Scientists deliver ultimatum: adapt to climate change or go under

No silver bullet for tackling climate change, but society needs to accept the urgency to adapt, US scientists say

(Pic: Brocken Inaglory)

(Pic: Brocken Inaglory)

By Tim Radford

Senior US scientists have some fresh advice for governments concerned at the prospect of climate change. It’s happening, they say. Get used to it. Evolve with it. Adapt, or go under.

The recommendations, couched in matter-of-fact language, simply point out what ought to be obvious: as changes become more pronounced, people everywhere will need to adjust.

That means that climate scientists, social scientists, engineers and other disciplines must work together to determine who is most vulnerable to changes triggered by deforestation, the burning of fossil fuels, and huge agricultural investment, and think of ways to adapt.

“Adapting to an evolving climate is going to be required in every sector of society, in every region of the globe. We need to get going, to provide integrated science if we are going to meet the challenge,” says Richard Moss of the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

And his co-author Philip Mote of Oregon State University said “What we need is more visibility to gain more inclusiveness – to bring into play the private sector, resource managers, universities and a host of decision-makers and other stakeholders. The stakeholders need to know our scientific capabilities, and we need to better understand their priorities and decision-making processes.”

Moss, Mote and 24 others put their argument in Science and call it the “hell and high water” response. The consensus grew out of a scientific workshop in 2012 that identified four challenges.

One was to understand the information needed to make decisions about adaptation to climate change. Another was to identify the different vulnerabilities in society, the economy and the environment.

Scientific responsibilities

A third was to improve forecasts and climate models in ways that can address specific problems, and a fourth was to provide the technology, the management and the policy options for adaptation.

Society faces complex problems everywhere as climate changes. Snowmelt patterns are changing, so the water available for industry and agriculture will be less predictable. Plant and animal species are stressed by changing climate patterns, sea levels are rising and more intense storms threaten coastal communities.

The US Administration has already issued an executive order on the need to adapt to climate change. The issue is inevitably up for discussion at the intergovernmental talks in Warsaw, starting on 11 November.

Scientists put climate change on the international agenda more than 20 years ago, long before the evidence of change was at all clear. The hell and high water approach is an explicit recognition that there is more for science to do.

“Traditionally, we think that what society needs is better predictions,” said Moss. “But at this workshop all of us – climate and social scientists alike – recognised the need to consider how decisions get implemented and that climate is only one of many factors that will determine how people will adapt.”

This article was produced by the Climate News Network.

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