Opinion: while it is critical to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we also need to think about adaptation to what climate change will bring our way

The term "climate action" has become part of mainstream discourse. Climate action refers to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen resilience and capacity to deal with climate change impacts. It is comprised of two lines of action – one that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a second that seeks to adapt to a changed climate.

While much of the national dialogue has focused on how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, less attention has been given to how we can adapt to the impacts of climate change. This is understandable given the limited time available to reduce emissions so that we have a fighting chance of keeping global mean temperature to not more than 1.5oC or 2oC above pre-industrial levels, thereby avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Moreover, given that we are so far off track in meeting our international commitments on greenhouse gas emissions reductions, it is perhaps no surprise that discussions on climate action have been dominated by how we can transition to a low carbon economy and society.

However, we need to talk more about adaptation and here is why. Climate change is happening now and impacts are already discernible. For example, recent research has shown that the human climate change signal is already evident in changes in the timing and magnitude of floods.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Ciaran Mullooly revisits those Midlands' areas affected by flooding from Storm Desmond

Recent extreme events such as the heatwave of 2018 and flooding associated with Storm Desmond in winter 2015/16 have served to reveal the vulnerabilities that exist in Ireland. Research has shown that climate change increased the likelihood of extremes from both these events. Additionally, climate model simulations show us that it is not typically until after mid-century that deviations in climate change impacts, as a result of our efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, begin to materialise.

Even if we are successful in realising the Paris targets of keeping within 2oC warming globally, Ireland has been identified as a possible hotspot for flooding and drought impacts in Europe. The rise in sea levels will likely threaten our coastal communities and infrastructure. While it is critical to do all we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we also need to think and be ambitious about adaptation.

Adaptation planning presents challenges and complexities for which there are no simple solutions. While different sectors are in the process of developing their first iteration of adaptation plans, the language of adaptation and the challenges confronted are new and will take time to get right. Here are three issues from my own research that can hopefully prompt wider discussion on how we approach adaption. Certainly, there are many others that need to be raised.

From RTÉ One's Nine News, a new study published in Nature predicts Ireland will experience increased flooding due to climate change

The first issue is how climate science should best inform adaptation decision making and how best to navigate the interface between science and policy. The dominant approach to adaptation planning takes a science-driven, top down approach. This involves the implementation of complex modelling chains, from the global to local scales, the results of which are provided to decision makers to choose how best to proceed.

However, this approach can run into difficulties that result in decision paralysis. Many climate models are available, each of which provide a plausible representation of future impacts, but can result in wide ranges of change that cause adaptation decisions to be postponed until scientists can narrow the uncertainties in key impacts. The likelihood of that happening in the timeframe needed for adaptation is slim. This approach also requires decision-makers to have detailed knowledge of climate science and how decisions taken by scientists in developing their modelling chains can affect the information used for decision-making. Such expertise is rare.

Adaptation planning presents challenges and complexities for which there are no simple solutions

An alternative is to start our thinking with the systems upon which we depend and place the decision-maker at the centre of what we do, rather than at the end. What if we started with identifying key vulnerabilities (so evident from recent extremes) and identifying actions that can reduce these, both now and into the future? Adaptation policies and their timing could then be evaluated using climate change projections and other non-climatic pressures we are likely to face in the coming decades, to ensure they reduce the risk of future impacts to an acceptable degree.

Such a bottom-up approach places those with intimate knowledge of the systems upon which we depend at the centre of the process, with the onus on climate scientists to tailor their outputs to adaptation needs and contexts. In essence, we need to develop and mainstream approaches for adaptation planning that can better mobilise key sources of knowledge and uncertainty, so that bad decisions and unnecessary costs are avoided.

A RTÉ Brainstorm videos on what needs be done to improve Ireland's worst-in-Europe climate change performance

A second issue concerns the types of information that can inform adaptation planning. Climate models are not the only tool available for building climate resilience. If we view adaptation as reducing existing vulnerabilities, a useful avenue is to explore how the systems upon which we depend would cope if extremes from the historical record were to recur. While the drought of summer 2018 had some serious impacts on water supplies and agriculture, the drought itself was short lived relative to other events that we can identify from our weather records, that now extend back over centuries. Building climate resilience could start with ensuring we can withstand events that we can identify from our records of past climate variability. 

A third issue is how to better understand the barriers to and contested nature of adaptation that can be faced at local scales. Successful adaptation will necessitate the involvement of those affected by adaptation policies. This will require understanding the social dynamics of adaptation, how places are valued by individuals and communities and how risks are perceived. International research shows that when individuals feel like they can influence policy, their willingness to take action increases. Similarly, when local voices are ignored adaptation planning can become mired in debate and blame.

READ: Wet, wet, wet: last decade saw most rainfall in 300 years

In conclusion, adaptation is a key component of climate action. Viewing adaptation as a simple predict and provide process, led by climate scientists, underestimates the complexity of real world decision making. Successful adaptation will require innovation at the science policy interface, co-production of knowledge and decision making with practitioners, communities and individuals and will need to draw on deeply inter-disciplinary insights from the research community. There is no blue-print for successfully adapting to climate change. We will need to learn by doing and widening our discussion of climate action.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ