hansen and her colleagues would joke that all the world’s adaptation experts and researchers “could fit in an elevator.” But soon, the field began to mushroom. For one thing, it had become clearer that emissions were not dropping—especially after the George W. Bush administration announced in 2001 that it would not implement the Kyoto Protocol, another international agreement to prod countries to rein in atmospheric carbon.

The president’s inaction threw a wrench into international negotiations; partly as a result, when the United Nations forged another treaty called the Marrakesh Accords, they included far more about adaptation than in the past. If the US was going to keep dumping carbon into the sky without limit, then the whole world would have far more things to adapt to.

But environmental groups were still often hesitant to wade into the topic—a missed opportunity, Hansen thinks. “I have long said that adaptation is the gateway drug to mitigation. Because once you see how big the problem will be for your community and how much your way of life will have to change,” she says, “suddenly it’s like, ‘Well, that sucks. It would be a hell of a lot easier to just stop emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.’”

In 2006, in a hotel ballroom in Florida, she led a workshop for a couple hundred people to talk about coral reef conservation, including commercial fishing companies and tourism businesses that were not as familiar with the implications of climate change. That evening, at a local theater, the workshop organizers screened Al Gore’s climate documentary An Inconvenient Truth and aired a video that simulated future floods in south Florida. “I had it zoomed into the Florida Keys,” Hansen recalls, “and you could see that with a two-meter rise in sea level and a Category One hurricane storm surge, the only thing that was still standing in the Florida Keys were a couple of highway bridges and the Key West cemetery.” The audience asked her to replay it three times. Afterward, Hansen said, she heard there was much more interest in mitigation efforts from people in the region.

In the years since, the ranks of adaptation experts have continued to grow exponentially. In 2008, Hansen cofounded an organization called EcoAdapt, a clearinghouse of adaptation reports and lessons, and a convener of experts from around the country. When the Obama administration required federal agencies to develop adaptation plans, it prompted a flurry of other institutions to do the same. “It is actually the thing that probably got more state and local governments thinking about it than anything previously had,” Hansen says.

But adaptation work likely still suffers from some of the constraints it bore in the beginning. Infrastructure, for instance, is built on a slow timeline, and the lag in understanding and acceptance means that planners haven’t necessarily caught up. Burton has noted how some of the railroads in the United Kingdom were ill-suited to withstand the recent heat wave. “The railway lines were designed for what the climate has been over the last 50 years,” he lamented, not what the climate is now and is going to become.