Not that long ago “adaptation” was considered a dirty word among climate activists. Their view was that if we could retool our lives to accommodate the consequences of climate change—rising seas, longer wildfire seasons, and a long list of other not so natural disasters—industries and governments would use that as an excuse to avoid a more important job: curbing our emissions of the heat-trapping greenhouse gases that cause these problems in the first place.
That position might have been reasonable in 1988, when climatologist James E. Hansen first focused the world’s attention on the threat. Back then there was still time to cut back on emissions in a measured way. More than three decades later, however, we know mitigation didn’t happen. The atmosphere is packed with more carbon dioxide and methane than ever. The most significant reduction effort to date, the much hailed 2015 Paris climate accord, has not yet put a dent in the problem. Climate change is a clearer and more present danger than it has ever been.
As a result, dismissing adaptation is no longer an option. In September a newly formed global commission led by Ban Ki-moon, Bill Gates and Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, released its first report about the urgent need to adapt to the effects of climate change, which are quickly accelerating. Central banks, militaries and reinsurance companies are sounding the alarm about the financial consequences of doing nothing. U.S. presidential candidates (the Democrats, anyway) talked on national television about relocating people away from flooded coastlines—a topic that was long taboo.
But adapting well takes serious money, and the mechanisms for funding it are misaligned. Many industries and governments, still staving off a systematic overhaul of energy and economic frameworks, are only taking incremental steps to deal with the effects of global warming. One result is that vulnerable communities already experiencing the impact are not receiving adaptation funding from the groups that contributed most to the problem.
Powerful tools are coming on the scene that could help increase adaptation funding and direct it to those who need it most. Researchers in the emerging field of attribution science, for example, can determine how much climate change is worsening the impact of natural events, as described in a recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters that found that human-caused climate change probably led to at least 19 percent more rainfall during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 than would have been expected from the storm otherwise. What if fossil-fuel companies had to pay for their role in creating the extra deluge? People working in attribution law are beginning to tackle such questions by launching lawsuits seeking to hold emitters accountable for the damage caused by climate change and the expenses of future adaptation.
The focus on mitigation has led to research and debate about the methods, technologies and economics of lowering concentrations of greenhouse gases. But innovations for adaptation tend to be far behind. Ideas for adapting to sea-level rise, for instance, are too focused on “hard” solutions such as seawalls, whereas natural features could be used more widely as protective infrastructure. More cities could be changing their zoning laws to prevent the development of frequently flooded land. Alignment of insurance programs with climate threats could help prevent exploitative practices in real estate development and mortgage lending. And families who want to relocate to safer areas should get logistical and financial support to do so, rather than being forced to rebuild in increasingly dangerous locations.
Innovative resilience plans have already been launched in some low-lying nations. Fiji’s Environment and Climate Adaptation Levy, which includes a 10 percent income tax on the rich, has produced more than $117 million in funding for projects that make Fiji’s built and natural environments more resilient to rising waters and heavier storms. And Tri Rismaharini, mayor of Surabaya, Indonesia, has transformed paved land into hundreds of parks and restored mangrove forests that absorb floodwaters and buffer the city from cyclone-generated storm surges. They also pull carbon out of the atmosphere and act as a natural coolant—thereby reducing the need for air-conditioning.
None of these adaptive actions—which are essential for health, safety and economic stability—diminish the need for a rapid global transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. But they do make climate risk more visible and much harder for politicians and the financial sector to ignore.