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Adaptation as a step forward on climate change

Andrew Freedman @ 9:00 AM

The onslaught of disturbing climate change news continued unabated last week with the release of an authoritative report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) detailing how climate change has already affected the planet's complex ecosystems as well as the likely future scenarios for how natural and human systems may respond to a warming world.

The verdict: climate change will have a disproportionate impact on the world's poor, and will stress many human and natural systems to the breaking point.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Freeze Warning in Effect Tonight

Forecast Confidence: HighToday: Partly to mostly sunny and cool. High near 50.
Tonight: Clear and very cold. Lows 24-29 (suburbs to city)
Tomorrow: Partly sunny and not as cold. Highs in the mid to upper 50s.

A detailed week ahead forecast will appear tomorrow.

The Bush administration's reaction to the latest section of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report has been anemic. Despite the rapid accumulation of evidence that amounts to a shrill call to action to avert an ecological and human crisis, the White House continues to insist that the scientific findings don't demand a different policy response beyond what it's already pursuing - which is very little beyond research.

Officials touted U.S. involvement in the scientific research and negotiating efforts that went into drafting the report, and then cast its findings aside by saying it merely provides a "reinforcement" of its climate policies.

It would be challenging for ordinary citizens to read the 23-page summary for policy makers without realizing that major new efforts are urgently required to combat this challenge.

The White House doesn't have to embrace mandatory caps, which it fears will harm the economy, in order to more meaningfully address the issues the IPCC report identifies. The report, in fact, provides a window for a more ambitious White House engagement on climate through adaptation policies that would help the U.S. and other countries cope with likely climate stress.

The IPCC report starkly demonstrates the need for a mobilization of efforts to adapt to some of the effects of climate change. Because greenhouse gases have a long atmospheric lifetime, even if all emissions were halted today there would still be a temperature increase for the next several decades, according to the report.

Therefore actions should be taken to adapt to at least this "built in" warming.

Although some have cast them as competing goals, the need for such adaptation initiatives is just as acute as the demand for mitigation to head off further warming. Both need to take place in order to avoid ecological and human harm.

"Even the most stringent mitigation efforts cannot avoid further impacts of climate change in the next few decades, which makes adaptation essential, particularly in addressing near-term impacts," the IPCC states.

On the mitigation side, the report cautions: "Unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt."

Experts say adaptation measures should be integrated into land use planning, building codes and foreign aid programs to ensure that we build in as much resiliency as possible to avoid disastrous impacts from coastal flooding, more frequent and intense summertime heat waves as well as droughts and water shortages.

For example, the report finds that the coasts of North America are ill-prepared for sea level rise and the possibility of more intense coastal storms. "Current adaptation is uneven and readiness for increased exposure is low," the report states.

While adaptation cannot be a long term substitute for mitigation measures, it's a vital component of any comprehensive approach to meeting the demands of a warming world. Importantly for President Bush, it may also be cheaper, at least politically, to pursue in the short term.

The approximately one thousand scientists and policy makers involved in the IPCC process will continue to reveal the findings of their complete assessment during the rest of the year. The administration would be wise to do much more than thank them for their work. It should heed their message.

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